Crisis or no crisis, the march of the Emirates from the desert to the ‘super metropolis’ has not stopped. And it continues to swell the ranks. Of the seven million residents, only 15% are autochthonous. Indians, Bangladeshis, Filipinos, Middle-Eastern people: the colony of workers coming from every corner of the globe is involved in a colossal building experiment destined to last another twenty years.

This article was published in Oasis 11. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:42:46

A dramatic and astonishing kaleidoscope of ethnic groups and languages. The fear of losing your job, the needs of your family, the absence or almost complete absence of rights: all this is mixed with the welcoming reality of the communities of co-nationals, ensuring a support network and religious practice. For the great number of Christians the experience of a dynamic, multi-coloured, friendly faith. Here are the slaves”. Karan points to an old white Tata coach with fifty or so men on board. Blue overalls, neckerchiefs, some are still wearing their hard-hats. They are slumped on the seats, staring into the emptiness. Exhausted after the umpteenth day of work in a place where desert and sun still play the lord and master. This is the army of workers that is erecting the skyscrapers, resorts and even islands. This is the secret of the United Arab Emirates. You meet them on their way back from work. There is no real house awaiting them, but dormitories made of containers piled on top of each other, or brick barracks-like buildings where up to six people can live in a room two metres by four. Colonies of ants which every day populate the never-ending building sites in this corner of the world, which has been dreaming and building ever since it discovered that it was sitting on a sea of oil. Where until fifty years ago there was sand and huts made with the leafy branches of date palms, now there are blocks of flats, buildings of 20-30 floors and futuristic skyscrapers reaching for the sun. Others, many others will come because Abu Dhabi is a city that is modernising and expanding. It wants to reach the glories of Dubai but, as most people keep saying around here, “step by step and without making the same mistakes.” From simple oil producer it wants to transform itself into a first order tourist, economic and cultural centre. The profile of the island-city is changing rapidly thanks to the staggering figures and infinite cubature that have given rise to a development plan which should be finished in 2030. Where now you can see sand and scaffolding will rise the enchanted city. This is the message of the real-estate companies that have launched sumptuous projects everywhere. For the moment what you can see are mostly forests of cranes, a coming and going of excavators and lorries. And a sea of immigrants: non-skilled labourers who for a few hundred dollars a month work shifts of even 16 hours a day, digging sand and climbing into the sky. Karan is one of them. He is 25 and comes from a village in Rajasthan in north-west India. He came to Abu Dhabi in 2008, thanks to a distant relative of his who had arrived in the Emirates about ten years ago. He earns almost 600 dollars a month, always gets his wage and his passport was not taken from him as happens with the ‘slaves.’ He too lives in a dormitory camp just outside the city and his hands are as calloused as someone who has been on a building site all their life. And yet he is convinced of his luck: “I have a good job, they pay me well and I send money home.” This is enough for him and makes him proud. “Do you want to see how pretty my little girl is?” On his mobile appears the photo of a chubby little girl, smiling from a red plastic chair. “Her name is Khusa which in my language means ‘happy.’ She was born after I had left.” From abroad come not only cheap workers and labourers, but also teachers, journalists, doctors, managers...It is estimated that of the 6 million inhabitants the locals make up only 15%. The rest is a world that has been arriving in continuous waves since back in the 1970s, becoming steadily bigger and bigger. Not even the global economic crisis or the bursting of the Dubai real-estate bubble – a hole of almost 100 billion dollars – seem to be able to stop the flow. An advertisement of the Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank claims: “The market is fluctuating. Ambition is not.” Looking around it is clear that it is not only a slogan meant for effect, but it is the creed on which the Emirates base their bet. In this wedge of desert, which measures little more than 80 thousand sq km a huge work offer met with just as huge a demand for jobs. According to some forecasts, the Emirates could have 7 and a half million inhabitants in 2010, that is one million more people than in 2009. The latest available data speak about almost 2 million Indians, 1.25 Pakistanis, 500 thousand Bangladeshis and over one and a half million immigrants from China, the Philippines, Thailand, Afghanistan, Iran and other Middle-East countries. It is a vicious circle: more building sites mean more workers, more shops more shop assistants and so on. The inhabitants of the Emirates will never be sufficient to meet this work demand. But rather, to tell the truth they have no intention of working on a scaffolding, behind the windows of a shopping centre or in the wards of the many hospitals. They by far prefer to sit in the ministries, on the high floors of the many companies set up by the government ‘to build the nation.’ The Informal Welfare In Abu Dhabi every two steps you can find shops selling building materials, furniture, curtains and accessories for the home and office. Small or big, luxurious or shabby, the signs outside are in English and Arabic. And along the avenues going into the city centre there is a continuous sequence of furniture, tailoring and rent a car, interspersed – that goes without saying – with banks and mosques. It seems to be a continued metaphor of society: at the base of every building pointing up to the sky there is a shop. And inside to welcome you there is always an immigrant. Manuel is 28, Filipino and comes from a village of Marinduque. He came to Abu Dhabi just over a year ago. He was a waiter but they sacked him and “today is his first day at his new job.” He tells you this as if asking for a bit a comprehension if he is not quick and precise in serving you. And you can understand him. In Abu Dhabi, as in all the Emirates, you cannot stay without work. If you lose your job you have thirty days to find another one otherwise you have to go. This is because the visa is guaranteed only by your employer, on whom you depend in many ways. Towards the end of each month Estrelles pays a visit to a house in a residential area of Abu Dhabi. She always finds an envelope under the door with 100 dirhams in it, picks it up, leaves a receipt and goes her way. Filipino, 31, she is an employee with a bank that is specialised in money transfers for immigrants. Instead of waiting for her clients behind the counter she catches them in the industrial area of Mussafah, in the shops where they work as shop assistants or in the houses where they are domestics. The envelope with the 100 dirhams under the door is the regular appointment with an elderly co-national who is the maid for a family of local people. They do not allow her to go out even to send part of her wage home to her children. Estrelles does not explain how she got to know that woman, and just says that she found out about her some time ago through some fellow countrymen. Many maids live in the conditions of the unknown lady of the 100 dirhams. Some undergo violence and abuse and to escape from this even resort to throwing themselves out of the window. Help, when it arrives, uses the password among fellow countrymen. Having moved into a multi-ethnic context taken to extremes, the immigrants have their own informal welfare. You lose your job? Ask your fellow countrymen. You are ill, you need money or you have a problem of any kind? The same. The Emirates do not grant citizenship to foreigners, not even to those who have been in the country for decades. Thus, without the prospect of integration and thousands of kilometres from home, the immigrants take refuge in their community of origin, seek the people who come from their own town, and at work frequent people from their own country. It is a natural dynamic, only that in the Emirates it is practically institutionalised. ‘From rags to riches’ is the title of a successful book by Mohammed Al Fahim. Born in 1948 in the oasis of Al Ain, 160 km from Abu Dhabi, he belongs to a family that is very close to sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founder of the Emirates in 1971 and the first president of the Seven States Federation. Al Fahim belongs to the generation that lived in the barasti huts, and crossed the desert by camel and drank the brackish water of the wells. He is proud of the revolution which has made it possible to burn a difference of centuries in 40 years. But he sends out a warning to the new generation that today wants to get the country to make a new leap forward once more. The essence of Al Fahim’s thought is summed up in a few words: “Of all the lessons learned, two stand out from the others in importance. The first and the most important is to have faith in God, since without Him we are nothing. The second is that education is one of the most powerful instruments and the main pillars of a thriving nation; without it society risks fading and disappearing.” “Five years ago 15 people worked for the Council, now it is a building of 15 floors.” Abdul Aziz is a young project manager of the Abu Dhabi Education Council, the government body created to develop the Emirates’ education system. In the entrance of the building a model of one of the 18 ‘Schools of the future’ which the Council has begun to build this year takes pride of place. Futuristic, eco-sustainable, equipped with the best technology, it is a little bit the symbol of the new direction of education in Abu Dhabi. Considering that there is a government project for the real estate business until 2030, for education there is a ten-year strategic plan which was launched this year by the Education Council. Abdul Aziz explains that with nursery schools, junior and lower secondary schools, there are over 250 schools in the capital and of these almost half are private. This is the true mirror of the multi-ethnic experiment represented by the Emirates in which a tangle of education systems live together. There is the Iranian secondary school and the Chinese nursery, schools for Indians only that follow the New Delhi curriculum, schools with lessons only in Arabic and others where English is the only language. The Abu Dhabi Education Council wants to guarantee that they all respect common quality standards and it carries out inspections to verify the grounding of the teaching staff, the functionality of the facilities and the level of the enrolment fees. The goal announced by the Education Council can be summed