As we navigated our way through the crowded expanses of Dubai Mall, one of my friends who was visiting from Calcutta turned to me and casually asked: ‘So where are all the Arabs?’ Looking around I realized the number of sparkling white Kandora’s and the flowing black Abaya’s were miniscule in comparison to the number of international brands on display .As is so typical with women, the afternoon then became about brand spotting and the mall turned into a free for all fashion extravaganza. Everywhere we looked we were able to spot the most famous brands: Levi’s, Ed Hardy, Louis Vuitton and what have you, all in an ocean of blue jeans.
A little later, as we settled into the plush leather sofas and ordered our café lattes, I began to wonder. Fashion in Dubai has evolved in the past decade, having gone from more traditional clothing styles to incorporating influences from more western fashion ideas. But clothes are only a small part of the local Emirati cultural identity. I wonder now how much of that Identity has been affected by the flood of globalization that has been sweeping through these desert lands for the last decade. I wonder how the Emirati’s feel about this. There is no doubt that globalization has turned these once barren desert lands to lucrative Middle-Eastern Shangri-La’s but, I wonder what it cost the locals, I wonder if they regret or revel in the radical changes to their way of life.
Imagine Arab children who are born today. I assume that the Emiratis of this generation are probably the ones most torn between a conservative past and a liberal future. How do you live a life of affluence, steeped in Western culture and still hold onto an identity that is traditional and conservative? How do you learn to appreciate the struggles of desert life or begin to comprehend what it meant to live in a Bedouin camp when you hardly ever go into the desert to begin with?
From what I’ve been told by my one and only Emirati friend, the traditions and cultures of their people are only kept alive in the rural areas and by certain pockets of people in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain while most continue to try and find their balance as they precariously tiptoe their way through a new way of life – one that is creating a new sense of identity for them.
Having lived here for four years now, I’ve gradually grown to love this country. I just hope that there is never a time when the people of this land have to look back regretfully and say they sacrificed too much. By then, the older generation would have passed on leaving behind a generation who are vaguely familiar with their culture and their rich heritage – a generation that may not be able to salvage fragments of a distinct and robust way of life that once was.
Having just celebrated 40 years of the union, the Emirates have a lot to be grateful for and many reasons to swell their chests in pride, but the next few years are crucial. They have fretted long over their loss of culture and identity but are yet to really deal with the issue. Globalization could either turn out to be for them, a means of achieving unprecedented prosperity or a fire that consumes their individual identity. In the long run, I wonder which one will matter more.