Archive for the ‘Our Society’ Category

Employment conundrum

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

This article was first featured in Gulf News on 19th August, 2011

About a month ago I was in a London cab on my way to an antique market. For most of the journey, I was obliged to listen to a talk show, blaring loudly from the speakers, the driver seemingly unaware of just how loud it was.

The topic of discussion was unemployment, and specifically the lack of ‘decent’ jobs readily available to British citizens. Apparently, and to my surprise, jobs were available though people consciously chose not to take them. This sounded all too familiar and quite intriguing.

In the UAE there are readily available skilled jobs — from carpenters and electricians to chefs, waiters, florists and construction workers. As I continued to listen, now attentively, I learnt that the UK has many jobs of this nature unfilled by its own jobless citizens.

‘Menial’ was the word used to describe them; another coincidence?

When faced with persistent unemployment and low to no income, surely any legitimate job is worth having; apparently not. The UK’s jobless are not only declining opportunities on the basis of the task at hand, but also if the location is not to their liking. It begs the question, who exactly is taking up the abundance of ‘menial’ jobs? In the UK, apparently migrant workers from eastern Europe, Russia and the Philippines. We see a similar effect in the UAE, the majority hailing from India, Pakistan and, similarly, the Philippines.

It is ironic that unemployment is regarded as a persistent problem when quite simply expatriates occupy much of certain segments of the workforce. This is the heart of the issue, and with 43,000 unemployed Emirati citizens, there can be tremendous social and economic gains by making some common sense changes to our labour force.

Winds of change

The demographic disparity is crystal clear — Emiratis are a minority of the labour force. In addition, the private sector continues to find it difficult to attract, employ and retain citizens as many Emiratis are enticed by government jobs, which pay more and have shorter working hours.

To its credit, the UAE has worked on areas such as vocational training. With organisations such as the Sharjah Institute of Technology, Abu Dhabi Education, Vocational Training Institute and twofour54 tadreeb, a lot of service sector training is available to Emiratis. These programmes are relatively small however, and the greater issue remains society’s lack of enthusiasm or, in some cases, distaste towards trades and skilled jobs, which influences Emiratis accepting, or rather rejecting, such jobs.

I recently heard of a young Emirati working as a salesperson in a department store. He truly enjoyed his job — however his only concern was that other nationals who walked in mocked him.

Pride and vision in what one does to earn an income is important. I believe that a carpenter today, for instance, could just as well grow a thriving furniture business. Looking through the history of the UAE in the 1950s, you will find that many of the successful businessmen of today started off in skilled jobs that they took pride in.

I believe the answer is to be found with support from education and media sectors. Firstly, it ought to start at the school level. Naturally, some students are less academically inclined and perhaps more successful with a physical skill. By cultivating and instilling a sense of pride in their skills, students may be subsequently guided towards more appropriate options after school. Promoting the importance of such skills and highlighting their relevance to society will certainly boost self-confidence and act as a catalyst for the acceptance of certain jobs. Second, the media can play a huge role in shifting attitudes towards the paradigm of skill-based jobs. Of note was the recently aired television campaign This is Dubai, which interviewed people of different ethnicities living and working in the UAE.

Not only did it demonstrate the hard work of the people who had given back to the country, it also exhibited their pride. For a better tomorrow, showcasing Emiratis in skill-based jobs through similar campaigns and highlighting their satisfaction through achievement is crucial.

We must move beyond social prejudices towards Emiratis adopting skill-based ‘menial’ jobs and increase awareness about the importance of integrating nationals into every sector of our economy. Not only will it help create balanced and sustainable economic development, but it will also elevate the dignity and self-respect of every citizen.

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Spend first, ask questions later

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

This article was first featured in Gulf News on the 3rd June, 2011

The last time I gave a talk at a university, I admit to getting sidetracked. Barely a few minutes into my speech, I noticed a group of three young girls in the audience, adorned head to toe in a plethora of luxury brands.

A recent study in the UAE reveals that local teens spend about $103 (Dh378) per week, nearly four times the $28 global average. In fact, the UAE comes in at second place globally after Norway in terms of youth spending. A more worrying reality is that many youngsters live far beyond their means, taking out incredibly large loans to splurge on superficial demands. Interestingly, young men take out higher loans than women, spending most heavily on luxury cars and mobile phones.

I see this trend all around me, at malls, schools and, to my utter surprise, even at clinics. Several weeks ago, whilst I sat in a waiting room for my turn, I noticed a girl, not a day over 17, looking through her bright orange Hermes bag. Baffled, I asked myself if this was the appropriate place to be carrying a bag that costs over Dh40,000. Luxury brands seem to have lost their value in the midst of these circumstances, as the novelty and days of saving to buy something special are in decline.

