Friday, June 09, 2006

This week's hot air epic. A culture of complaint?

I could do a word count on this but my nerves wouldn't stand it. It started off as a comment on a UAE Community Blog posting, and sort of continued. If you've been here before, you know the score!

Thanks to Woke, for linking to this 'Aqoul piece. ' There's a link to 'Aqoul, and other community blogs, in the top right hand column of the UAE Community Blog.

Someone - I can't remember who - sorry! - SOMEONE blogged recently on the phenomenon of the complaining expat. Surely when there's absolutely nothing that you can say or do to improve an unsatisfactory situation, the only harmless option is to grumble? It might not help the listener or reader to get through another month, but it surely releases the mental and emotional pressure in the complainer.

It's a shame that there is no mechanism by which the general population - Emirati and expatriate - can be heard; that we are regarded in much the same light as ants or bees, whose sole purpose is to build, and then give way to the next generation.

The trouble with suppressing and ignoring the popular voice is that resentment and cynicism eventually supplant contentment and optimism. It is hard that expatriates are so readily castigated as materialistic, grasping and self-centred, with no personal investment in the development of Dubai, when in fact we are actively discouraged from feeling that we belong here.

When I first came here, there were institutions created by expats on land generously given by the ruler. These institutions were about community, not profit, and so they continued year after year, charging modest subscriptions, and relying on volunteer or basic wage workers: individuals came and went, but the cricketers, the rugby players and the sailors continued, uniting adults, occupying and training children, entertaining the city, supporting charity.

Other groups - the animal charities, the charity challenge group, the choral societies, the drama groups, the bands and orchestras, the art centre, the social clubs, the lending library - have rented space for years.

Individuals of all nationalities, not just expats, but ordinary Emiratis too, volunteer in charity shops, prisons, special needs establishments and schools; organise and participate in the Terry Fox Run, the Walk Against Hunger, and raise funds or donate goods to relieve the suffering caused by natural disasters in the region.

All of this activity, the good will and energy that engenders it, and the satisfaction, the friendships and the ethos of organic community arts, sports and humanitarian action engendered by it, constitutes a vital part of 'Dubai, The City That Cares'. Dubai Centre for Special Needs, Rashid Paediatric Therapy Centre and Al Noor School have all benefited enormously, for decades,from the activities of expats who believe in 'putting back' into the community. BCAF (The British Community Assistance Fund) and support groups and organisations from other nationalities - Filipino, Sri Lankan and Indian cultural and charitable societies, the churches, the Russian School, the Japanese School - all these organisations, and others like them, help us foreigners to maintain our identity, but also enable us to contribute to the diversity and humanity of this place we live in.

Culture begins with community, and a community is a living organism, its parts interconnected and interdependent. Destroy the connections by shutting down or bankrupting socially beneficial organisations and visibly stratifying and segregating the population by income or nationality, and you get umpteen variations on 'us and them'; hardly the best social model. Now we have blogs and letters pages, but no-one's listening. Gifts have been taken back, and living groups cut off, cut out, because there's money to be made, and there must be no obstruction to the making of money. Who's materialistic, grasping and self-centred, with no personal investment in the development of Dubai? What a betrayal of goodwill and decades of selfless effort. What a waste of human resources.

Perhaps the fundamental problem is one of scale. The old, small Dubai was run by the ruling family, and individuals could bring issues, concerns and suggestions to the majlis, knowing that they would be heard thoughtfully and treated fairly. It was a paternalistic social order, in which father and children had a direct personal relationship; it might reasonably be called quite democratic.

It certainly worked as well as, if not better than, many another system.

However, as the family has grown, and all the foreign cousins have moved in, the father, though admired and loved by many, appears to have become more remote.

It has not happened by design. In terms of community, Dubai has become a victim of its own success. The analogy of the over-achieving executive comes to mind: working so hard to give his family the life and opportunities he dreams of, that ironically they start to feel that he only cares about his job. His children reach adulthood, surrounded by the things he's bought them; fit and well, with straight teeth; enriched by education and experience; but resentful of his preoccupation, his apparent assumption that they are not sufficiently responsible, intelligent or imaginative to know what's good for them.

Meanwhile his doctor is talking bluntly about over-exertion and blood pressure. So much effort, such good intentions: how did he end up being the bad guy with the heart problem? It's not fair. End of apparently endless analogy.

Hissy fits in newspaper interviews and letters about ingratitude, subversion and disloyalty will not silence the complaints or settle the discontent they reflect, nor will PR, however stylish and ubiquitous.

Eventually there has to be a system of conference, a mechanism for sharing ideas and points of view for the general good. Not an off-the-shelf import of an Nth generation system which has evolved to suit an entirely different culture. (None of those systems are perfect anyway, and transplantation would only magnify the flaws.) On the other hand, studying the successes and failures of others, and applying the lessons, is the Dubai way.

A new majlis for a new era?


Seabee said...

Let's face it, we complain about things wherever we live, Dubai isn't special in that regard. And I see absolutely nothing wrong with it - if things are not as good as we would like them to be, if we have suggestions for improving our surrounds, we would be wrong not to voice those thoughts.

I agree about Dubai in the old days - small, friendly, Sheikh Rashid not only very much in charge but also very much closer to the people. But again, the changes we're seeing would be true of any small town that grows into a city. And none have grown with such astonishing speed as Dubai.

I'm confident that change will happen - laws will catch up with the new realities, pressure from international organisations such as the ILO, WTO will bring changes, we individuals can use letters to the editors/talk-back radio/blogs as our mechanism to be heard. We're already getting our concerns talked about in the international media, for example, and I think that all of this will mean that our complaints will be listened to.

Your penultimate sentence is spot-on, and gives us hope for the future.

trailingspouse said...

I think part of the problem, at least amongst the western expats, is that many of us are only here for a short time - a 2 or 3 year project. As a result we don't really put down roots and maintain a certain detachment from the place. Add to that the fact Dubai looks like a first world country, but beneath the surface it still has some considerable catching up to do. Hardly surprising given that up to 50 years ago things hadn't changed here for centuries. People seem to forget how long it took for our western societies to mature.

Not that people shouldn't complain . . . that's how change is brought about. It's just that we should have reasonable expectations of how fast it can happen.

MamaDuck said...

I agree that everyone grumbles - it's a handy coping mechanism - but quite apart from issues of consultation (and we are guest workers after all) the pace and scale of the changes is disorientating and alienating.

Dubai is streets ahead of its regional neighbours in terms of development, security and transparency, but at the same time, the first world/third world split personality is, I think, an urgent issue. Government is the art of the possible, which generally falls short of the desirable.

Perhaps it doesn't matter in the long term, but I think that in the short term, Dubai's progress is at risk if the expat underclass loses patience,and we get either co-ordinated industrial action, or a mass exodus; and in the medium term it may metamorphose into a middle eastern Las Vegas if better off expats decide that this is not a good place to bring their families. Countless cities provide evidence that it's hard to restore a sense of community once it's been allowed to evaporate.

In the decade or so that I have been here I have developed enormous respect for Sheikh Mohammed, and have followed his personal campaign to improve standards in education and in government ministries. Maybe I'll feel better when I've read his book.