Citizenship and Belonging – Do they go hand in hand?

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Jan 7 2014

This is the second installment of a series on Dubai’s second generation, written by IA. Read the first piece, “Dubai’s temporary but settled citizens,”  here.

You can’t really say you are from Dubai, mainly it is because of the citizenship. Neither can I say I am from Sri Lanka, because I never lived there. Now that I live in Australia, I need to visit Dubai every six months so my visa doesn’t get cancelled. It is like a joke! I was born in that country and my parents still live there. Every time I go back, I need to queue up like any other visitor to the country, and they even have a line just for South Asians! This doesn’t help me to feel I am part of Dubai because Dubai it is denied by its laws. But all my friends are there, I know the city inside out. It is sort of my comfort zone still. It is a love-hate relationship. I love it because it is my home. And I hate it because it’s taken what it has given me.

The sentiments above illustrate the way the majority of my participants expressed their conceptions of identity and belonging both to Dubai, the city they were born and raised in, as well as to their parents’ country of origin.  Many visited their ‘home’ countries only occasionally, but still held strong cultural, social and legal connections due to the legal exclusion they faced in Dubai. Somewhat contradictory sentiments regarding self-identification were frequently expressed, reflecting the confusion in which Dubai’s migration policies entangle the second generation.

Constructing the ‘Citizen’ & Exclusivity

The UAE’s migration policies may seem unique, however they resemble the guest-worker systems that were used in Europe’s post war era, popularly by Germany, and which are now reemerging in the West. With the influx of migration following the oil boom in the 70s,  the UAE implemented legal and social boundaries for migrants in order to preserve cultural ‘homogeneity’ and national identity, as well as to maintain the socio-economic privileges of the indigenous population. Historically, states have implemented obstacles to citizenship and residency to prevent the settlement of ‘unwanted’ foreigners.

Migrants were perceived as threats to the ‘sameness’ of these societies, to the belief that nations shared a common descent based on kinship, blood, language and history. Following the UAE’s independence, a nation building project entailed to construct a common shared history, language, and cultural practices based on blood and kinship. The diversity of the pre-oil boom sheikhdoms entailed this conscious construction, which continued as Arab and later Asian migrants began to outnumber citizens.

Obstacles to Citizenship, Residency, and Belonging  

Dubai requires the head of household to earn minimum of 10,000 Dirhams (equivalence of 1,700 GBP) in order to qualify for family reunification. Second-generation migrants consequently tend to compromise Dubai’s ‘privileged’ middle class. Since the UAE’s citizenship law is based on blood and kinship, children born to non-Emirati parents cannot become citizens. Instead, they are subject to the same sponsorship system that governs all migrants and must receive a dependent residence visa through one of their parents. A male can live in the UAE under the sponsorship of his father (or mother) until he age 18 years and a female until she is married. Should the second generation want to remain in the UAE after they lose their dependent visa, they must either enroll in university to receive a studentship visa or seek employment and obtain a residency permit through a local sponsor.

As the legal requirements illustrate, citizenship in Dubai is the most important element differentiating rights and privileges between citizens and migrants, distinguishing Dubai’s second generation from the US and Europe understandings of identity and belonging.

Citizenship is considered a primary factor in the second generation’s identity-construction and sense of belonging. (Hussain and Bagguley, 2008). The second generation, typically granted citizenship and the rights it entails, inevitably develop stronger ties and identification to the country of settlement, perceiving it as a permanent base. In contrast, the first generation, who often migrated for economic purposes, generally remain as ‘outsiders’ or denizens, fearing deportation, or still considering the country of settlement temporary.

My interviews with second-generation non-citizens in Dubai support this theory; the second generation in Dubai resembles first generation migrants in the West, perceiving themselves as temporary and facing constant insecurities in fear of deportation. Though many referred to Dubai as home, they also expressed significant resentment against the system that marginalizes them from mainstream society. The majority of participants claimed the obstacles to acquiring citizenship, which comes with significant privileges in the UAE, engenders self-perceptions as second-class citizens. Almost all participants asserted strong ethnic and national identities or other strong ties to their country of origin, but almost none considered “returning” permanently. Their sentiments evidenced the significant link between experienced exclusionary practices and identity/belonging; It is quite possible to feel at home in the country of birth and nurturing, and yet, as a result of the social and legal exclusions they are subject to, develop ethnic consciousness and assert national/ethnic identifications.

Several of my participants experienced acute incidents that highlighted the extent of their temporariness in Dubai; for some, this occurred when they had to leave the country within two weeks’ notice of the termination of their parents’ work contract.  Others only fully realized their differential treatment once they started living in countries with more accessible and inclusive migration policies.

Many participants considered securing citizenship from Australia or Canada, in the event of having to leave Dubai. But that many wanted to return to Dubai even after securing a Western citizenship reflects their internalization of Dubai as ‘home’. Few expressed desire to return to their parents’ country of origin, unfamiliar with the way of life there.

Citizenship also plays a fundamental role in the socio-economic positioning of foreign nationals; it has the power to eradicate the insecurities and ambiguities of the second generation, securing their existence in the country and protecting them from deportation. Citizenship also expands opportunities through the social such as free education, healthcare, housing and minimum pay. The absence of pathways to naturalization reflects systematic issues of social cohesion and sustainability, especially when migrants and their descendants are constantly reminded that they do not belong and never will. The same system also constructs the identity of citizens and migrants against each other, resulting in a multicultural yet a highly segmented society, in which certain migrant groups occupy the lowest rung. Consequently my main question remains, would one who is prevented of claiming belonging legally ever invest her or his potential into this society and city?

In the same week I submitted my research paper, UAE op-eds exploded with controversy after Sultan Al Qassemi, a member of one of the ruling families, called to naturalize long-term expats who have substantially contributed in the country’s development. Al Qaessemi argued that naturalization would enrich the UAE’s culture, while his opponents argued that perceived security and identity issues would be exacerbated by widening the local/migrant population imbalance.

As precedent evidences, neither migrants’ social nor economic disadvantages can be eradicated solely by granting citizenship. Other fundamental elements I will touch upon in the coming weeks, including inequalities in schooling system and workforce, also need to be tackled. However, citizenship is a basic requirement for the sustainability of a young, productive, creative and cohesive society – one that is free from the fear of deportation, permitting one to put full potential into a society which acknowledges her or him as an equal.

This is the second installment of a series on Dubai's second generation, written by IA. Read the first piece, "Dubai's temporary but settled citizens,"  here.

“You can’t really say you are from Dubai, mainly it is because of the citizenship. Neither can I say I am from Sri Lanka, because I never lived there. Now that I live in Australia, I need to visit Dubai every six months so my visa doesn’t get cancelled. It is like a joke! I was born in that country and my parents still live there. Every time I go back, I need to queue up like any other visitor to the country, and they even have a line just for South Asians! This doesn’t help me to feel I am part of Dubai because Dubai it is denied by its laws. But all my friends are there, I know the city inside out. It is sort of my comfort zone still. It is a love-hate relationship. I love it because it is my home. And I hate it because it’s taken what it has given me.”

The sentiments above illustrate the way the majority of my participants expressed their conceptions of identity and belonging both to Dubai, the city they were born and raised in, as well as to their parents’ country of origin.  Many visited their ‘home’ countries only occasionally, but still held strong cultural, social and legal connections due to the legal exclusion they faced in Dubai. Somewhat contradictory sentiments regarding self-identification were frequently expressed, reflecting the confusion in which Dubai’s migration policies entangle the second generation.

Constructing the ‘Citizen’ & Exclusivity

The UAE’s migration policies may seem unique, however they resemble the guest-worker systems that were used in Europe’s post war era, popularly by Germany, and which are now reemerging in the West. With the influx of migration following the oil boom in the 70s,  the UAE implemented legal and social boundaries for migrants in order to preserve cultural ‘homogeneity’ and national identity, as well as to maintain the socio-economic privileges of the indigenous population. Historically, states have implemented obstacles to citizenship and residency to prevent the settlement of ‘unwanted’ foreigners.

Migrants were perceived as threats to the ‘sameness’ of these societies, to the belief that nations shared a common descent based on kinship, blood, language and history. Following the UAE’s independence, a nation building project entailed to construct a common shared history, language, and cultural practices based on blood and kinship. The diversity of the pre-oil boom sheikhdoms entailed this conscious construction, which continued as Arab and later Asian migrants began to outnumber citizens.

