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We must walk the two-way street to cultural integration

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Multiculturalism is a key feature of the social fabric of the UAE. Whether the country is a melting pot or a salad bowl, one thing we can be sure of is that cultural integration is essential if we are to maintain a sense of unity and social cohesion. Lately, the issue of integration has turned into a hot and often contentious topic of discussion. The two main points raised in the debate have been:
Is there a need to integrate culturally?

Whose responsibility is it to ensure cultural integration?

To begin this discussion, we must first define what is meant by integration. According to the United Nations, social integration is the dynamic and principled process where all members participate in dialogue to achieve and maintain peaceful social relations. Social integration does not mean coerced assimilation. In an organisational sense, integration is often associated with the development of common goals or values.
One key value of our culture is hospitality and tolerance these we consider to be our main strengths. Indeed, the UAE is one of the most culturally tolerant and open countries in the region, which is why we are hosts to people of a number of different nationalities and cultural backgrounds.

Dubai, for instance, has been known for centuries as Al Wasl, which literally means the link because of its role as the trade hub between the pearl diving communities of the Arabian Gulf and the jewellery markets of the east. This has been a role that inhabitants of this land have played for generations.
Contrary to the myth, most expatriate residents do not come to the UAE for purely commercial reasons. Many choose to make this nation their home in part for economic reasons but mainly because of the social security that they can enjoy. What makes the unbearable heat of July manageable is not the pay cheque at the end of the month but the fact that people are made to feel at home in the UAE.

I have often heard the comment that an expatriate resident can easily live and work in the Emirates for a number of years without ever meeting a single Emirati and without learning a word of Arabic. That is true, of course, if one wants to. It is tempting to stay within ones comfort zone and interact only within ones traditional cultural boundaries. But this is classical ghetto mentality. Such behaviours mean that so many opportunities to discover and learn about other cultures are lost by both Emiratis and expatriates.
Even for expatriates who are living in the UAE for a short period of time, confining their experience to their own communities is a waste of the invaluable opportunity for them and their children to acquire a global exposure that can be of great value for them in an increasingly globalised world. This is the kind of experience that young people seek when they study abroad or volunteer in international aid programmes that often can open their minds and increase their potential.
Do we need to integrate? is really a moot question. It is like asking if you need to exercise, read or even to learn. Cultural integration is a tool that leads to the development of common goals and values. And in turn, these shared aspirations allow for a more cohesive and healthy community.

Sure enough, social development programmes and government agencies should provide the necessary knowledge and infrastructure to support this integration process. However, it is ultimately up to individuals who make a personal choice to become involved with other cultures. The first step of this process is learning more about them.

But integration is a two-way street. While expatriate residents of the UAE have a responsibility to ensure that their children have some understanding of the culture and language of the country in which they live, we Emiratis have a responsibility of our own to welcome our expatriate neighbours and provide a living example of Emirati hospitality and values as our forefathers before have done.

As a dedicated social development programme promoting the UAEs national identitiy, Watani will continue its efforts to facilitate cultural exchange by providing a platform for expatriate residents to learn more about the traditional culture and values of the UAE. We believe that everyone living in the UAE, regardless of their nationality, makes a unique and essential contribution to the nation, and one that is much appreciated. It is only through cultural interaction and integration that we may fully realise our potential to contribute to the nation.
Cultural integration is indeed a two-way street and if we start walking now we can be sure to meet somewhere in the middle.


Originally published in The National June 02. 2009, written by Ahmed al Mansoori, President of bhuth and the coordinator general of the UAE Watani programme

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We must walk the two-way street to cultural integration

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