The joys of living where doors are open for everyone

Peter Hellyer celebrates the diversity of the UAE

Dragon Mart is said to be the biggest Chinese mall outside of China. Victor Besa / The National
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The diversity of the UAE’s population, in terms of nationality, ethnic origins and culture, is obvious to any resident or visitor. There are, it is said, people from about 200 countries who live here – and I have no reason to doubt that figure. Diversity has been part of the nature of the country since long before its federation, thanks to trading relations with other parts of the wider region that date back more than 7,000 years. Links with the Arab states of the Gulf, with Iran, and with the countries of South Asia and East Africa can be traced for millennia.

As the economic development prompted by the discovery and export of crude oil got under way a little more than half a century ago, so people arrived from countries that were farther afield. The opening up of far-flung trading links prompted arrivals from new countries, as did changes in the structure of global power. Thus the collapse of the Soviet Union allowed residents of the Central Asian states to travel abroad in search of business or employment. In recent years, the way in which Emirates and Etihad Airways have established networks that span the globe has led to yet further diversity.

Over the years, I have charted, somewhat haphazardly, my own first encounters with citizens of countries who have arrived to add to that diversity. I have noted the way in which, as time passes, not only do the numbers of people from these countries grow but they also come to occupy a wider range of positions within the economy.

When I first arrived, there were a few residents from East Africa, whose countries had been connected by trading links for generations, but there appeared to be very few from West Africa. Now West Africans can be found in business and in the security industry. People from the Caribbean countries were few and far between. I certainly don’t recall meeting any until a decade or so ago. Filipinos, once employed primarily in the hospitality industry or in clerical positions, as well as in domestic service, now include oil industry engineers and owners of companies, often serving their own, much-enlarged, community.

In the late 1970s, I rarely encountered citizens of China; now there are several hundred thousand, with hundreds of Chinese companies here. Dragon Mart in Dubai, is, I hear, the largest Chinese shopping centre outside China itself, which has become one of the UAE’s main trading partners.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, not only did more Russians appear, but so did Georgians, Azeris, Kazakhs and Tajiks, adding to the UAE’s melting pot.

I have yet to hear of any serious sociological study into the way in which the UAE’s diversity has evolved over the past few decades – but I would certainly welcome information on where I might find one. Like so much else in the country, the demographic composition is clearly still a work-in-progress, with implications that go far beyond simple numbers and reach throughout the economy.

In the meantime, I continue to keep my eyes open for the early birds that herald the arrival of new communities. Two or three years ago, I met my first UAE resident from Myan­mar – but now I encounter others relatively frequently. Nepalis were once fairly rare; now they’re common. Brazilians can be found in business, as trade and investment grows – but there were none that I can recall from 30 years ago.

This weekend, I met my first UAE resident from Kyrgyzstan, one of the smaller Central Asian states, a young lady working for a hotel. To her, and to new arrivals from other states, I offer a warm welcome. I shall observe, with interest, the gradual growth of their communities and the role that, over the years, they will come to play in the continued development of this remarkably diverse society.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture