May 16, 2006
Census and Sensitivities: UAE & Its Minorities
Towards the end of last year, the UAE carried out its first census in 10 years. Given both the rapid demographic changes here and the promises to share the (usually classified) general data collected with the public, things sounded promising- the information gathered would be invaluable to any number of people. As my colleague SecretDubai has documented, things didn't turn out exactly as planned, not least because those being counted feared the enumerators might report them for any number of offenses ranging from cohabitation to various kinds of illegal occupancy, despite government promises to the contrary.
What has been most annoying, however, has been the series of delays in announcing the results. Preliminary results were supposed to be out in January, but the date for results to be released seems to keep getting pushed back by one or two months at a time. (I believe the current claim is that they will be out in June or July, but I am not holding my breath.) Could it be that the government is scared to say what it has found out for fear of scaring its nationals?
My best guess is that expatriates make up 85 percent of the UAE's population, but the government would probably like people to believe UAE nationals make up anywhere between 20 and 30 percent of the people living in the country. In Dubai, I've heard that expats make up 92-94 percent of residents, and this would seem very much in keeping with what I have seen. However, admitting as much officially could lead to a backlash from locals; many already feel upset, believing their culture is under siege or being drowned out in their own country, a line of thought the press seems to encourage. It is perfectly acceptable for the government to say that it wants to have the city's population quadruple within a decade and a half, but not for it to point out that the obvious consequence of this would be an even greater proportion of expatriates.
Other figures could be more stark yet – we already know that nationals account for under 10 percent of the workforce, and just 1-2 percent of the private sector. A large proportion of Emirati men marry foreign women. I mention this partly because it might show up on the census, but also because of its likely contribution to something else that might show there: the divorce rate among the country's indigenous population is supposed to be startingly high – I believe I once heard it was well over 50 percent. That number isn't published at all – it simply wouldn't gel with the image of the country that the government is trying to portray to nationals. Unemployment among citizens is also increasingly a problem (in a country with millions of foreign workers, but that is a matter for another post), but a reliable figure for the unemployment rate seems hard to come by. In short, there are a lot of numbers that might be very interesting that the government simply hasn't shown people before, and that it might be having second thoughts about releasing now. Will it eventually publish whatever it knows? Or will it keep delaying and/or fudge the figures? Stay tuned to find out.
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My best guess is that expatriates make up 85 percent of the UAE's population, but the government would probably like people to believe UAE nationals make up anywhere between 20 and 30 percent of the people living in the country.
UAE nationals are the actual Emaratis, correct? if expats are 85 percent then the government is correct in its estimate of the nationals being 20-30 percent no?
he divorce rate among the country's indigenous population..
Is that their marriage to expats or among one another?
Posted by: Trevely at May 15, 2006 08:48 AM
100 - 85 = 15. NOT "20 to 30".
Posted by: raf* at May 15, 2006 09:21 AM
Wow thanks. I skipped the day they taught anal arithmetic.
Anyhow, I just thought the government would want people to think in the range of at least 50-60 percent nationals. 15-30 is ridiculously low. In a decade or two they'll practically vanish.
Posted by: Trevely at May 15, 2006 06:14 PM
I skipped the day they taught anal arithmetic.
Or basic literacy in simple subtraction and addition, similar to that known to stone age man.
The main question is can Dubai keep up its program of using expats, people who are not rooted in Dubai and will go back home.
I think it might be able to.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 15, 2006 07:21 PM
I have heard the number 85 said about dubai, which doesn't seem far from the truth. Are you sure it is for all UAE?
Posted by: Ali K at May 15, 2006 11:04 PM
The difference would not be great for an expat living here, but for the nationals on the other side of the equation, it means there are 35-100% more of them, which is indeed significant.
I've actually been wondering if 85% is low, given that the population has been rising so fast. I wish I could tell you how fast, but the census results are still under wraps. The last official estimate of the population was 4.041 million at the end of 2003. The census was expected to show that the population had grown to about 4.8-5.0 million in just two years.
Posted by: dubaiwalla at May 15, 2006 11:53 PM
That's insane! 20-ish percent in 2 years??? How the heck are all these people being absorbed? Even half-digested?
Who used the terms absorbed or digested?
Dubai is not a land of immigration. It is a entre-pot of transients. No one is supposed to stay.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 16, 2006 01:05 AM
While Comrade Lounsbury is entirely right in terms of these people not being supposed to stay on permanently, you can just imagine the strains being placed on housing and infrastructure, and the problems arising with traffic and pollution, among other things. The planners simply can't keep pace, and inflation has gone through the roof, not helped by the fact that the government can't control interest rates (dollar peg).
