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Dubai's temporary but settled citizens: Researching the second generation "Dubaite-South Asians"

On November 12, 2013

I arrived in Dubai on a hot, humid August night in 2008 to work as a communications intern in an events company. Despite having lived in and travelled to many other countries, Dubai was an unknown territory, my first voyage east of Turkey.

I didn't know what to expect, how to behave, or what to wear. I knew Dubai from its global media image: a growing international hub that drew many Western expats to its tax-free salaries, unmatched employment packages, and the promise of year-round sunny beaches. Once a small fishing port, Dubai transformed into a ‘modern’, developed and multicultural city after the discovery of oil. Today, the city’s urban planning, architecture, and even its population exude a distinctly Western style, referred to by many as the “little Manhattan of the Arabian Gulf.”

Over 1.5 million South Asians constitute the largest immigrant group in Dubai. They work in both blue- and white-collar industries and many have been rooted in Dubai for decades – making it their home while working intensely in the 'making' of Dubai. Despite their numbers and long standing presence, South Asian migrants were often excluded from the Dubai’s global representations. One encountered them only on the ground – once settled down in Dubai – and then encountered them everywhere, spanning a spectrum of occupations and industries across different parts of the city; they are your doctor, your nurse, your shopkeeper, your investment banker, your retail assistant, your waitress, your colleague, your taxi driver, your cook, your helper in the house and in every service.

I could almost claim I lived in a South Asian city, with sari shops and sub-continental restaurants peppered across neighbourhoods, the streets filled with the strong aroma of Indian food and echoing with Punjabi hits, Bollywood corner cinemas appearing very much in place, the chattering of many languages and dialects reaching my ears simultaneously. Just stepping outside my door took me on journeys to far off countries I could never imagine visiting.

This was particularly the case because I was living in the old part of Dubai (spanning from the Dubai World Trade Centre over to Bur Dubai, Deira and Oud Metha), which many refer to as the city’s 'dark side’ and which has been historically populated by South Asian expats. In contrast, primarily wealthy Arabs and Western expats occupy the newly developed side of Dubai.

However, the old part of Dubai is unlike the ghettos or ethnic enclaves in cosmopolitan urban cities like in NYC, London or Berlin, where crime and unemployment rates tend to be high.
Having observed second generation young adults - my peers - in the rather demographically homogenous city of Ankara and in super diverse cities like Rotterdam and London, I was highly fascinated by their unique self-expression; through the cultural mixings and negotiations, an inevitable result of being born and raised in a different country of their cultural background. Most were not “fully assimilated” into mainstream society, but were largely integrated, sliding easily between cultures and languages, particularly in comparison to their first-generation parents.

The metropolitan second-generation does face a myriad of exclusions - some ethnic groups are structurally disenfranchised both socially and economically; many face discrimination based on colour, origin as well as religion in school, employment, and social life. Some remained spatially isolated and clustered in their ethnic enclaves, marginalized by choice or coercion.

However, I discovered the situation of the second generation in Dubai to be unique and in a way, contradictory. While in much of the West, governments address integration and the systematic disadvantages of second-generation migrants (not always in a beneficial way), these issues are neither acknowledged nor desired in Dubai. Firstly, the segregation of immigrant groups is desired, the result of targeted government policy. The lack of integration is not perceived as adverse, but the inevitable result of social and legal boundaries constructed to emphasize migrants’ non-permanence.  Secondly, Dubai’s second generation faces a different set of issues than their Western-based counterparts; unemployment, disadvantaged schooling and under-representation in higher education are not chronic problems as employment or higher-ed enrollment are necessary to retain residency visas.

However, though the specific issues differ, Dubai’s second-generation migrants remain subject to the same differentiating process of identity formation and conflict of belonging as their Western counterparts.

Despite narratives that characterize them as “temporary labour,” South Asians represent a long established and enduring base. Second, third, and succeeding generations of South Asians were born and raised in Dubai, yet still remain subject to legal and social exclusions.  Despite being born, educated, and employed in Dubai, despite recognising the city as 'home’, the second generation still has no claim to the rights and privileges denied to their immigrant parents or any other expat bound to Dubai by a working visa.

With the influx of immigration following the 1970s oil bloom, Dubai’s small local population adopted an ethno-nationalistic discourse and began to regulate the ‘immigrant threat' through restrictive migration and citizenship policies which determined who belonged to the state and who did not; Dubai established an 'imagined community' that defined Emiratiness based on kinship and blood, intentionally constructing its identity against the immigrant 'other'.

While in many Western countries, first generation immigrants remain subject to exclusionary practices that prevent full belonging to the state; in most cases their children receive citizenship or permanent residency, either through birth or naturalization, and accompanying rights and privileges. Germany is one of the few exceptions to this norm as, similar to the UAE, it enforces the law of blood and descent.

In addition to legal boundaries, second generation migrants also encounter a highly stratified economic and social hierarchies, in which their positions are largely pre-determined; these include the segregated schooling system which distinguishes between immigrants and citizens at a young age, the racialisation of the workforce and salaries, as well as other aspects of social life. Through these structures South Asians in Dubai are constructed as temporary migrants, proscribed from claiming social and legal belonging to Dubai. These exclusions are in turn reflected in the way second-generation South Asians identify themselves and their relationship to Dubai.

My interactions with Dubai's 'impossible citizens' and my personal observations from living and working in Dubai inspired me to examine this unique and understudied phenomena from a sociological perspective on diaspora, migration and the second generation.  In a drastic depart from my professional career in PR, I have returned to my passion of studying society and its inequalities. In my master’s research, I focus primarily on three structures that arguably affect second generation South Asian migrants’ identity and belonging in Dubai, namely: citizenship, education and workforce. I will delve into each structure over the next weeks through the lived experiences and sentiments of 15 South Asian young adults born and raised in Dubai.

I hope you enjoy reading it!


About the Author

Following her graduation from a Communications degree in Turkey, I.A. worked in Dubai for 4 years, before returning to her passion, which is to study society and the inequalities within. During her time in Dubai, she was fascinated by the social and economic hierarchies within this highly segmented society and how the descendants of the largest immigrant group, South Asians, negotiated and made sense of their legal and social exclusion from larger society. She recently pursued an MA Degree in Sociology in London with this topic that was awarded a distinction and is now preparing to take this study further with a PhD.