When it comes to a country’s culture, I believe there are two separate definitions; one which is defined as the traditional customs more related to the history of a society, while the other relates to the characteristic features of everyday existence shared by people in a place or time. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has gone through massive changes both economically and socially over the past 40 years. These changes have led to a wide gap in the two definitions in a relatively short period of time.
In a recent survey carried out by the Abu Dhabi Police and the Ministry of Labor, up to 72 percent of the 2,000 people who contributed to the survey had hardly any knowledge of local customs and traditions.
When I looked further into the data provided I noticed 77 percent had lived here for over a year, and interestingly enough, despite the lack of cultural knowledge 70 percent admitted there were enough resources available through which expatriates could learn about the traditional customs both historical and modern day.
Moving on to the effort side of things, expatriates, when asked how often they try to learn about the UAE’s culture, half said “occasionally” and 16 per cent confessed “hardly ever”.
Putting aside the numbers and statistics, let me dive into some of the reasons, I believe, are behind the numbers.
First and foremost is the all too familiar ‘Comfort Zone’. What the UAE has to offer, in such close vicinity, is next to none in terms of ethnic and cultural diversity. I bet you anyone from around the world could move to the UAE and, within a matter of hours, find their ‘local’ hang out spot. Therefore, when one realizes how easy it is to actually live a pretty similar lifestyle as they had back home it becomes somewhat difficult to get out and discover new things; especially when things seem to be going so smoothly as it is.
Cultural understanding requires efforts on both sides of the playing field; on one side, it requires effort on behalf of the international community, as per the numbers this isn’t happening too much, especially when most of the cultural knowledge is at your fingertips.
Escaping your comfort zone is necessary in this case and the UAE is all too welcoming when it comes to passing knowledge and traditions on to our visitors, our history both economically and socially proves this.
On the other side of this two way cultural understanding, the government is putting a ton of effort in promoting the culture and ensuring the right messages are spread throughout the community on the cultural practices, knowledge and understanding. Both locally and federally, the government has spared no expense in undertaking various projects through out the UAE to promote cultural awareness. Having said that, this is only one half of the story with the other half being communicating and promoting these projects throughout the community.
As shown in the survey approximately 50 percent of those surveyed rely on word of mouth for information on UAE culture, this is pretty risky when you consider that everyone has their own certain opinion on matters of culture and awareness.
Corporations, that rely heavily on foreign expertise, should make it a moral obligation to have introductory session for their staff about the Emirati modern day culture, historical traditions, and how various Islamic practices are part of our every day lives. Think of the amount of confusion that could be avoided by this simple step.
Additionally, various government-related entities could develop a more proactive approach to cultural communication and initiatives, and make efforts amongst themselves to centralize these efforts. This way the UAE can sleep easy knowing the right messages are being communicated on a topic that, in essence, shapes our very identity. One culture, one voice, right?
Last but certainly not least is the simple demographics of the UAE, which leads to the second definition of the word “culture”; the way the people of the UAE live their modern lives.
When UAE Nationals make up approximately 10 percent of the population, it’s more a matter of finding a UAE National, than actually learning from, or befriending, one. But once again this is where effort comes into play.
I have known several expats who have lived in the UAE for years and the only interaction they have had with UAE Nationals is the friendly lady, or gentleman, that stamps their passport on arrival.
As sad as it may seem, this is the reality we live in, but one bears the question of does the responsibility lie on the expat to go out, meet and learn from Emiratis? Or is it the Emirati who should go around looking for expats to spread the UAE customs and traditions?
To answer this question we always come down to the “Two Way Street” conclusion. How can we expect expats to seek out Emiratis, or vice versa, with the various attitude, language and religious barriers that are so evidently present?
Having said that, I’m a firm believer that there are more commonalities between the human races than there are differences and it’s through consistent dialogue that people of all different cultures, races and religions realize.
This is where initiatives like Promise of a Generation or ‘POAG’ do a great job at promoting respectful intercultural interaction between people, essentially putting a stop sign on that two way street where everyone must come together and learn about each other.
Culture is the needle that sows the fabric of a country’s identity together, it is what the foundation for our future will be built on, and it is part of how we live our daily lives.
When it comes to understanding the UAE culture it is everyone’s responsibility to do their part in breaking down the walls of difference, and through communication and dialogue build new bridges amongst various communities, with the hope of keeping this culture alive for generations to come.