up in two words, future and excellence. The way to reach it is one: to bring in the teaching staff from abroad, even the Arabic teachers. It is certainly no longer a question of buying sight unseen as it once was, but in Abu Dhabi education and culture are imported. For Fadi, a Lebanese who has lived in Abu Dhabi since 1978, “it is easier to build the highest skyscraper in the world than a good school or a good university.” Until the age of 18 his children studied in the capital, “but when the moment for university came we preferred to send them back to Lebanon because the level here was still too low.” That was the beginning of the 1990s. In the Emirates today there are more than twenty universities. In Dubai, English, Australian and American universities have appeared; in Abu Dhabi no less than the Paris Sorbonne has arrived and soon it will be the turn of the New York University. And yet today Fadi would make the same choice as then. It must be due to the mistrust with which middle-eastern Arabs look on the newcomers of the Emirates. According to him in fact, who in thirty years as an immigrant has been successful, “culture cannot be invented from one day to the next.” In fact in Abu Dhabi they also think in the same way and culture is imported. Whether it be the musical Cinderella, the Sorbonne or the Frankfurt International Book Fair it is not important. It is therefore not by chance that among the sumptuous projects passed by the government is Saadiyat island. The Island of Happiness will host a Louvre and Guggenheim centre, the fulcrum of a cultural district that should be the flore in the buttonhole of Abu Dhabi. To create it, the authorities have paid no attention to costs and have clear ideas. They have taken the best of the West but they will flank it with a national museum named after the late Sheik Zayed, in order to honour the ideals of the father of the nation and to conserve the heritage of customs and practices of the country. Call the Fatwa Office Heritage is a recurrent word in the official vocabulary of the Emirates and has its symbolic place in Abu Dhabi. Right in the centre, in the frame of the most recently constructed skyscrapers, there is one of the many building sites where the government wants to create “the Trafalgar Square of the Emirates.” The heart of the project is the oldest construction of the city: the Al Hosn palace. It is a fort made of four walls and as many little towers less than 10 metres in height. The main tower dates back to the mid 700s but today’s structure was built in 1930. The awesomeness of the nearby skyscrapers and the white patina with which it has been covered in the last restoration works make Al Hosn look like a good reproduction for tourists rather than for history. But the patrimony that the Emirates want to protect and preserve is not so much in the palace itself as rather in what took place within its walls, a society and a system of relations that still today are the heart of society in the Emirates. They are the family ties, the customs and hierarchies of the Bedouin tribes, the faith in God and Islam: a set of simple deeply rooted elements which for an inhabitant of the Emirates constitute the moral and ethical basis of the best possible society. This is a patrimony that does not represent only the identity of the nation, but the daily way of life of those born in the Emirates and who today give orders. If you dial 8002422 the Official Fatwa Call Centre replies. The call is free and is one of the services offered by the general Authority for affairs and Islamic property of Abu Dhabi. You choose a language from Arabic, English or Urdu, and a mufti answers your questions directly. The Islam of the Emirates is this too, modern solutions for archaic principles, a marriage that moulds everyone’s daily life. When you take the bus you use the front door because tickets do not exist yet and you have to put in a coin every time. It is common that foreigners, uncertain about which stop to get off at, stand next to the driver to keep an eye on the road. But at that point the driver will tell them to go down the bus: “Only women at the front.” And it does not matter whether the bus is almost empty. The three girls on board are obviously Asiatic and none of them are Muslim. The law foresees that men and women travel separately and therefore one has to conform to the regulations. With regard to Islamic precepts, the Emirates are extremely liberal compared with the other Gulf countries. You can see women wearing Gucci hijabs at the wheel of enormous SUVs, others who go around with their faces covered, but under the abaya you can glimpse high-heeled shoes and fashionable jeans. Secularisation – we are told – is coming to Abu Dhabi too. But Sunnite Islam is the national religion, citizens can only be Muslim and can only convert to Islam. The constitution states that religious freedom ‘is in agreement with traditional costumes,’ which in practice means guaranteeing freedom of worship or little more. And yet, thanks to the generosity of the royal family, those who in the neighbouring Saudi Arabia are considered mere infidels, in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain they receive gifts of land and also funds to construct their places of worship. The only exception being the Jews. For the Emirates Islam is part of the traditional patrimony of the country and is therefore beyond discussion. However, it is possible to meet someone like Khen Okeh, minister of the Nigerian Embassy in Abu Dhabi, who when asked about the level