Seeing the unseen in Abu Dhabi

Every city creates an image of itself to export. Berlin is an artsy hipster hub. In 2004, its mayor Klaus Wowereit said “Berlin ist arm, aber sexy” ...

Feb 15, 2014

Every city creates an image of itself to export. Berlin is an artsy hipster hub. In 2004, its mayor Klaus Wowereit said “Berlin ist arm, aber sexy” (Berlin is poor, but sexy), an image that has since been projected internationally. Los Angeles is a glitzy temple of modernism, its most enduring symbol surely being the Hollywood sign, encompassing the image of the city. When we look at cities, these ideas either entice us or push us away. These images are built upon those residents whom the cities choose to represent and equally those who are excluded.
Abu Dhabi is no stranger to the PR-posturing required of any aspiring global city. The promotional material that the government and its agencies release as well as the international guidebooks demonstrate that Abu Dhabi has a clear image. At NYU Abu Dhabi we are no stranger to this image. Indeed, we are part of it, for better or for worse. A look at the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Cultural Heritage website will make it clear that Abu Dhabi is made up of Western expats and gracious Emirati locals. The Emiratis are more than willing to display the stereotypical Arab hospitality in line with the proposed image of Western orientalists such as Wilfred Thesiger and Lawrence of Arabia. The imagery alternates between great opulence, such as images of the Emirates Palace and the modern skyline, and images of the authentic or traditional desert.
NYUAD, in its own promotional material, similarly chooses to present this side of the city. In its Living in Abu Dhabi section it extols the city as a “cosmopolitan metropolis” and notes that 80% of the inhabitants of the city are expats. The photos in the slide-show are reminiscent of the imagery the ADTCH website, which features prominently the Corniche, the Abu Dhabi skyline and the Emirates Palace. The Lonely Planet, in its section on Abu Dhabi, writes that the city is “distinctly Arab” and recommends travelers to swap between desert adventures and Arabesque delights — “start off your day with a steaming cup of kahwah.”
What all of this obscures, however, is that within that cosmopolitanism there is a skewed reality: 50% of these expats in the UAE as a whole are from South Asian backgrounds. Additionally the country has more that twice as many males as females, a figure much more accentuated in the 25-64 age range. Thus to accurately describe Abu Dhabi ,we should really refer to it as a male-dominated, predominantly South Asian city.
This new definition of Abu Dhabi can be seen in any walk through the city. Venturing out of Sama Tower in any direction, the city appears one of a displaced South Asian population. The overarching image is of a displaced South Asian population in a city not their own. The restaurants, the stores selling luggage and the travel agents with cheap tickets to the Indian subcontinent demonstrate that Abu Dhabi could not be further from the image created by its promoters, especially those who intend to reach an English speaking audience.
Furthermore, what needs to be acknowledged is that the subcontinent has had an ongoing presence in the UAE, since even before the recent oil boom. Trade links between the southeastern Arabian Peninsula and India go back to antiquity, particularly during the 19th century colonial period when the UAE was then Trucial Oman.
In light of both history and demographics, it would serve us well to realise and promote a more accurate version of Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi’s image of a culturally diverse city should include not only Emirati, Arab and Western signifiers but also the wealth of cultural contribution made by those from the Indian subcontinent who make our existence in this unforgiving desert city possible. NYUAD, being inextricably part of the official image of Abu Dhabi, would do well to note that the lived reality of Abu Dhabi is not just what one might read in a guidebook. Not only does the Arab heritage enrich our experience here, but so does the close relationship that Abu Dhabi has to its neighbours across the Arabian Sea.
Connor Pearce is opinion editor. Email him at
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