'Ask an Emirati' Facebook page builds cultural bridge

Site taps internet's power to educate expatriates by answering questions about local culture.

DUBAI // First came "Ask Ali", the weekly advice column by Ali al Saloom in M, The National's weekly magazine. Now two expatriates are using Facebook to help their counterparts to learn more about Emirati culture. The "Ask an Emirati" page (www.facebook.com/AskAnEmirati), launched two weeks ago by a British woman and a Syrian man, has already attracted more than 500 members.

Debbie Steedman, 45, a mother of one who moved to Dubai in 1995, said she came up with the idea when friends who were new to town wanted to find out things about Emiratis and Islam. "I didn't know the answer to half the questions and I thought I couldn't be the only one," she said. "I wanted to find a way to bring the two communities together." Mrs Steedman, a prolific Twitter and Facebook user, came up with the idea of starting a forum called Ask An Emirati using social media.

"I thought it was a super idea, because even though I have lived here so long I also had lots of questions," she said. After posting a few questions on Twitter, Mrs Steedman asked her friend Khaled Akbik, 30, a human resources manager with Syrian nationality who was born and brought up in the Emirates, to help her launch the forum. Mr Akbik in turn enlisted his cousin Mohammad Zaher, 28, as well as Heba AlSamt, an Emirati who is one-half of the popular Twitter page Emiratweet, for the project.

So far, Mr Akbik said, 90 per cent of the questions have been related to religion. The Facebook page is another addition to the growing field of promoting cultural awareness for expatriates in the UAE. It includes books such as Don't They Know It's Friday? Cross-Cultural Considerations for Business and Life in the Gulf, which was first published more than a decade ago by Jeremy London. The Facebook page has been answering an average of three questions a day, addressing topics from what is appropriate to wear in the malls to whether Ramadan has become too commercialised. This week someone asked for a forum that would help link the country's expatriates and Emiratis in the real world, reflecting a common theme on the page.

"There is an invisible barrier that we don't understand that has always governed the relationship between Emiratis and the rest of the population," Mr Akbik said. "But social media is changing that, because people can ask questions over the internet that they might not want to do face-to-face." Mrs Steedman said it was her involvement in Twitter that prompted the Facebook project. "Twitter has done a massive amount towards bringing this together," she said. "It's like reading someone else's diary and when that person is of a different nationality and culture then it opens your eyes. I follow all sorts of Emirati people and I think it's an honour."

The service is free and open to all, and the page's authors strive to make sure the answers given "are 100 per cent correct", referring to a number of sources and giving as much context as possible, Mr Zaher said. Karen Breakwell, 44, a British expatriate who moved to Dubai in March, has found the page useful. "I find myself thinking of questions as I walk around in the malls or supermarkets," she said. "I never know whether I am doing right or wrong in this culture, so it is good to go to the website and find out for sure.

Wassim Moumneh, 28, and Lebanese, has been happy with responses to his questions, but was disappointed that only one Emirati is behind the page. "When I first saw it I thought it addressed the need better than any other social initiative effort I had seen," he said, "but this changes my opinion." aseaman@thenational.ae