Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Not-Quite-Melting Pot

Here's a myth about the UAE that ought to be debunked.

Despite what you read in the official UAE tourist literature, which aims to lure progressives and exoticaphiles alike by touting the country's diverse multinational makeup, "cosmopolitan" attitudes, and "mixture of culture and traditions," it is not a melting pot. There is no common language, for although English is generally recognized as the lingua franca here, few people other than native English speakers and educated Emiratis are actually able to converse in it. The job market is founded on a frankly hierarchical principle that places Emiratis at the top, white foreigners in the middle, and non-white foreigners at the bottom. Rarely will you find a Sri Lankan or Malay in a position of CEO; you will never meet an Emirati selling tickets at the cinema. Restaurants, long prized by Americans for their painless facilitation of cross-cultural exchange (who doesn't enjoy rolling those paper-thin pancakes around a scoop of hot moo shu chicken doused in plum sauce?), make no bones here about exluding anyone who doesn't fit the criteria for their preferred clientele. A white woman will be made to feel extremely uncomfortable in a popular Pakistani eatery; a Pakistani in a salwar kameez will be openly frowned on in an upscale hotel bistro.

This country is not a patchwork quilt of immigrants living shoulder to shoulder in colorful camaraderie. It is a deeply segregated place where 20 percent of its inhabitants live in terror of losing their identity to the other 80 percent, and the only common thread that spans divides is not patriotism, but the pursuit of money. And am I any different?

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