I read Sultan Al Qassemi's column this week, where he suggests that "some" long-term expatriate residents should be given permanent residency status, with interest. It's now 35 years since I first came to Abu Dhabi; if I can, I would like to spend more time here. I don't have nightmares about being obliged to leave, but I do wonder how I would occupy myself if I moved to my house in Jersey, which has never been anything more than a holiday home for me, though I love it dearly.
Sultan's suggestion, by the way, isn't new. More than 20 years ago, a prominent Emirati businessman wrote a pamphlet that said much of the same, though it provoked little debate. Sultan is absolutely right to stress that any creation of a permanent residency status for long-term expatriates, should not, and cannot, have any implications with regards to citizenship. If citizenship were granted more easily (albeit on the basis of individual approval by Government) to people who have been here for 25 years or more, a situation would rapidly arise where a large percentage of UAE citizens were of origins utterly unrelated to the country and its Muslim, Arab and Gulf heritage.
It's hard enough, as it is, to preserve the special characteristics of the country without the introduction of a programme that would, in effect, mean that the people of the Emirates - the Emiratis - were giving it away. As we can see from Fiji, where citizens of Indian descent account for nearly 40 per cent of the population, in that direction lies a host of political, social and cultural problems.
It would be difficult, too, to extend the possibility - not the right - of long-term residency to the children of any long-term expatriates, particularly those born here or who have lived most or all of their lives here, though I appreciate the problems that many face in deciding where they actually belong. In a piece last August another columnist for the paper, HA Hellyer, (who, as many readers may know, is my son, born in Abu Dhabi just over 30 years ago), wrote: "No child born to immigrants in the UAE ever says: 'I am an Emirati' - it is just not part of how people respond to the question of nationality. Children always refer to the country of their parents, even if they have been born and brought up in the UAE. So did my friend - until he went away to university. There, for the first time, he began to develop a sense of belonging to the UAE: not at the expense of his other identities, but in addition to them. One day, a new Emirati student at his university asked him: 'Where are you from?', and for the first time he replied: 'I am from Abu Dhabi.'"
That's a phrase I've used myself. I would never call myself an Emirati, but, after 35 years, I am certainly from Abu Dhabi, in a real, if not a complete, way, albeit happy to remain British as well, not just in terms of my citizenship but also in my own assessment of my identity, though I frequently tell younger Emiratis that I have lived here longer than they have, since I arrived before they were born. I know, perhaps, more Emirati history and geography than they do, though I know less of the traditions and, of course, the language.
I am pretty satisfied with the balance of being, in effect, both British and from Abu Dhabi. I can't imagine being obliged to sacrifice either. Thus the issue of whether there should be a formal framework to allow some long-term expatriates to stay here is not merely, for me, an academic issue. It is, though, enormously complex. Some expatriates spend decades here, earning a living and raising their children without ever knowing the country itself. They do so almost entirely within a bubble, relating primarily to the expatriate community or communities, but without engaging with the Emirates and with Emiratis. They are among those mentioned by Mr Al Qassimi who, because of their age, face the problem of no longer being able to obtain residence visas.
There are others, including friends of mine, well past the age of retirement, who have identified in a more meaningful way with the country and who, because of the relationships they have developed over decades, continue to have visas, provided through the businesses they have created or through the good offices of Emirati friends that they have made. Most of the expatriates who have spent much of their lives here are currently obliged to leave at 60 or thereabouts, taking with them not only their knowledge of the country but also the savings they have made. That is a matter of economic concern.
Policy makers, however, particularly those in the UAE with its enormous demographic imbalance between citizens and others, need to consider social issues too. What will be the nature of the state that will emerge in the future? What can those residents with any degree of permanency contribute to it? Most new arrivals to the UAE do not emigrate here - as people emigrate from Britain to Australia or from India to Canada. They do not uproot themselves from their country of origin to put down roots in a new country. Some, a few, eventually do, but for many it's always a temporary process, however long it lasts. Their hearts remain at home.
I would welcome a debate, between both Emiratis and expatriates, about the matters raised by Sultan Al Qassemi in his recent column. My own view is that there are many other aspects besides the length of time spent here that need to be taken into account in determining whether it is beneficial for the country to develop a formal framework that would permit long-term residents the right to stay for the rest of their lives.
Peter Hellyer is a writer and consultant who specialises in Emirati culture and heritage