Obstacles to Citizenship, Residency, and Belonging  

Dubai requires the head of household to earn minimum of 10,000 Dirhams (equivalence of 1,700 GBP) in order to qualify for family reunification. Second-generation migrants consequently tend to compromise Dubai’s ‘privileged’ middle class. Since the UAE’s citizenship law is based on blood and kinship, children born to non-Emirati parents cannot become citizens. Instead, they are subject to the same sponsorship system that governs all migrants and must receive a dependent residence visa through one of their parents. A male can live in the UAE under the sponsorship of his father (or mother) until he age 18 years and a female until she is married. Should the second generation want to remain in the UAE after they lose their dependent visa, they must either enroll in university to receive a studentship visa or seek employment and obtain a residency permit through a local sponsor.

As the legal requirements illustrate, citizenship in Dubai is the most important element differentiating rights and privileges between citizens and migrants, distinguishing Dubai’s second generation from the US and Europe understandings of identity and belonging.

Citizenship is considered a primary factor in the second generation’s identity-construction and sense of belonging. (Hussain and Bagguley, 2008). The second generation, typically granted citizenship and the rights it entails, inevitably develop stronger ties and identification to the country of settlement, perceiving it as a permanent base. In contrast, the first generation, who often migrated for economic purposes, generally remain as ‘outsiders’ or denizens, fearing deportation, or still considering the country of settlement temporary.

My interviews with second-generation non-citizens in Dubai support this theory; the second generation in Dubai resembles first generation migrants in the West, perceiving themselves as temporary and facing constant insecurities in fear of deportation. Though many referred to Dubai as home, they also expressed significant resentment against the system that marginalizes them from mainstream society. The majority of participants claimed the obstacles to acquiring citizenship, which comes with significant privileges in the UAE, engenders self-perceptions as second-class citizens. Almost all participants asserted strong ethnic and national identities or other strong ties to their country of origin, but almost none considered “returning” permanently. Their sentiments evidenced the significant link between experienced exclusionary practices and identity/belonging; It is quite possible to feel at home in the country of birth and nurturing, and yet, as a result of the social and legal exclusions they are subject to, develop ethnic consciousness and assert national/ethnic identifications.

Several of my participants experienced acute incidents that highlighted the extent of their temporariness in Dubai; for some, this occurred when they had to leave the country within two weeks’ notice of the termination of their parents’ work contract.  Others only fully realized their differential treatment once they started living in countries with more accessible and inclusive migration policies.

Many participants considered securing citizenship from Australia or Canada, in the event of having to leave Dubai. But that many wanted to return to Dubai even after securing a Western citizenship reflects their internalization of Dubai as ‘home’. Few expressed desire to return to their parents’ country of origin, unfamiliar with the way of life there.

Citizenship also plays a fundamental role in the socio-economic positioning of foreign nationals; it has the power to eradicate the insecurities and ambiguities of the second generation, securing their existence in the country and protecting them from deportation. Citizenship also expands opportunities through the social such as free education, healthcare, housing and minimum pay. The absence of pathways to naturalization reflects systematic issues of social cohesion and sustainability, especially when migrants and their descendants are constantly reminded that they do not belong and never will. The same system also constructs the identity of citizens and migrants against each other, resulting in a multicultural yet a highly segmented society, in which certain migrant groups occupy the lowest rung. Consequently my main question remains, would one who is prevented of claiming belonging legally ever invest her or his potential into this society and city?

In the same week I submitted my research paper, UAE op-eds exploded with controversy after Sultan Al Quassemi, a member of one of the ruling families, called to naturalize long-term expats who have substantially contributed in the country’s development. Al Quaessemi argued that naturalization would enrich the UAE’s culture, while his opponents argued that perceived security and identity issues would be exacerbated by widening the local/migrant population imbalance.

As precedent evidences, neither migrants’ social nor economic disadvantages can be eradicated solely by granting citizenship. Other fundamental elements I will touch upon in the coming weeks, including inequalities in schooling system and workforce, also need to be tackled. However, citizenship is a basic requirement for the sustainability of a young, productive, creative and cohesive society – one that is free from the fear of deportation, permitting one to put full potential into a society which acknowledges her or him as an equal.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East