An big reason why I travel is to experience other cultures – to really get “all in.” Sure, I like to do some touristy things, but I also really try to get off the beaten path, to talk to people, to actually learn. If you know much about me, you know I’m a constant learner. So instead of going back to get another masters degree, I travel instead.
When I travel, I like to get to know my drivers or tour guides and ask them questions. After a week or so, it’s interesting to see where there are consistencies in the different stories I’ve heard and where people embellish. I then do a little digging when I come across inconsistencies for more context. I learned a lot of interesting things on my trip to the UAE, particularly about Emiratis, Arabs, and Muslim traditions. It was a refreshingly different perspective from what I hear and see back home in the States.
The UAE’s short-ish history
Before the 1970s, Emiratis were primarily involved in agriculture and camel herding. Given it’s relatively central location near key waterways, this region also played a big part in trading. Regardless, they were for the most part poor people, literally living in tents, huts made from palm trees, or houses made from rocks, all depending on what region they lived in.
So to say the culture has come a long way in a short amount of time is no understatement. Oil in the region was discovered in the late 1960s. So when the UAE was formed in 1971 its leader, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, asked his people to give him time. He promised if they gave him time, he’d take care of them. He then lured businessmen to the area and encouraged them to invest in the region. And boy, did they ever. By the early 80s, Emirati people, who represent just ~15% of the UAE population, were suddenly extremely wealthy and living extraordinarily lavish lifestyles.
Cultural quirks of Emiratis
Status is a VERY big deal among Emiratis. When you get to the UAE, in particularly Dubai, you’ll hear a lot of “the biggest” or “the best” or “the fastest,” etc. This is intentional. Emiratis proudly boast about the UAE having the biggest, tallest, fastest, most expensive everything. This includes buildings, trains, Rolex wall clocks, chandeliers, rugs, trains, you name it! They intentionally try to be in the Guinness Book of World Records. It very much supports the idea that you’re coming to a very luxurious, lavish, over-the-top place when in the UAE.
Emiratis are described by other Arab Muslims in the area as being more conservative. They can typically be more easily spotted by what they wear. Women wear the hijab or niqab, while men wear the thobe, ghutra, and egal. While this isn’t 100% always the case, it’s a general rule of thumb that many of the locals attest to.
I wouldn’t exactly consider Emiratis environmentally conscious. While it’s extraordinarily clean (I saw one guy literally sweeping the road), they’re not big on recycling. Air conditioning is almost always jacked up to maximum velocity (we couldn’t figure out how to turn it off in our room), most people drive gas-guzzling SUVs and luxury vehicles, and people constantly leave their cars running. Part of this has to do with oil being relatively cheap at ~$1.50/gallon. When we were in the Sheikh Zayed mosque in Abu Dhabi for more than an hour, our driver kept the car running the entire time so nothing inside would get overheated. While I appreciated my candy not melting and water not getting hot, his comment captured the sentiment pretty well: “Gas is so cheap here, no one cares.” Scarcity is not yet part of the mindset.
The UAE truly takes care of its people
Ammar, our driver to Abu Dhabi, also made another poignant statement about how well Emiratis are looked after by the government: “Don’t go to the bank or call a lawyer. Go to the government – we’ll take care of you.”
Wesum, our guide on the desert safari we took, had a unique perspective who confirmed Ammar’s comment. He was born in the UAE but is of Palestinian decent; his father moved to the UAE in the 1960s to get away from the turmoil. Despite being born in the UAE, Wesum does not hold Emirati citizenship. He’s married to an Emirati woman, which gets him access to some of the benefits that are bestowed to Emiratis by the government.
Some of the benefits that are exclusive to Emiratis include:
- Guaranteed work. Emiratis almost exclusively work all the government jobs, earning an average $50k/month (yes MONTH) and get 10% raises every year
- Brand new (luxurious) homes every four years
- Free top-tier education and healthcare
- Interest free loans on anything you want
- Exclusion from jail and prosecution
- Each child receives 1 million dirham by the age of two and gets their own nanny
It’s no wonder the Emirati love their government so much! Sheikh Zayed delivered on his promise to take care of them.
But it also seems to come at a cost. Non-Emiratis we spoke to tend to laugh when they describe the work ethic of Emiratis. They’re described as being a bit lazy, entitled, and incapable of doing things on their own because they’ve been given everything. One guy we talked to said, “They focus their time spending a lot of money on little things and really have no idea about the value of money anymore.” A current advertising campaign in the UAE today might echo the sentiment; it encourages mothers to spend less time shopping and having fun with their friends and more time with their children and families. The main slogan of the campaign is about getting children to stop calling their nannies Mom. (Phillipino women are often nannies to Emirati children; children call their nannies Mom and their mothers by their first names.)
In the UAE, every man can have up to four wives. The tradition behind it actually makes sense. It started thousands of years ago; with men going off to fight in wars there was a major shortage of men compared to the number of women. That shortage still exists today. So to compensate, men can have multiple wives. Today though, the number of wives you have is more about status. The wealthier you are, the more wives you have. (You’ll find out in a minute that having more than one wife gets expensive – quickly.)
The rules around having multiple wives are strict in the UAE and very much enforced. Parity among wives is crucial. For example, if a man buys one wife a house, the other wife (or wives) have to receive the exact same type of house. If he buys one wife a car, every other wife must get the same car in the same model, size, etc. Same thing goes for jewelry, vacations, gifts, you name it – it’s all gotta be equal. These rules apply to everyone in the UAE, regardless of nationality.
There are a couple other rules about having multiple wives for Emiratis:
- The first wife must be an Emirati, otherwise, the man loses all the support from the government.
- Wives 2-4 can be non-Emirati. They receive full citizenship (including government benefits) after five years of marriage but must give up their existing nationality.
From what I gathered from the six Arab, non-Emirati, Muslim men I talked to, it’s typically only the Emirati men who have multiple wives (2-3 on average). Other Muslim men in the UAE have one, and seem very much okay with that. Non-Muslim westerners stick to western norms when it comes to marriage. See my earlier post for more details about dating and marriage in the UAE.
An interesting contrast to this: Emirati women who marry non-Emirati men (which is on the rise in the UAE) lose the marriage fund (dowry) and cannot pass on Emirati citizenship to their husbands or children. While there is some discontent about this and talk about changing it, it’s unlikely this rule will change any time soon.
Perspectives on immigration
Emirati’s attitudes towards immigrants are positive, at least more positive than seems to be the case than the rest of the world. There are certainly limitations for immigrants in the country, but with things like free education and healthcare (not as good as what Emiratis get, but still good coverage), the less privileged are somewhat taken care of by the government. Their life is by no means easy and some work in pretty deplorable conditions, but the plight of immigrants in the UAE is similar to what many immigrants face elsewhere. The biggest difference, in the UAE immigrants make up 85% of the population, so the government (and Emiratis) seem to better appreciate the contributions of immigrants and understand that their way of life couldn’t be possible without them.
The UAE is going to change a lot by 2020
The 2020 World Expo is a BIG thing to the Emiratis. There are many, many projects going on that are scheduled to be completed by then. (President Drumpf currently has three projects in the UAE, one being a golf club, of course.) The government-led construction company, Emmar (pronounced eh-mar) handles the majority of the projects. Any project done by Emmar brands its buildings with the name (rather than the companies that occupy the building), so you see Emmar everywhere.
The UAE will look very different in just a short amount of time. I’m interested in coming back to this country, period. It’s an exciting, sexy country with a lot of things to explore. To me, it will be interesting to come back after the World Expo to see just how much has changed.