You have reached the main content

Reevaluating Identity: Testimony from a UAE Second Generation Migrant

On June 4, 2014


I was 19 the first time I set foot in Iraq. I gracefully landed in Baghdad’s airport without visa restrictions- albeit like a tourist; a feeling that I’ve never experienced as a frequent traveller holding a UAE residency and a notorious Iraqi passport.

I was born in Dubai and raised in Sharjah to Iraqi parents. My father studied and decided to settle in the UAE since the late 70s while my mother moved and got married later in the 80s. For first generation expatriates fleeing war, instability, and dire economic opportunities, the UAE was and continues to be a safe haven- permanent for some yet transient for others.

For second generation expatriates born in a country that does not recognize them as its own, issues of identity come into being. The UAE has no naturalization process for non-Emiratis born in the UAE; instead, the country bases its citizenship on kin and blood or in special circumstances, on a case by case basis determined by the ruling families. In a decree issued by Shaikh Khalifa in 2011, children of Emirati mothers and expatriate fathers were granted the right to apply for citizenship. This decree was received as a significant milestone to the rights of Emirati women and their non-citizen children but it still left the UAE’s majority non-Emirati population excluded from rights granted for the citizen minority. Second generation expatriates automatically assume their fathers’ citizenship despite the fact that their sense of belonging to their parents’ countries of origin is entirely constructed the moment they are born.

I never had to asses or prove my “Iraqiness” in the UAE or in other Arab countries because it was a given. It wasn’t until I traveled to Iraq that I had to re-evaluate my perception of what makes up my identity. In Iraq, I was no longer just an Iraqi; I became an Iraqi of the UAE. Even my dialect, a variation of Baghdadi Arabic influenced by a variation of Emirati and Levantine Arabic, is a reflection of this multi-layered identity. A part of me has grown to accept the raw layers and accidental dialect mash-ups, a natural product of being raised as a third culture kid in my country of birth, but another part of me has yet to reconcile my ties to the UAE and its people with the fact that I am nothing but an expatriate in a country where I was born and raised.

Growing up, it was impossible not to be aware of the non-existent rights we had as expatriates. An explicit and systemic societal divide exists between a muwatin, a local, and a wafid, a non-local or expatriate. In most cases, citizenship (by kin) distinguishes a local from a non-local and is the key to social and legal rights only granted for the citizen minority. The right to free public education and the priority to employment are two areas that directly affect UAE born expatriates.

A wide range of private secondary schools that cater to tens of nationalities are available for non-locals to enroll in, but free public secondary education is restricted to UAE nationals. In recent years, non-locals have been able to enroll in UAE’s public schools, but for a fee. In Abu Dhabi, the number of enrolled non-local students can not exceed 20% of the total number of locals, greatly restricting the presence of non-locals. Like secondary education, free higher education is also restricted to UAE nationals. Second generation expatriates who can afford private universities are left with that only option, while those who can’t afford it are forced to seek other opportunities in more affordable universities around the world.

The Emiratisation of public and private sectors in the UAE have also negatively impacted second generation expatriates in the job market. In its essence, Emiratisation is a policy of positive discrimination that prioritises the employment of UAE nationals in certain industries. Among its many objectives is to lessen the reliance on expatriates by prioritising the hiring of nationals in industries such as banking, hospitality, and media. In the past decades, this policy has been the status quo for the public sector and for administrative and managerial positions in the private sector. In recent years, the government has intensified its efforts by setting quotas for the hiring of UAE nationals in the private sector. As critics have noted, merely fulfilling these quotas will not solve the root issue, which is the rising unemployment rate of Emiratis. But in addition, the recent push to fill quotas has had the intended consequence of excluding a significant number of UAE born expatriates from private sector jobs and internships. It is difficult to assess the number of non-Emiratis excluded or denied from certain positions due to Emiratisation initiatives as the issue is rarely ever examined through the lens of a non-Emirati; but talking to youth and recent graduates about the difficulties they have faced in trying to find internships and first jobs is enough to realise that we, in fact, are excluded.

It is dismaying for many youth like myself to know that discrimination based on our nationality and ethnic origin is not viewed as an issue of discrimination in the mainstream discourse of Emiratisation issues. On the contrary, the localisation of the job market is applauded by Emiratis and often justified by non-Emiratis who believe that they will remain guests in this country no matter how many generations of their family has lived and died on this land.

The privileges that come with ‘being’ an Emirati national further the divide between a muwatin and a wafid and overtly justify discrimination against the majority expatriate population: il-wafideen. UAE born expatriates are also lumped under the wafideen category and are legally treated as temporary residents in the only country they recognise as home.

In the past decades, many UAE-based Iraqi expatriates like myself have migrated elsewhere to secure another passport, mainly in Europe and North America. As Iraqis living in the UAE under the mercy of our residency renewals and the head of the households’ sponsorship, we needed to secure our future elsewhere. My family and I made that move in 2008, two years before I started my university studies. I am now a naturalised U.S. citizen and a graduate who is debating the decision to move back to the UAE or to move on and start a life elsewhere around the world.

One day, my 21-year-old residency in the UAE will be canceled. One day I will have to apply for a visa to get into the UAE- where I was born and raised, where I opened my eyes to the world around me, where my parents’ have made a home for me and my siblings; where my grandfather was buried...

“What a dreadful feeling!”, I think to myself..

It may take years or decades for me to reconcile my experience and sentiments towards the UAE and how the UAE, as a government, will continue to exclude me and future generations of my family from basic social and legal rights. But despite that, the UAE has been and will remain a peculiar type of home.