I, personally, can't imagine what the government has actually gained out of all of this. Sure, they're much better known internationally, and there are a few more things to do in town, but what of it? The price beign paid in terms of domestic discontent, environmental issues, problems with the quality of life, and international attention to their more shady dealings is quite large, and I, for one, would not have thought this a worthy trade-off were I in the ruler's shoes. The economy has grown dramatically, but only the already-wealthy existing elite has truly benefited from this.
Posted by: dubaiwalla at May 16, 2006 01:30 AM
Absorbed/digested in terms of being able to live a halfway functional existence and/or accomplish the ostensible purpose of their stay. Besides, I am well familiar with the social dislocation, etc. caused by unassimilated immigration, mismatched expectations, etc.
Posted by: Eva Luna at May 16, 2006 10:05 AM
Easy, most are labourers by number. They live in nasty little camps and there is no pretence to "functional existence" other than get to one of the endless construction sites and work, return to labour camp, repeat.
The rest are largely in on various work visas, working in the Zones.
"Unassimilated immigration" is entirely the wrong frame of mind. This is transient economy par-excellence.
Problem really is rate of growth. The transient part seems to suit most quite well. No Westerner wants to stay on a perm basis, few of the Arabs. Among the Sub Con largely the same (with varying degrees of disenchantment tied to abuse).
Not sold as immigration, so... stop thinking like it is.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 16, 2006 11:58 AM
Well, having observed how “temporary” stays have historically tended to turn out to be not so temporary (on a global basis, not just in the region of my expertise), I’m skeptical that a framework as described, with few to no provisions for a humane existence for workers who are apparently the overwhelming majority of the workforce, can function well over the long haul.
(And “immigration” is a term with varying connotations – it doesn’t necessarily imply permanence. I am using it in the context of any movement between one country and another, whether permanent or not; government agencies/policies dealing with influxes of non-natives generally deal with both kinds.)
Posted by: Eva Luna at May 16, 2006 12:16 PM
Has the fact that non-Emiratis can now buy property in Dubai changed their long-term plans in the area, do you think? It used to be the sort of place for a quick in and out to make money and then move on, but now I hear that expat communities have developed more of an infrastructure...I have a cousin who has ended up staying 15 years and shows no signs of wanting to leave.
Posted by: SP at May 16, 2006 12:50 PM
Laws over here have clearly been designed in order to keep expatriates out, to the extent possible. You have to be able to document 30 years of continuous residence just to be able to apply for citizenship, and even then, there's no guarantee at all that you will get it. I'm fairly certain your ethnicity and religious background come into play at that point as well. The bottom-line is that while a handful of people have been naturalized, this isn't really an option for most people.
The current system of labor rights, which effectively treats half the population as chattel, has been in place for a couple of decades now. I don't think that the very worst practices will continue indefinitely into the future, but I don't see first world rights anytime soon either.
Posted by: dubaiwalla at May 16, 2006 02:54 PM
SP raises an important point with regard to property. For a couple of years now, Dubai (and after it, several imitators) has allowed foreigners to enter its property market, granting 3-year renewable residence visas to the families of people willing to plonk down a few hundred thousand dollars. (It should be noted that these visas do not automatically permit holders to work in the UAE.) The aim has been to get the well-heeled to put their money into the economy without actually surrendering anything in terms of political rights or giving the expatriate working class a toehold here.
Many of the owners are wealthy Western nationals buying vacation homes or engaging in speculation, but upper middle and upper class subcons and Iranians have also bought in, aiming to save on rent in the long term and/or build retirement homes for themselves. It will be interesting to see if this diverse grouping can convince the government to grant it at least certain limited rights as it grows in both size and power.
The government isn't ever going to dole out jobs at ministries or marriage money to the folks in question, but then that's not what they're after anyway.
Posted by: dubaiwalla at May 16, 2006 03:35 PM
The key difference here is Dubai trying to play the role of the perpetually "off-shore" city state, acting as entrepot to Iran, KSA, etc - the near foreign. The Arab and Iranian components, I think that is sustainable. The sub Con people -esp. Paki/Indian Muslims are a harder call.
