Invisible class borders cut both ways in the UAE
Foreign labourers feel unwelcome in parts of Abu Dhabi while Emiratis complain of being overwhelmedby expatriates, says an academic study.
Farhan Ahmad usually spends every Friday, his day off, inside his labour camp. But last weekend, the construction worker from Pakistan came to the city to visit the Corniche.
He sat on a bench on the public promenade with friends. Then, a security guard walked up and blew a whistle.
"No sitting," the guard says, shooing the men away.
"This is the big problem here," Mr Ahmad, 26, says. "Any place, you are forbidden here. They just allow the family person. You know that, inside the UAE, mostly people are without families."
Friday is the day when labourers, who often live far from the city, can walk the island freely. But Abu Dhabi is marked by invisible social boundaries. Some people stumble across them unknowingly. Others quickly learn where they are not welcome.
Across the street from Mr Ahmad, Raheel Akram and Bilal Khaled, labourers for a tile and marble company, stand in the shade undisturbed. Mr Akram, 20, from Pakistan, shakes his head when asked if he ever walked on the Corniche. He does not even try, he admits.
Zayed University anthropologist Jane Bristol-Rhys has spent more than eight years interviewing foreign workers and Emiratis about the migrant experience.
"How could I ignore it?" the American-born academic says, when asked why she studied the issue. "I am a migrant too. So are you. We just don't like that word. We call ourselves expats or professionals."
She contributed a chapter to a new anthology dealing with migrant labour in the Arabian Gulf, about how conventions and geography separate "certain classes of migrants" from the rest of the city.
Some places are "no-go zones" for labourers, Ms Bristol-Rhys writes in her chapter "Socio-spatial boundaries in Abu Dhabi". For example, many labourers believe - from experience or hearsay - that malls, public parks and the Corniche are off-limits. Anastacio Benedicto, 53, a gardener from the Philippines, said:"Family only. Not allowed."
Other public areas have become foreign to Emiratis.
"We don't feel comfortable going to places that are crowded with labourers," says Reem, a 20-year-old Zayed University student. "Especially their residential areas. We don't feel comfortable walking by because we don't feel safe."
Bashayer Al Ameri, 22, another student at Zayed University, says it would be unusual for her to go to a neighbourhood such as the Tourist Club - inhabited mostly by foreigners - or Al Meena, the port. She says:"It is rare for any locals to go there unless they want to go to shop or something.
"Even women, we don't go. We send our drivers there."
Some of the Emiratis Ms Bristol-Rhys interviewed said they felt disturbed on Fridays, when large groups of foreign men gather outside.
"I think if we put ourselves in Phoenix or Tucson, the same thing would happen," Ms Bristol-Rhys says. "They are 'the other', kind of. And that's the visceral reaction."
In addition to her chapter in the anthology, published in April, Ms Bristol-Rhys has written a book about migrants in Abu Dhabi, to be released this autumn. The title is Future Perfect/Present Tense.
"It became very apparent to me that a lot of people were here willing to sacrifice their present for a future that would be, if not perfect, at least better," Ms Bristol-Rhys says.
Asked if he liked working in Abu Dhabi, Mr Benedicto, who has six children in the Philippines, says: "I don't think so, but I have a purpose for my children and family."
The "Present Tense" part of the book title is a play on words.
"Because it is tense for Emiratis who look around, and they are a significant minority," Ms Bristol-Rhys explains.
Many anxieties that play out across the city are related to the demographic imbalance. In 2010, Emiratis accounted for just 19 per cent of Abu Dhabi's population, according to the Statistics Centre-Abu Dhabi.
A police officer told Ms Bristol-Rhys that he was often asked to drive through certain areas "very slowly and rather menacingly",to make groups of foreign men scatter.
"While we don't immediately assume that they are up to no good, seeing them in force makes us exceedingly nervous," the police officer told her.
"It is one thing to know that there are millions of foreigners in the country and another thing entirely to see so many in one place. Seeing them makes me wonder if the price we are paying for modern development is too great; we have given our country away to foreigners."
Ms Al Ameri often thinks about the demographic imbalance.
"We can't occupy all the jobs. We need expats here," she says. "And at the same time, it's hard to even limit them, because we are so dependent on them."
Being outnumbered in her own country is frustrating, she says.
"I heard a statistic like in 2050 or 2060, our population will drop below 5 per cent if we keep up this pace," she says. "It's frightening. It's a wake-up call."
Ms Bristol-Rhys hopes her work pushes more Emiratis to talk about the phenomenon."The dependency of people on domestic workers in the homes, and drivers, and the development - and the unease when they realise or are made aware of how many are here," she says.
Labourers repeatedly told Ms Bristol-Rhys that people would not make eye contact with them. Some told her that on Friday, they deliberately look people in the eye to see who will look back.
"We see how people turn their faces away when they see us in the buses that take us to work," one man told her. "We see that we are nobodies that people don't want to acknowledge; we are invisible people. On Friday, when we can wear our own clothes ... and walk about like men, we want to be seen, we want to be recognised."
As Abu Dhabi has become crowded with foreigners, Emirati families have moved further from the city's centre. More recently, many have moved off the island entirely.
"I lived there for most of my life, except the past few years," says Ms Al Ameri, now in Khalifa City A. "That's the case of most families. Because they want to move into bigger houses. And plus, it's already like the island is full."
Of the city centre, Ms Al Ameri says: "Everyone feels that it is mostly foreigners that are there."
Last Friday, hundreds of men gathered near the Etisalat building on Airport Road, where buses from labour camps drop off.
Mdripon Runa, 28, from Bangladesh, boarded a bus in the remote town of Shah at 5.30am to travel to Abu Dhabi. He bought gifts for his family in anticipation of a visit home.
Unlike Mr Benedicto, Mr Runa says he likes working in the UAE. "My company is good," he says. "I am happy."
Interviewing migrants, Ms Bristol-Rhys heard stories of misery and satisfaction. She listened to all of them."We have to understand that in any society you have the full swing of the pendulum," she says.
By 4.30pm on Friday, many of the labourers who had been bussed into the city have lined up near Airport Road to leave. They pushed forward for good seats, laden with shopping bags.
Mr Runa usually works on Fridays for extra pay; there is not much to do in Shah, more than 200 kilometres away. He takes a bus to Abu Dhabi for an outing once in a while.
"I like shopping," he says, smiling.
Mr Runa has spent the past seven years in the UAE. In three months, he will return to Bangladesh to see his wife Lila and their three-year-old son. Then he will come back to the UAE. But at that moment, sitting on a strip of grass, he was in the present.
"I am very happy today," Mr Runa says.
* With additional reporting by Ayesha Almazroui
Updated: June 21, 2012 04:00 AM