Winds of change, riding piggyback on the economic miracle of the past three decades, are sweeping across the UAE landscape, bringing in their wake gusts of liberalism, threatening the foundations of a traditionalist, dormant Arabic society. Nostalgic traditionalists are resisting change. Arab society, swamped by an overwhelming intrusion of migrants, is in a state of flux. The question is not how soon will the traditionalists succumb, but will they ever?
OF FALCONS AND SALUKIS
He who does not know his past cannot make the best of his present and future, for it is from the past that we learn.
Even as the priceless oil oozes, trickles and gushes from the bowels of the earth, greasing the modern engine of materialism, the Arab watches, reflects, pines for the world left yonder in the stark wilderness of the desert, and sparse, rugged mountains.
His was an idyllic life, blending into seasons, which could with a gust of wind turn into a bloody duel, horror and nightmare for the enemy, and sometimes for the Bedouin warrior, when tribes squabbled and clashed over territorial rights and water holes.
Winter; the Arab trudged, scimitar in the scabbard, with his camels, goats, sheep and splendid pure-bred horses for greener grazing pastures. Summer; saw him succoring the shades of the oasis, where he tended his date gardens, bred and trained his salukis, and nudged his falcons to hunt and kill for luscious meat.
Beginning Arab migration in first millennium B.C., till the arrival of the Europeans and well into the nineteenth century, the Arab tribes roamed free in the sandy, mountainous and coastal terrain of what has now politically evolved into the United Arab Emirates.
The harsh environment moulded Arab lifestyle. Where fortunes fluctuated with the desert wind, the family and tribe became the bedrock of Arab society. A social structure evolved wherein each family was bound by obligations of mutual assistance to a wide circle of relatives and to the tribe. Selfless hospitality was the source of honour and pride.
“Our society was based on clan-loyalties as well as marriage ties,” says the interviewee, a traditionalist, voice surcharged with pathos of a life, shifting sands have dumped into the dustbin of history.
The advent of Islam in the 6th century provided a common coalescing religion.
There was no direct British conflict with Islam because they preferred to leave the country as it was in poverty, illiteracy, and devoid of all institutions. They left the affairs to society to the sheikhs, introduced themselves as colonizers and behaved as such. They did not know anything about Arabic culture. Their behavior made us appreciate our culture and history more and more, and we realized that our dignity as a people cannot be separated from our traditions and culture.
The Bedouins cultivated date gardens tapping the water beneath the sands, and through an elaborate irrigation system from mountain aquifers; harvesting in the torrid heat between late June and early October. Ripe, boiled and compressed and congealed into nourishing, vitamin rich tamr, packed in dried pal fronds, dates, essential for survival, provided sustenance through long expeditions into deserts, mountains and seas. Palm trunks supported the roofs of mud-brick and stone castles and towers and fronds made roofs and walls. Even shashah, a canoe-like boat- was fashioned out from the midrib of the palm frond.
For a cultured Arab, falconry is a traditional sport, a source of pride of his consummate skill as a trainer and hunter. It was not so, barely 50 years ago. Falconry was vital for supplementing a sparse diet. Trapped along the coast during autumn migration, the popular saker and peregrine falcons were trained, used and released in the spring. Falcons hunted for the Bedouins throughout the winter. The bustard was the main quarry though they nabbed stone curlews and hares, and sometimes, gazelle with salukis. Today, the UAE leads the research in falcon conservation. The Arabs ate fish, rice, bread, dates, yogurt, homegrown vegetables, and meat from sheep, goats, and camels. Lunch was and is the main family meal, eaten at around two o’clock. Emiratis eat the traditional way; the right hand. Islamic taboos against pork and alcohol, and slaughtering of animals as per halal, are strictly enforced.
THE ADVENT OF THE WESTERNERS
During the Middle Ages, the geographical region of UAE was part of the kingdom of Hormuz, which controlled the entrance to, and most of the trade in the Gulf. The Portuguese arrived in 1498, occupied Julfar near Ras al-Khaimah, built a customs house, and taxed the flourishing trade with India and the Far East. The British followed in 1633, exercised their naval power in the mid-18th century, and came into conflict with the Qawasim tribe, sea-farers, whose influence extended to the Persian side of the Gulf. The British dubbed the area the Pirate Coast. 
When we could not raid caravans in the desert, many of us took to the sea; since the stars guide us no matter where we travel, we Arabs were natural sailors. The Englishmen carried many treasures and spices from India, which my fore-fathers could not resist.
A British fleet systematically destroyed or captured every Qawasim ship it could find, and in 1820, imposed a General Treaty of Peace on nine Arab sheikdoms-the Trucial States- with a garrison to enforce it.
The British might have invaded, but there was no central government to conquer. If they attacked one sheik, his allies might come to their aid. One or more sheiks might have allied with the British. It was in the best interests of all to sign a truce stipulating an end to piracy; hence, we came to be known as the Trucial States. The British did not want total control, not over the people. It was easier to control a divided country such as ours. 