of religious freedom answers thus: “People should come here from my country to understand what communal life means. We kill each other there, and here people live side by side.” In order to maintain this level of tolerance, the government also keeps an eye on the mosques and the imams who for the most part come from other countries. The Authority for Islamic affairs, founded only in 2006, takes the trouble to check their curricula and even holds personal interviews. In brief, the secret for everyone is to stand by the agreements. And this, for the non-Muslims means keeping a low profile. It is a soft form of dhimmitudine: in your home you are free to profess your religion, outside Islamic tolerance prohibits it and lays down the law. When evening comes the open-air mass begins, and in the compound of the Catholic church of St. Joseph 700 faithful sing together “Change my heart, O Jesus.” At the same moment the muezzin of the mosque nearby sets off with the adhân which at first covers the singing of the Christians, then goes silent and once again “Come Holy Spirit” resounds in the air. The houses of the Capuchin friars of the Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia and the Carmelite nuns are right under the minarets. The walls of the mosque and the church border on each other. But between the new and old houses in the two blocks leading onto 17th street is gathered together practically all Christianity. Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Evangelicals Protestants all have their space in this corner of the city. If you are there you hardly notice. Before being on 17th street St. Joseph’s church was on the Corniche, the Abu Dhabi sea front. There is a photo in black and white showing the little building. On the face and roof there are two quite visible crosses and roughly speaking the church must have been able to contain more than a hundred people. Today the new St. Joseph’s, built in 1983, has no signs outside, but it has over 800 seats and on Fridays people reach the church square, while at Christmas and Easter they follow mass from contiguous rooms connected via audio-video. The faithful increase yearly and in the compounds you can find the same mixture of peoples that you can see around the city. If the point of union outside is work, there it is faith. Mix of Peoples At 5.30 am every single day people begin to slip in from the three big doors leading into the Catholic compound. At 6.00 am, when mass starts, there are over 300. Some have travelled even 40 km to get there and run off after the communion “not because they are bad Christians – explains the Capuchin friar who has celebrated mass – but because they are good workers who do not want to arrive late.” The coming and going of people continues discretely for the whole day until 22.30 pm when the three doors are closed. It seems like a stream of water that continues to flow undauntedly. Early morning the children arrive on their way to the school inside the compound, then the young Indian taxi driver on his way to pray to the grotto of our Lady of Lourdes, then the Lebanese lady who takes a big statue of the Holy Family wrapped in heavy grey wool blanket to be blessed. It is a flow of people that can almost go unnoticed. That is until Friday comes. In the Emirates, according to the Muslim precept, it is the only day of rest from work. It is then that the blocks leading onto 17th street fill up with thousands of people. At St. Joseph’s 15 masses are celebrated, almost 2 thousand children do catechism and in the shadow of the minarets images of Jesus of the Divine Mercy and DVDs dedicated to the Year of the Priest are on sale. In the nearby church of St. Anthony 500 orthodox Copts, mostly Egyptians, spend the whole day together from dawn to dusk. Less than one hundred metres further on another bustle of people is to be found. Some are going to the Indian Church of Mar Thoma, some to the brand new centre of the Evangelical community. Others are still coming into the compound of the Anglican church of St. Andrew’s which hosts 25 different Christian denominations. Some have their church there, like the Greek Orthodox one of St. Nicholas, others rent one of the rooms for 150 dirhams per hour. It is like a seaport in which you can find, one next to the other, confessions and churches which alone would have a thousand theological reasons to debate and argue. “For the Emirates authorities – says Clive, the Anglican chaplain – we are all simply Christians. I have tried to explain the differences between Churches, confessions and rites, but to their eyes a Catholic priest and I cannot be different.” In a space as big as a football field you find assembled together Catholic rites and traditions otherwise scattered all over the world and there are services in Tagalog, Urdu, Malayalam, Tamil. It is a community of migrants and at the same time an oriental Church. It is thought that about one million Christians live in the Emirates – almost a sixth of the population – and over half of these, about 580 thousand, are Catholic. People who are not ashamed of kneeling, who want to pray and sing, helping and asking for help, who find life difficult but do not give up hoping because of this. Beyond the walls of the St. Joseph compound there are laws in force which relegate all this life to a private event and ban any form of mission. These are the laws that are in force in the Emirates. But nobody prohibits the Christians of the West to be converted once again before the testimony of this young Church of the East.