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Illustration by Maria Paula Calderon

Deconstructing Emirati Stereotypes

Most stereotypes about Emiratis are unfounded generalizations. One cannot conclude that someone is lazy because of their nationality, just as one cannot assume that someone is good at math because of their ethnicity.

Oct 6, 2018

When I joined NYU Abu Dhabi, I was bombarded with questions about my family’s financial status, whether or not I was allowed to date and if I would have to get married at an early age. At first these questions made me uncomfortable, since I came from a community where it is generally understood that asking someone about familial or personal matters is offensive. Little did I know that such questions would become a recurring theme in my life.
While the intention behind these questions may have been genuine curiosity, a number of them came off as offensive. This made me wonder whether my Emirati classmates and friends received similar questions or whether it was my social anxiety exaggerating the interactions I had with people.
To resolve my confusion, I conducted an anonymous questionnaire regarding stereotyping and generalizations in NYUAD as part of my internship in the Cultural Engagement Program with the Office of Student Life. Most of the responses I received from non-Emiratis were tediously repetitive, stereotyping Emiratis as either lazy or extremely rich and owning oil companies. One ridiculously absurd response stated that “Emiratis are all clones of each other and all they care about is food.”
Many stereotypes regarding Emiratis are unfounded generalizations. One cannot conclude that someone is lazy because of their nationality, just as one cannot assume that someone is good at math because of their ethnicity. Not all Emiratis are extremely rich. We are fortunate that our government provides its citizens with public goods such as education and health insurance, which allows us a greater degree of economic comfort and security, but does not necessarily translate into ostentatious wealth.
Some responses to my questionnaire came from Emirati students talking about their own experiences of being stereotyped. Most of them were about how they felt excluded or disregarded in conversations and about people mistaking their conservativeness for close-mindedness, making it harder for them to be as open about their beliefs. Being culturally conservative does not mean that I will impose my conservativeness on others. If anything, that would go against the spirit of diversity, which is so central to NYUAD.
I have also received comments from Emiratis about non-Emiratis perceiving them as intimidating and unapproachable. Refuting those stereotypes requires people to know how to approach them. Therefore, I want to remind this community of three things.
Firstly, a single Emirati does not represent an entire population. After the RealAD show, I was congratulated by my peers for an impressive “Emirati representation.” While I wholeheartedly appreciate all the supportive comments I received, I want to emphasize that my “Emirati representation” was my own, and was not representative of all Emiratis. The Emirati population in the UAE is not as homogenous as international students assume. We’ve grown up in different settings, have different lifestyles and are unique individuals. For example, coming from Sharjah, I grew up in a more conservative society than many of my friends in Dubai may have grown up in. Secondly, Emiratis should not be regarded as a separate entity within the student body community. Yes, we do mostly go home on weekends and some of us even every day, but that does not make us any less a part of this university than everyone else. One of the biggest reasons why we are viewed as a separate entity — and as representative of each other — is perhaps because we are externally identified that way, for many Emiratis dress up in abayas and kandooras, which are the national dress. There are also many experiences that we, as people who are studying in our own country, do not share with international students. But none of these factors should be barriers between international students and Emiratis. Finally, I want to address Emirati students, who must not forget that — to a certain extent — we have a responsibility to introduce people to the UAE and to our culture, and to challenge misguided stereotypes. Nevertheless, Emirati students must also remember that they are not this country’s or the population’s spokespeople.
As Dana AlHosani, Class of 2018, said in her Marhaba 2018 welcome speech, “I am not a walking encyclopedia about the UAE when I state that I am Emirati. I may be unaware of political motives this country has, I may be confused about why mosques always have a green light, but I always welcome questions about my country, culture, and religion, and will not be ashamed to state that I may not have an answer to that question.” In other words, it’s okay to say I don’t know when you do not have an answer to certain questions. It is also okay to be confused about your own perceptions of some topics.
If we continue to dwell on the stereotypes — and if we continue to throw our own stereotypes around, whether it be anonymously on a Facebook page or as a thoughtless comment in a conversation — we will be stuck in this endless cycle of overstepping boundaries and correcting one another. When you are asking questions, be aware of the context, your language and most importantly, boundaries. Challenge stereotypes instead of asking to affirm them.
Maitha Alsuwaidi is a contributing writer. Email her at
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