The test will come when the economy slows down and some large percentage of expats have to go home.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at May 16, 2006 04:31 PM
The Gulf started importing Asian workers in place of Arab ones about 25 years ago, in large part because it was scared that thanks to pan-Arab nationalism, Arab workers might consider the countries therein- and by extension, the perks of their oil wealth- their own, and thus feel entitled to more. It is made very clear to non-Arabs (and indeed, non-Gulfies, albeit to a slightly lesser extent) that this is not their home. But an entire generation has now grown up here, and knows no other place. Many people from among it are now among the young and well-educated, and will doubtless try to carve out a niche for themselves as their number swells.
The boom and bust of the economy is associated with large population movements. Thanks to the sponsorship system, hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of workers here are are illegally employed, for instance by working as casual labor or by working for a company other than the one that sponsored their visa. Many of them snuck into the country or overstayed visit visas. Traditionally, when the economy takes a turn for the worse, the government announces an amnesty coupled with a crackdown, and gets rid of as many people as it can find (something which has a significant impact on the population, here in the UAE). The current boom has been long, and it has been a couple of years since this last happened here on a large scale.
Posted by: dubaiwalla at May 17, 2006 04:20 AM
Strange to tell, we've just been discussing really big expat communities in a thread on AFOE. It strikes me that the Dubai option, having 85% of the population do 100% of the work and 0% of the power, is roughly what the Boers did in the late 19th century with regard to the British immigrants who built the diamond and gold mining and railway businesses.
And it didn't end well.
Posted by: Alex at May 17, 2006 09:08 AM
Regarding the young and well educated expat generation that has grown up in Dubai, do you suppose they will only start to militate for political rights when things go downhill, or not even then? What would they want from the state, it doesn't sound like they need social security...legal rights and status may help their everyday lives, but wasn't it part of the original deal that you can make big bucks so long as you keep quiet and if you don't like it there are thousands waiting to take your place?
I am curious to see whether this expat population will behave rather as Brit colonials did at the time of decolonization - will they go back Home? the jobs will still be there for many, will they function as the expats do in Hong Kong? Or will they be more pied noir...
Posted by: SP at May 17, 2006 11:04 AM
What are the stats on incomes and kinds of jobs for expats in Dubai, anyone know? I was curious about the proportion of high-livin' professionals to worker ants.
Posted by: SP at May 17, 2006 12:16 PM
SP - I do the occasional H-1B work visa in the U.S. for people with Gulf work experience, usually Indians with IT experience (but a handful of others as well). The UAE tends to be a professional stepping-stone for the people I see.
Posted by: Eva Luna at May 17, 2006 12:34 PM
I'm not sure you'll see militancy at all, but you will probably just see slowly increasing pressure, applied discreetly at first. What could expats ask for? Long-term residency, property and investment rights, a greater say in policy. The combination of numbers and the governmental fear of public embarrassment could eventually go a long way, as could convincing governments that they won't lose too much by making such concessions.
The likelihood of expats taking power in the near future is very, very low indeed, so I'm not sure what to make of comparisons to Hong Kong or North Africa. It doesn't help that the minorities in charge there were the outsiders, as opposed to the indigenous population.
Half of expats in the UAE belong to the working class and are treated like complete dirt. Perhaps a quarter of the rest lives the good life, while the rest is part of the middle class.
Posted by: dubaiwalla at May 18, 2006 04:23 PM
If it were 5-6 years ago, when I first began working in Dubai (meaning traveling here once a month for 1-2 weeks for an extended period), I would have gladly taken up the opportunity to live here if my company had been willing. It was relatively uncrowded, beaches were pretty open, you could find a small villa in Jumeirah, and you could take a nice nighttime drive with the top down on Al Sufuoh Road to the beach resorts and just hear the wind blow, kind of like a flat Middle Eastern PCH (you have to be from California to know PCH). More recently, my company gave me the option to move here. Seeing that Dubai has gone from 1950's LA to Blade-Runner Land in the span of 5 years, I said no, I'll continue amassing my Emirates miles, thank you. But even the Emirates lounges at DIA have gotten overcrowded and overrun, with several "classes" of lounge. Reminds of the old Eagles song: "They call it paradise, I don't know why. Call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye."
Posted by: roadworrier at May 20, 2006 06:40 AM
Sorry, but I don't have a better place to mention this: news reports claim that Qatar will follow Saudi Arabia in offering citizenship to long-term residents. Judging by the strict conditions listed, it will probably mean very little here as well.
Posted by: dubaiwalla at June 6, 2006 01:24 PM