There is no escaping the social issues that surround residents of the Gulf. I’ve wondered about the rationale behind teenage addiction to high-end products, rather than carry a practical duffle bag to college. It seems that peer pressure is one of the reasons, demanding conformity to a certain group, and as we come from very small communities, keeping up with the Jones’ is a constant challenge. We all know how growing up can be a demanding enough experience, and most young people understandably do not wish to stand out and look odd. So if one part of a group is opting to show off by driving a fast expensive car, others will follow. If they do not have the means to be backed financially, they will opt for the quite easy choice of taking out a hefty bank loan. This is a very dangerous path to take, as the problems that come with debt — in extreme cases jail sentences — should be the last thing a young person ought to be dealing with.

The fact of the matter is that there is no borrower without a lender. The responsibility lies equally with the banks and their lending policies. In addition to already strict lending policies, perhaps more needs to be done, including educating future borrowers on the terms and consequences of these debt contracts. Borrowers need to understand that the money on loan will eventually have to be paid back, with interest. I wonder how much of this is grasped by Generation Y as they sign on the dotted line.

Lessons at a young age

Perhaps a lot has to do with what lessons are taught from a very young age. As a parent, instilling a respect for saving from a young age is prudent, no matter what social background one stems from. Learning the value of money, and living within one’s means are lessons that protect a child later in life when faced with options such as borrowing and credit. One of the world’s richest men, Warren Buffet, is known to have said that there are only two things worth getting into debt over, one’s education and house. These lessons would further imbed the values that sustainable pleasure and happiness are rarely achieved through the pursuit of material objects.

Many argue that this phenomenon of extravagance relates to the Gulf economies. A few decades ago, pre-oil, life was indeed simpler and priorities were those of survival — luxury attire was not even an option for adults, let alone a teenager. In reality, things have changed at a global level, and we are more a consumer-driven society today than any other time in history. The Gulf’s set of circumstances are amplified by a higher concentration of wealth in a smaller geographic area. This results in sizeable disparities that further accentuate the issue.

It needn’t be this way. Young people at college can live the carefree life they deserve, concentrating more on their studies and the real pleasures of life, not having to worry about the next haute couture outfit in their wardrobe. It only requires instilling different values into them from a very young age. What a difference this would make if everyone shared these attitudes.

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Egyptian bedouins face a minefield of problems

Monday, March 14th, 2011

This article was first featured in Gulf News on the 4th March, 2011

Desert people losing limb and life to World War II landmines for years lament the lack of government support and compensation.

Egyptians eagerly took their cue from the grassroots revolution of neighbouring Tunisia and succeeded in toppling their long-time president Hosni Mubarak. But the topic of this column traverses a much longer timeframe and looks at a large part of Egypt that has been neglected.

The Al Alamein Desert is a vast expanse of land; a mirage that disguises the claws left from the Second World War — a land infested with millions of landmines.

In 1942, Egypt found itself at the centre of one of the most catastrophic clashes of that decade — the battle of Al Alamein. The incident was one of the Second World War’s many tragedies, but few have persisted as this one has today.

Between German and British commanders Erwin Rommel and Bernard Montgomery, European and Middle Eastern blood soaked this parched corner of the Saharan desert. Rommel was defeated; he retreated and left those sands over 60 years ago but the landmines, bombs and mortars still sleep under this large stretch of desert, 150 miles west of Cairo.

Attempting to find the whereabouts of the landmines is both a tedious and incredibly difficult process, as they are buried deep in the sand.

I find myself asking why the bedouins have to suffer the consequences of history. Generations of Al Alamein bedouins, having never witnessed troubles of the 1940s, pay a price to remain on their rightful lands and face atrocious ongoing suffering. Countless children have lost limbs playing in the desert sands. Fathers are kept from supporting their families as a result of losing legs, their sight and in many case their lives, to landmines. They lament the lack of government support and compensation.

According to Landmine Monitor, a report published by the largest anti-landmine initiative, the total number of landmine casualties in Egypt isn’t easy to identify. In February 1999, it was reported that landmines had claimed 8,313 victims (696 killed and 7,617 injured).

More recently, 2009 figures as tracked by Land Mine Monitor number 41 casualties, around half of which resulted in fatalities and included mostly men and children. These are the people for whom bloodshed did not end at the battle of Al Alamein.

Misplaced priorities

Shockingly, the Egyptian government has refrained from joining the 156 countries to sign the Mine Ban or Ottawa Treaty. They were far too busy dwelling on the paranoid strain in Egypt’s politics that runs deep.