Throughout this period, the Bani Tribe, which moved from the desert to Abu dhabi in 1793, was the main power among the Bedouins. They carried on their traditional activities of camel herding, sustenance agriculture, raiding rival tribes, and extracting protection money from caravans. After the British outlawed slavery along the coast, the Bani Yas took over the slave trade. Buraimi became eastern Arabia’s main slave market till the 1950s.
The pearling industry thrived in the relative calm seas during the 19th and early 20th centuries, providing supplementary income to the semi-nomadic tribesmen; pearling in the summer and tending to date gardens in the winter. By the beginning of the 20th century there were, it is estimated, more than 1200 pearling boats, each carrying an average crew of 18. Life was tough. Women were burdened raising children as men took to the sea. The profits from a good season’s harvest made it all worthwhile though bad seasons were followed by mounting debt. Bani Yas men formed cooperatives: the crew owning a boat and sharing the sale proceeds; the biggest to the captain, a larger to the divers than the haulers, and a reserve to finance future expeditions. They shared joys and sorrows of pearling
together and settlements grew in coastal towns. Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Ra’s al-Khaimah prospered. However, pearling was dealt a death-blow by the economic depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and the Japanese invention of the cultured pearl. It became unprofitable and was totally wiped out, when independent India imposed heavy taxation on imports.
THE EMIRATI MIRACLE!
The British chose a laissez-faire approach till the early 20th century. The prospect of oil dramatically changed everything. But before they could obtain oil concessions, boundaries between the various sheikdoms had to be determined. The sheiks only agreed to disagree. It was left to the British to demarcate the borders of the seven emirates!
It is interesting to mention that none of the Arab Gulf countries asked for independence. The British took the decision. Some Gulf countries requested the British to stay, and were even ready to pay them money. Now tell me what kind of country is that, that is ready to pay another country to occupy it. The British were arrogant, racist and looked down upon Arabic culture.
While the first oil concessions were granted in 1939, oil wasn’t found for another 14 years and exports from Abu Dhabi began only in 1962, turning the poorest of the emirates into the richest. Arabs rue the day, when disunited, they had to hand over the best to the British.
Even Hitler had inside help when the Germans invaded a nation, just as Bush and Cheney have their Iraqi collaborators. Ours was the Residency Agent, an Arab working for the British in India. He came to Sharjah, and since he was an Arab, the sheiks deferred to him. He oversaw a number of agreements after the Great War that required the Trucial States to grant oil concessions only to those companies approved by the British.
The oil-driven miracle, the Arab believes, was destined to happen. Dubai led the way and established a regulated customs service, a municipal council and the first public schools, which formed the basis of later prosperity, and served as an example to the Trucial States. Jamal Abdul Nasser, Egyptian Arab hero, sent the best teachers for establishing the best system of education in the Gulf. “Some of the best schools in the Gulf are in Bahrain and Kuwait,” says the interviewee, proud of the purely Arab achievement. “Arabs, who worked with them, thought they were more competent. My colleagues and I have discovered that if they have blond hair, it does not mean that they are better-educated.”
For centuries, the part of the world that the UAE belongs to was considered inhospitable… But over the past four decades, it has seen world opinion change. UAE has been fortunate in that it could build from scratch. It did not have the historical inefficiencies of the past. The UAE is now acknowledged a financial hub. GDP has grown by almost 36 times and non-oil trade 70 times, proving that diversification efforts have brought down reliance on volatile oil… In 1972, oil accounted for over 62.5 per cent of the GDP and non-oil, mostly trade, 36 per cent. Twenty-nine years later, oil accounted for 33.9 per cent of the GDP and the non-oil sector 66 per cent. UAE now boasts a per capita income of 21,780 US dollars.
Yet there are those like the interviewee, who disdain the growth miracle.
I feel poorer and have lost the sense of the future. Do not forget that we represent only 5% to 7% of the whole population, which are about 4 million. The creation of a heterogeneous national identity is submerging our tribal culture. Yet, we have retained the Islamic culture which is very settled- inward, and extremely moderate, unpolluted by any religious movement we see nowadays.
One wonders whether anything has changed in the Gulf.
Modernisation has done nothing really special. Yes, life has changed from the materialistic point of view. I just bought two dogs and a new car. For me, modernization covers the development of all institutions, including political, which have not changed. Decision-making remains the same as it was 200 years ago.
THE POWER ELITES
Power and wealth vests with the ruling elite- the sheiks! There is a vertical social, inequitable divide. Emirati society comprises nationals or Arabs, a minority, swamped by foreign immigrants. The Arabs themselves are split into four main classes:
i. The ruling wealthy and powerful sheikh families,
ii. Pearling merchants, who now sell international consumer goods,
iii. New middle class or the increasing numbers of professionals, who have gained from free education, and
iv. Poorer Bedouin nomads, former pearl divers and oasis farmers.
