Wednesday, May 28, 2008

From today's papers

Even during this time I am spending away from my home in the Sandlands I read daily the online news served by The National, Gulf News and Kipp Report. Today I find, on the one hand, this...

"There is a need to preserve UAE's national identity through enhancing national culture and changing the common understanding of the value of work," writes Dr Mohammad Al Asoomi, a UAE economic writer.

Two hugely important issues are raised in this single sentence. The whole culture and heritage discussion is in my view becoming increasingly distanced from any kind of reality. The culture and heritage of the UAE is a work-in-progress, I think, to be judged perhaps a couple of centuries from now when historians look back to see how successful efforts were to foster an environment in which a population consisting of 80% foreigners saw themselves as participants in a burgeoning and irrevocably multinational culture, stake-holders in a developing heritage. In this mix certainly vestiges of the Bedouin legacy, of the trading and pearl-diving traditions will have their place. But might not this place be as marginal as the lore and indeed the identity of the Native Americans when they became a minority on their own lands?

As a teenager, when we as a family emigrated from Scotland to the United States, I was often embarrassed by the American hunger for the kind of culture and heritage which pre-supposes centuries, if not millennia, of history. How they envied us Edinburgh Castle, where Bronze-Age man was living on that formidable rock as long ago as 850 BC! In Dallas, we learned, the oldest house dated from... 1844. And yet the Americans have no doubt that a unique culture and heritage is in the making, not in historicised stasis but dynamic, forward-thrusting, warts and all.

And this experience inclines me to suggest that in the UAE there should be some patience with regard to culture and heritage. With time this incredible nation will have one, and it could be one which the rest of the world will find fascinating and inspiring. The photo on the left is of the Al Hosn in 1959, then in splendid isolation in what would become the nation's capital. How Abu Dhabi has changed since then, and not just in terms of the city-scape. An authentic culture and heritage is developing on a daily basis. It should not be confused, however, with an unhelpful and anti-progressive nostalgia for the way things were.

Dr Al Asoomi also mentions the value of work, another tricky topic. The so-called Western work ethic is not the embodiment of an intrinsic moral virtue. Never in the course of history has the need to work in order to survive been anything but a heavy burden for the labouring masses. It was very clever to gradually persuade those condemned to a life of toil that their efforts were noble, praiseworthy and virtuous.

You work because you have to, in order to support yourself and your family. End of story. But in the UAE for many young Emiratis the concept of work, and therefore its value in the socio-cultural context, is not directly linked to any meaningful hardship which not working might precipitate. This is a real problem, as the following story illustrates:

Abu Dhabi’s taxi system is creaking under the demands of a rapidly growing population, with problems compounded by limited public transport and a shortage of drivers, an official said on Tuesday. Khaled Saleh Al-Rashedi said the lack of other transport solutions meant eight out of ten public transport users travelled by taxi in the capital, compared to one in ten in most other cities. This city's 9,000 taxis carry about one million passengers each day. The National reports that 2,000 shiny new taxis are stood idle because of failure to recruit and train enough drivers. The Centre for Regulation of Transport by Hire Cars (TransAD) is currently in Egypt looking for talent. Given the standard of Egyptian driving the training period could be lengthy, TransAd estimates three months. (per Kipp Report)

The idea that 2,000 Emiratis could fill the vacancies at TransAD is nowhere mooted.
Dr Mohammad Al Asoomi's task is not light.

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