The UAE is in the middle of a modern-day gold rush. Despite the optimistic connotations behind any subject regarding a gold rush, the UAE, like nineteenth century California, is experiencing a social identity crisis. Unfree labor systems, similar to California’s unfree labor systems that rendered Chinese, African, and Native American statuses nearly as slaves, exist in the UAE, yielding a work force population that outnumbers the local Emirati population. Legislation to allow foreigners to own property in the UAE has resulted in cosmopolitan demographics similar to nineteenth century San Francisco’s bay area. Dubai and Abu Dhabi, as tax-free havens that gain revenue from real-estate and oil, respectively, are attracting expatriates from all over the globe – much like how San Francisco and Los Angeles attracted foreigners to their streets. The gender ratios in Abu Dhabi and Dubai resemble the gender ratios in nineteenth century San Francisco and Los Angeles, which creates a society dominated by patriarchal interests. When combining the aforementioned characteristics between the UAE and nineteenth century California, it is fair to conclude that the UAE currently lacks a stable religious and cultural identity – Gold Rush era San Francisco and Los Angeles can be described in the same way.
Both nineteenth century California and today’s UAE ban slavery. California entered the United States union as a free state under the compromise of 1850. The UAE, like any other modern state, bans slavery in order to abide by international law (alongside ethics, religion, etc.). Today, however, the UAE controls a workforce that is 85% foreign and subject to contract loopholes (wage deflation, immigration manipulation), low standards of living (lack of housing, water, electricity), and racial discrimination (a majority of the foreign workforce is South Asian – South Asians are barely given the same civil opportunities as other ethnic groups and the natives). Nineteenth century California also controlled a familiar unfree labor force, in which Chinese coolies, African slaves, and Native Americans were often given false information concerning their contracts and their rights as employees. Unfree laborers in both scenarios were responsible for building the infrastructure of cities and provided an avenue for businesses to yield higher profits at the expense of unfair labor wages. Since unfree labor practices are much much more discouraged in California today, one can predict that the UAE will eventually cease the overlooking of unfair labor practices and consequently host a middle class of hundreds of nationalities (Dubai is home to 200 nationalities). Regardless of future legislation, the investments that the UAE made towards possessing a large foreign workforce have created an impact in the UAE’s social identity. Foreign laborers, and other foreigners alike, will continue to immigrate to the UAE, which will ultimately resemble the large immigration numbers that poured into Gold Rush and Reconstruction era San Francisco upon end of rampant unfree labor practices.
Along with an unfree, largely foreign work force, both nineteenth century California and today’s UAE have fostered foundations for stable cosmopolitan societies. San Francisco owes its culture to the contributions of foreign residents. After all, San Francisco today is regarded as one of the most liberal cities in the world, due to its activities surrounding homosexual rights, diverse cuisine, concentrated ethnic communities, and its cosmopolitan demographics. Dubai parallels Gold Rush San Francisco. Dubai’s residents speak a myriad of languages, including Arabic, English, Malayalam, and Tagalog; most of Dubai’s buildings were designed by European architecture firms (the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, was designed by 4 expatriate architects who worked for Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill architect firm); and plenty of expatriates were allowed to own property. As a result, Dubai and Abu Dhabi have rendered the UAE to be less “Emirati” and much more “cosmopolitan”. Descriptions of Gold Rush San Francisco are almost identical to Dubai; various accounts by gold rush merchants mention San Francisco restaurants projecting various languages, social customs, and cuisines. The ultimate impetus to these cosmopolitan creations is the demand for foreign investment stemming from Californian and Emirati authorities themselves. California’s government repeatedly encouraged Americans and their associated foreign laborers to come and invest in California businesses. The UAE’s ubiquitous shopping rarely involves local businesses; designer brands from France, Spain, Britain, coupled with American fast food companies and Indian car manufacturers, cast shadows over local entrepreneurs. The UAE authorities view the pervasive cosmopolitan ambiance as a side effect of modernization, despite the Emirati culture having little historical interaction with the rest of the world. What the Emirati social scene possesses is not Emirati any longer. The forces of society in the UAE will, in the future, direct the country to a different identity and thus likely lead to debates about the future cultural impressions of the UAE. California faced the same discussions when talking about voting rights for the Chinese and Native Americans.