There is a hierarchy among immigrants too:
i. Top professionals and technocrats with international contracts, who earn high salaries and other benefits,
ii. Mid-segment professionals such as school teachers, skilled technicians, and company salesmen, and
iii. Low-paid semi-skilled and unskilled workers, primarily Asian.
There is no gainsaying the fact that the Arabs are a privileged minority, and benefit from state laws and business regulations. Nonetheless, there would always be those, who hanker after the past, and disdain the present.
Family relationships have weakened. The traditional family in the Emirates was similar to that of other Gulf societies. It was not affected by the colonialism but rather by the modernization of the country. It is a sensitive issue that I would not like to discuss.
Gender bias is deep and wide. While female students outnumber males two to one in higher education, the percentage of women in the labor force is one of the lowest in the world; 6 per cent in 1990. Most women opt for marriage and raising children on which the Arabs place a high value. Conservative cultural attitudes curb women’s drive for economic independence. Official statements affirm that men and women have equal rights and opportunities to advance themselves, yet patriarchy as a generalized ideology is clearly visible in social life. Men continue to receive employment preferences in high state administration and private businesses. Women are not allowed to play a significant role in politics and religious life; they are unequivocally male bastions. UAE men have started marrying outside national boundaries. The set pattern of arranged marriages within the kinship family units, the norm in the pre-oil period, is gradually changing; however, only for the men. The State discourages Emiratis from marrying non-nationals: a young man receives $19,000 from the Marriage Fund, if he marries a national.
The UAE law requiring a woman to give up her citizenship if she married a non-UAE citizen is one example of how women in the Arab world are disadvantaged in nearly all areas of society, including justice, economy, education, healthcare and media. Currently, a UAE national woman must seek special dispensation to marry a non-UAE national. A national man can marry a foreigner without penalty.
Arab men are marrying outsiders; women are restrained, the net result: spinsterhood! The Juma Al Majid Centre for Culture and Heritage in collaboration with the UAE Marriage Fund organized a “Symposium on spinsterhood” on May 22, 2005, and invited Dr. Ahmed Al Kubaissy, a leading Islamic scholar, who exhorted lawmakers to allow national women to marry non-UAE nationals and halt a “daily” rise in the number of unmarried Emirati women.
Women are half the population of the Middle East…If they are not part of the democratisation process in a full capacity, the process will be incomplete. Men prefer to marry foreign women because of high dowry requested by some Arab women (in Islam, women receive dowry), their fear of making commitments with Arab families, or their desire to have women who dress differently or agree to do sexual acts seen as unacceptable in Islamic culture. It could also be because of arranged marriages. Mothers/sisters find wives for their male relatives at social gatherings or through acquaintances. Some girls who are do not attend such gatherings would not be ‘found out’. Age matters in the Middle East. Once a woman reaches 25, her prospects of getting a marriage proposal are way less, and once she reaches 30, it’s almost zero unless she is taken as a second wife or by a divorced man. Men don’t like marrying women who have a degree higher or a better job. It insults their ego. Career-orientated end up as spinsters because they either spend too much time on their studies/work and reach an age when they’re considered old, or they refuse to stop working and the man prefers that she stays at home to look after children… Men prefer marrying virgins, therefore divorced or widowed women stand a very low chance of re-marrying, which increases the number of unmarried women.
Even so, Arabs shower their children with care and affection. Most families employ maids to share the burden of childcare, which has injected a dose of foreign culture, mostly South Asian. A maid’s influence is viewed as negative. The school system has undertaken a greater role in children’s socialization, significantly reducing the family’s role. Nostalgic traditionalists blame the media for societal ills.
Nowadays the media is doing more harm than good. It has created a culture of consumption. Our culture is negatively impacted. The biggest proof is you are interviewing me in English. You are being educated in English. I am proud of your English but sad about your Arabic.
The Arabs listen to BBC Arabic, and follow it up with Cairo and, during the Saddam era, they glued their ears to Radio Baghdad, probably, to recheck the veracity of BBC Arabic. They are wary of the westerners. They have reason to be!
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 Arab hounds, bred to hunt in the harsh climate of the desert.
 Emiratis are known for their hospitality; they feel honored when receiving guests and socializing with friends and relatives. Guests are welcomed with coffee and fresh dates. Incense is passed around so that guests can catch the fragrance in their headwear.
 Available on website www.uaeinteract.com/adcha
 Available on website http://www.windowministries.org/documents/WM%20Book/resource_book.pdf
Article titled, “Thirty years of transformation and progress” in a special supplement published in the Gulf News on the occasion of the 30th National Day of UAE, posted on December 4, 2001 in website http://uaeinteract.com/news
 Available on in website http://uaeinteract.com/news
 Excerpt from a report by Freedom House, a US-based group.
 Available in website http://www.7days.ae/content/view/1457/3/
 Sameena Nazir, editor of the Freedom House report, in an interview to Reuters reported by Elaph.com
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