It is estimated that Egypt’s Western Desert is home to 16 million pieces of unexploded ordinance. About 10 per cent of this stretch of land is rendered useless for cultivation as a result of landmines, impacting the livelihood of the Bedouins who rely largely on agricultural incomes.

A more recent turn of events suggests that the Western Desert may potentially be home to significant oil and gas reserves. In 2009 the government did clear 130 square metres of land from mines, however this remains a fraction of the total 2,800 square metres of land that poses an ongoing risk.

Innovative methods in landmine clearance have been recently developed. One particularly successful international organisation known as APOPO has been locating and removing landmines with the help of trained sniffer rodents.

The initiative, based on thorough research, follows a coordinated strategy that brings together some of the best experts in the field of behavioural research, animal training and environmental chemistry.

The African Giant Pouched Rat has a very acute sense of smell, is easy to breed and maintain as well as being relatively easy to transport.

Consequently, APOPO has attracted many acclaimed partners including the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and Antwerp University. Locating landmines is a complex process and so considerable efforts are put into training the rats to carry out the correct procedure.

APOPO has been operating in Mozambique since 2003 delivering a low cost, efficient mine detection solution using mostly local resources. I stress on introducing an affordable solution, as given Egypt’s economic standing and its dependence on foreign aid, a costly solution is likely to encounter resistance.

The APOPO approach tackles the landmine problem without relying on either foreign aid or donor support.

If Egypt can feel fearful about its somewhat unpredictable current political status, it can appear dysfunctional to its bedouin inhabitants who live in the Al Alamein desert. If they allowed their justifiable fears to propel them into useful action, they would take two steps.

Urge Egypt to put a substantial budget aside for thoroughly studying the landmine issue. Second, seek solutions such as those proven to work like APOPO, where cost is not a deterrent.

The Egyptian bedouins, having lost the most, will likely feel a sense of relief. But I can only come away with the passionately held belief that these desert people deserve far better.

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Less is more during Ramadan

Friday, August 27th, 2010

This article was first featured in Gulf News on the 20th August, 2010

Begging, gluttony and extravagance should not be part of the month of fasting.

I recently visited a superb exhibition in Washington, D.C. by a Korean artist and came away intrigued by her work, which depicted three quite shocking human characteristics — begging, gluttony and extravagance. As I made the return journey home to Dubai to spend the month of Ramadan close to my family and the beautiful sounds of the athan (call to prayer), I was bewildered to find those exact three characteristics prevalent in my own city. Not exactly what Ramadan is meant to be about, is it.

Ramadan is undoubtedly a month of giving and one of the pillars of Islam is zakat — the giving of 2.5 per cent of your annual income to the less fortunate — a noble initiative. Muslims are sincere about helping others, and particularly during this month. Upon entering our office building in the first week of Ramadan, I found myself surrounded by a sea of beggars sitting on the floor, and others keenly negotiating with the security guard to let them into the elevators. Witnessing a scene like that is heart-wrenching — who does not want to help people in need? Those same scenes can also be unnerving. Last year, Dubai Police arrested 618 beggars — of which more than half were caught during the month of Ramadan. Shockingly, most of these individuals were found to be members of organised gangs, many even travelling from abroad to shamefully profit from this month. Some of those prosecuted were even proprietors of real-estate businesses financed with money earned from begging.

Another noticeably contradictory characteristic to the essence of Ramadan is overeating. As people stress on how this month is about cleansing, detoxifying and empathising with people who have less food than ourselves, I find us doing the exact opposite. Although gluttony is quite a strong and repulsive word, it does describe the motions of people once the call to end the fast is heard. The massive explosion of food and beverage adverts on television during this month exemplifies the frenzy of self-indulgent feasting. As many households complete their first meals of the day, plenty of food remains as the sufra (dinner table) has been stacked with dishes from every country and origin, many sent by friends and family members. I recall an anecdote where one woman sent out a dish and it went round the entire city and ended up back at her house that evening. The overabundant food in this month of restraint and spirituality has in many cases made people careless and negligent.

My final concern is unnecessary spending. Although our society is consumption-orientated, and not just in this month or region, I would have liked to think that people would have taken steps given the time of year. As I walk through the malls I find that people are still overindulging in every product and item available.


Fasting is intended to teach Muslims the virtues of patience, humility and spirituality, and is carried out as an offering to God. This is the glorious intention of most Muslims, and many are to be applauded for their generosity and humility at this time of year. But things are not always as rosy as we would like them to be — reality does also come into the equation.

