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How Dubai became the ‘third-culture’ hub of the East

How Dubai became the ‘third-culture’ hub of the East

How Dubai became a hub for ‘third-culture kids’, why young people are drawn to the emirate, and how it is shaping the social landscape

Burj Khalifa[2] dubai

Where are you from? Where is home? How long have you been in Dubai? How many times have you answered these questions over the months and years as a resident of Dubai? Considering the fact that at least 85 per cent of the emirates’ population is comprised of expatriates, many of us are acutely aware of the fact that we all come from a number of different countries around the world.

While many have travelled from war-torn or underdeveloped countries looking for safety and security, many have come to Dubai from developed countries also looking for security as well as prosperity and opportunity. Historically, Dubai has been a main hub for migration from Arab countries in the Levant region as well as the Indian Subcontinent. Dating back to when the first census was undertaken in 1975, non-nationals comprised of 63.9 per cent of the population and that number grew steadily year-on-year to 88.5 per cent as of 2010.

Bearing in mind that there is a heavy expatriate population, all of which have to be sponsored for residency either through an employer or by a family member, there is a tangible feeling of transiency. Surely some come for a few years and go back home or onto somewhere new, but it’s more often the case that someone’s three-year plan turns into six, then 12, and so on. Over those years, people inevitably have families, bring family members from back home and ultimately build a life in Dubai.

Over the years, there are a number of families who came to Dubai, settled down and had children who are born and raised in the country. While safety is one of the most obvious cornerstones of life in the UAE, growing up in a place that you are not rooted in ethnically most likely means that the culture you exhibit through the food you eat and the language you speak is different than that of the place you are living or may have even been born in.

Globalisation has commonly been thought of as the spread of food and smartphones, but today it is about people. Globalisation has spread numerous ethnicities far and wide over just about every geographic space. The social fabric of the UAE, and Dubai in particular, is akin to other melting pots such as Australia, Canada, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States. Among this group of countries, what is particularly interesting about the UAE is the fact that there is not a pathway to permanent residency or citizenship, at least not yet. In fact, this reality is actually exceptional in the fact that this allows one to participate in the culture of the place they were born in while retaining more of their parent’s culture.

What is also exceptional is the fact that there is such a level of diversity present today that the picture is not as clear cut as having one culture or another. The phenomenon of ‘third-culture kids’ was originally coined by John and Ruth Useem for the children of American parents working abroad. A third culture is present when a child has parents who come from two different cultures, and that child is growing up in a third culture. Alternatively, the term can also apply to children who have parents of the same culture, are born into a second culture and then raised in a third place. In either instance, the third culture is the one that the individual negotiates as it’s the one that draws the others together. That sounds arbitrary, and in all actuality what this means is that you probably speak English and one or two other languages fluently, may have more than one passport, and have lived and worked in more than one country by the time you are 30.

While the phrase ‘third-culture kid’ has a lot of meaning, the word culture in and of itself has a multitude of layers. Culture is subjective for everyone, and includes everything from language, food, religion, clothing, music, sports, movies; the list goes on. However, today those lines are blurred as everything has become mixed together. People speak of being global citizens and polyglots, and for some, by the time they have reached the age of 25, they have more stamps in their passports than others would have acquired in two lifetimes.

I once met a young woman in Paris whose father was Persian and her mother was Danish. She was born in Hong Kong, grew up in Singapore, went to boarding school in the United Kingdom and lived in Paris for graduate school. She was fluent in five languages and held two nationalities. While most people would marvel at the amalgamation of factors present in just one individual, you can imagine the answer to; “where are you from?” is quite complex.

But that is just it; the world is a really complex place today. There are unspeakable atrocities happening every day from wars to the now tangible effects of global warming. Political and economic uncertainty, all with policy repercussions, due to large nationalist agendas in the United States and across Europe has led many to think they are better off living somewhere where their prosperity and that of their children is not hindered by the convulsions of those systems.

A prominent goal for generations has been to migrate to the West, but let’s be honest, the idea of having the quintessential 2.5 kids and a white picket fence is no more. Today, despite working hard, you are competing with a ton of kids from all around the world not only for a spot in a top school but also in any good company. Crime has become rampant in so many western cities as nationalism threatens to tear apart communities, so not only are millennials looking outside the bounds of their country where they can build a life, but the older generations are looking for somewhere that is safe and sound for retirement. Although the place I was born in privileged me with a passport that allows access for work and travel in more places than I can count, one place in particular stands out when I look at a map.

Like many, what drew me to Dubai was not the superficialities people sometimes associate with the emirate. For me, Dubai was a logical and very practical decision, and one that more and more young people are needing to undertake. In just under 50 years the UAE has built an infrastructure that beats that of developed nations, and has managed to attract the business acumen and human talent to build just about everything else.

In 2017, the UAE was ranked second only to Finland as the safest country to live. The United Nations University for Safety and Environment ranked the UAE as one of the least likely to experience a natural disaster with a probability of only 2 per cent. All in all, the country’s leadership affords both nationals and non-nationals a lot, but most of all it offers a peace of mind. Having that, you can put your energy into your career and personal life. It is really a calculation that is as simple as that.

The leadership is always looking at increasing the country’s competitiveness and I have no doubt that will be the case for many years to come. Looking around, the whole city, actually the whole country, is practically under construction and it’s for something much bigger than just Expo 2020. For many who have already been here, and the many more who have yet to come, Dubai is home.

Carla Maria Issa is senior research analyst at Property Finder

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