California gold yielded riches for many males who were raised within low income families. The UAE’s real-estate, food, tourism, and oil businesses have yielded the same riches for the same kinds of individual males. Thousands of UAE’s British expatriates, who make up 30% of the UAE expatriate population, earn more than $200,000 a year after living in the country for 4 years. Many of such expatriates expected to live in the UAE for only a few years in order to reap the benefits of a tax-free business environment and subsequently return home with more money in their pockets. Analogous to the Gold Rush settlers who ended up staying in California beyond their planned years of residence, many expatriates ultimately decide to live in Dubai due to beneficial business factors, property ownership, and other personal reasons. Indeed, it seemed much more costly to many expatriates to return to their native countries and attempt to strike it rich in a tough job market. This entire situation highlights common historical trends in migration; in the next few decades, we will see a variety of expatriates become categorized in contrasting socioeconomic statuses as the current flexible UAE job market turns into a competitive one. Upon the arrival of this scheme, the UAE government may consider destructive legislation if the native population suffers from such a hostile job market. Similar events occurred in nineteenth century California when slavery, coolies, and elite property owners threatened the American middle class in California.
It is a given that more males than females live in the UAE, due to previously mentioned business and cultural reasons (the UAE houses a local patriarchal society). However, the gender ratio is heavily unbalanced. Dubai’s gender ratio is three men to one woman. This reflects a near equal gender ratio documented in Gold Rush San Francisco. When an unbalanced gender ratio meets a hyperactive capitalist market, distinct social patterns begin to appear. In Gold Rush San Francisco, prostitution was a large business and interracial sex was often committed. The gold rush merchants and miners, who were mostly male, usually travelled to California without possession of a spouse. The same social patterns are present in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Expatriate men often participate in Dubai and Abu Dhabi nightlife through prostitution, nightclubs, and other forms of sex entertainment. Women from around the world are also attracted to the UAE’s “underground” demand for female sex entertainers. Reports of human trafficking are still being issued towards the UAE government, and journalists have recently been paying more attention to the underground UAE sex scene. Furthermore, illegitimate births have been taking place in the UAE, and most reports are often censored by UAE government officials. Besides sexual demand, the largely expatriate male population is influencing the entire UAE social identity. Emirati men have historically aspired for a strong patriarchal society; however, since most males in the UAE are expatriates, the patriarchal nature of the country is transforming into an expatriate persona. Present laws regarding women’s rights (particularly prior to the Expo 2020 decisions) have been amended in favor towards women due to the present business influences exerted by expatriate business players. At this rate, the social identity that the United Arab Emirates initially adapted will be erased if the country prioritizes its revenue over its culture.
It was hard to predict whether California would be home to a continuously diverse, economically capable state in the future. It was also hard to predict whether the cosmopolitan stability of the state would ever be at risk. Thankfully, through history itself, California now approaches the world stage as an exemplary land boasting technological innovations, cohesive (though still slightly unstable) communities, and a grand identity that is a testament to human capability. One hopes for the same optimistic results for UAE’s cities. The current instability now may yield a solid social identity in the future. After all, UAE acknowledges its diversity, and has thus won the bid for Expo 2020 due to its economic potential and successful housing of expatriates (in many varying degrees). This still begs the question surrounding UAE’s social identity. Since the country’s religious and cultural identity, as an Emirati state, are being eroded, will it lead to a direction that the UAE authorities want it to go? Will it yield a leadership position in the Arabian peninsula in terms of expatriate rights and cosmopolitan-Arab culture (UAE has already set the tone for other countries to follow its economic and social models, with similar benefits and costs arising). Will the next “Emirati” not be as Emirati as the initial Emirati? Will the United States soon deal with a country that has followed and brought results from its Gold Rush social trends? Time will tell, for the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi are effectively less than 2 decades old. Urban growth has always been accelerating, yet human social activity rates cannot be as easily manipulated.
The UAE, based on present social trends compared to historical trends, is a mirror of nineteenth century California. Expatriates from around the world have been flocking to UAE’s biggest cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, to reap the benefits of a tax-free haven, high quality property, and a new network of businesses. As a result of such fast migration, gender ratios have become unbalanced, employers are resorting to systems of unfree labor, and a cosmopolitan identity is slowly replacing the local Emirati culture that starkly contrasts with cosmopolitan ideals for change, free markets, and cultural diffusion. Nineteenth century California clearly possessed unfree labor systems as a free state, possessed unbalanced gender ratios, had a record number of migrants enter the state, and adopted a cosmopolitan state of mind that differed from the rhetoric of Californian authorities and, better yet, the entire nation. California eventually set the standards for the United States to adopt a social identity of interracial acceptance and human rights. Will the same scenario occur in the UAE and, possibly, its neighbors? Will the UAE set an example in the Arab World as an Arab country that is not as Arab as it used to be, but is still Arab? After all, America still houses Americans, and these very Americans come from places all over the map. The UAE may have to start envisioning its place in the world in the next century, when more than two new generations will hold the power to steer the UAE in a desirable direction. The UAE has many choices to choose from, and it may have to decide along the rubrics of nineteenth century California, a state with a rigid cosmopolitan past that turned into a state with a flexible cosmopolitan future.