When it comes to the issue of begging, perhaps authorities should explore the merits of a rights-based approach. Professional begging violates human rights and integrity — especially the rights of the children and the disabled, who are often taken advantage of in harsh conditions. Professional beggars often mistreat children on the street in the interest of attracting attention and soliciting charity. In the battle against begging, authorities may also approach people in need via social aid teams, discussing the reasons individuals begin begging and proposing solutions. These same people ought to be directed to the social aid government departments and various charities that give out monetary assistance, as they can help to guide them. Defining instances of real social problems resulting from professional begging is key in turning this issue round.

As media play a substantial part in defining our thought process, it would be refreshing to see a responsible campaign reminding us of the humbleness and humility demanded by Ramadan. Instead of preparing an abundance of meals that go to waste, we may want to think of preparing less and spend the same amount of money on people truly in need. I would like to see the same campaign speak about the need for less extravagance in our society.

After all, if we are serious about respecting Ramadan as more than simply a tradition, then perhaps that respect should be reflected in as many areas as possible, so that the true spirit of it is felt in a tangible way by all who need it, and not just by those who can afford it.

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The pragmatic hub of art in the region

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

This article was first featured in Gulf News on the 2nd April, 2010

Dubai isn’t quite there yet, but with a bit of fine-tuning there is no reason why it shouldn’t seize the initiative.

After a week of taking in all the art at Art Dubai and Bastakiya Art Fair, I felt quite invigorated to say the least. Both fairs were extraordinary — one very up-market with visitors dressed to the nines strutting their latest Manolo Blahniks, seen analysing Kader Attia’s deafening installation History of a Myth: The Small Dome of the Rock , and the latter boho-chic and relaxed in what it had to offer. It was very refreshing; I felt that many of the pieces of art crossed the line in their subject matter and at the end of the day that is essentially what art is meant to do — leave you pondering, or in extreme cases quite horrified, about a certain message. Despite the critics condemning the fairs’ censorship policy, Art Dubai left me asking one significant question: As the city of Dubai moves in this creative and commercial direction, are we really getting it absolutely right?

Art Dubai certainly proves that the world of art and culture in the region has moved from the traditional notion of a gatekeeper ministry approach to private and semi-government institutions moving things forward in a positive manner. This avant-garde fair idea takes a great deal of foresight for a city in this region and yet again Dubai has proven that it has taken the initiative and jumped first onto the bandwagon. Take the Bidoun Lounge Art Park and the Global Art Forum for example — substantially off-beat talks where people interested in the world of art get together very informally to hear international curators, artists and collectors share their views. Over the years they have proved to be stimulating. This shows that Dubai can be a pragmatic art hub of East meets West, where debates occur. After all, we are geographically placed in the middle of both worlds and demographically we qualify as a city with a critical mass of over 180 nationalities living and working together. This all sounds very positive, and coupled with a large amount of wealth owned by many collectors in the region and the many galleries that already exist, Dubai seems to be on an ideal cultural pedestal moving towards the success level of fairs such as Art Basel Miami and Frieze in London. Nevertheless, I believe the city has a great deal to get right before it is close to being dubbed the ‘pragmatic hub’ of art in the Middle East.

Firstly, and at the top of my list, is the creation of art-education institutions that cultivate and incubate creative young minds. On the periphery, Dubai does have some good non-profit organisations — such as Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre — which continuously feed the minds of young people and adults in the fields of art, drama and music. However, my interest lies in the educational institutions of a higher level such as universities that teach the fine arts. Once this happens, we will see the emergence of many talented Emirati artists who would look up to and learn from legends of the previous generation such as Najat Makki and Abdul Qader Al Rais, and see them entering into international auctions such as Christie’s and Bonham’s as their predecessors did.

Public art

Secondly, I would like to see the development of art in public spaces. Aren’t urban developments meant to be where people learn to appreciate the meaning behind creative installations and sculptures? This has an impact on their understanding of each piece of art that they will ever come across. I am a great believer in art in public spaces — so much so that I feel we need to create a designated committee to this end. In the 1970s we did see an abundance of sculptures, such as falcons and traditional coffee cups, all over the country, but after that not much was created. These creative installations could be placed everywhere, from park benches to main roads, from designs on metro manhole covers to architectural building designs. This is one of the ways that we can inculcate a sense of curiosity and innovation in the minds of our youth.

Last but not least, we need to witness the birth of our very own Middle Eastern Contemporary Art Museum. The wave of visitors at Art Dubai certainly proves that there has been a thirst in the region for something as substantial as this. With prominent collectors such as Sultan Sooud Al Qasimi and artists that exist within the region who have personally told me they would fully endorse the idea by donating some of their top pieces, I am absolutely sure that we can put together an impressive museum that would attract the mobile population of the UAE and many people from all over the worldwho visit.

For argument’s sake, let us go back to the original question. Is Dubai the pragmatic art hub of the Middle East? Perhaps not at the moment, but it is certainly on its way there. We just need to inject some of the above to get there a bit faster.

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Monocultural youth; bane or boon?

Monday, January 18th, 2010

Many people keep asking me about my views on Arab youth. So I decided to give it a good think, before writing my latest article. I noticed that when I would go to the malls I would find a very distinct resemblence in youth from all over the world. Their gestures, hairstyles, fashion sense and even sometimes language are all very similar in nature – sometimes to a point where I cannot tell where they originate from. Not quite sure if this is a good or bad thing, I am however sure of one thing – media plays a big role in influencing our youth. Read on for more…

This article was first featured in Gulf News on the 15th January, 2010
As I sipped my cappuccino at Jumeirah Beach Residence on a pleasant summer morning, I couldn’t help but notice the young Emiratis in front of me.  Long haired boys in kanduras listened to their iPods, others sported baggy jeans and Ed Hardy caps. A group of beijing girls on the adjacent table took one another’s photos on their digital cameras and I could tell they were uploading them on their blackberry Facebook accounts every five minutes. The scene was familiar, I thought to myself, so familiar in fact that it took me back to one summer morning in Barcelona as I watched a Spanish group of teenagers. This recent uniformity of the global youth is a fascinating equivalent to a Rubik’s cube – a juxtaposition of different colours that come together as one strong identity.

Western and Middle Eastern youngsters seem to have very similar consumer and lifestyle habits; they indulge themselves in similar activities and use similar technologies. I see this uniformity in our youth as a global phenomenon driven by globalisation. Yes the world may be flat, and our youth’s attitude and behaviour are the result of this flatness. The omnipresent influence of media such as MTV, Time Warner and Showtime are some of the most powerful drivers in shaping our youth. At a time when Hollywood and its affiliates now generate $10.6 billion dollars annually, one cannot deny the significance of this influence. This development has a huge impact on the metamorphosis of a generation who are perhaps inclined to view the West as an inspirational utopia. Even in developed markets such as Japan, the highly popular Anime cartoons with large eyes and light coloured hair have a huge impact on the appearance of their youth; although these cartoon characters have more western features and no longer resemble ethnic Japanese. It is hard to differentiate your average teenager walking the streets of Tokyo from his or her counterpart strolling down Fifth Avenue; bane or boon?

With history as a guide, in the eighteenth century, when novels were first published many were concerned that readers, especially the young, would be corrupted by the licentious and immoral behaviour described within. By the twentieth century the potential causes for concern had proliferated dramatically. Today media experiences seem to multiply month on month, and while much concern about their influence on young people may represent older worries in new forms, the media ecology of today’s youth presents a new frontier that offers unique challenges.

A child born in the 1930s might have spent as much as several hours a week listening to the radio, reading comic books, newspapers or magazines. Since television was first introduced in the 1950s the number of hours young people spend interacting in some way with media have increased to an extent far beyond the youthful imagination of today’s grandparents. According to Nielsen’s Media Research today young people spend up to five hours a day interacting with electronic media.

The effects of the growth in power wielded by the media are colossal. In conservative countries behaviour such as cultural abandonment, identity crises and generally negative attitudes are cause for concern. In the Middle East parents may not necessarily want their children to adopt the social behavioral patterns of Western counterparts.  Regardless of its positive or negative connotations, it might prove to be difficult to impede, as to many youth these elements define being young. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have enabled the youth to all be part of that big Rubik’s cube.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. Absolute uniformity of any society is rarely a positive outcome and although we may deem it necessary to go out of our way to teach new generations about our culture and history and guide them in terms of their identity, in doing so the media can be a powerful ally. At a recent TED talk UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown said “We are at a unique moment in history, we can use today’s interconnectedness to develop our shared global ethic – and work together to confront the challenges of poverty, security, climate change and the economy.” I find todays Arab youth (which make up 60% of the population) to be both creative and technologically proficient .Take Firas Shamsan – he started a ‘Life is beautiful without smoking’ blog in Qat-stricken Yemen and reached thousands of people from all over the Arab world and helped many overcome their smoking addictions. To add, the creation of new organizations such as Young Arab Leaders means the youth are given an identifiable, positive standard to aspire towards . These social initiatives all address important issues and are equally facilitated by technology. A well designed and executed media strategy not only draws on a populations creativity but, with proper oversight, can also encourage our youths pro-active approach in positively shaping their future.

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