Donald Trump loomed large this year. Photo: Getty
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Books of the year 2017, part two: chosen by Nicola Sturgeon, Alan Johnson, Sara Baume and others

The New Statesman's friends and contributors recommend their top reads from the last 12 months.

Read part one of our guide to the best books of 2017 here.

 

Nicola Sturgeon

The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Doubleday) by John Boyne is a big, sweeping novel. We visit Cyril Avery at seven-year intervals, following his life’s journey from birth to an unwed Irish mother and adoption by an odd Dublin couple (“You’re not a real Avery,” they frequently remind him) to his struggles to come to terms with his homosexuality and find a sense of belonging.

It is as much the story of modern Ireland as the story of one man. The novel begins in 1945 with Avery’s mother cast out of her community and ends just as Ireland votes to legalise gay marriage – a country making peace with its past and finally allowing Avery to feel at home. It is a beautifully written epic and will make you laugh and cry in equal measure.

Ed Balls

With Donald Trump in the White House, American politics in chaos and US foreign policy bafflingly obscure, what better time to be the BBC’s North America editor? Jon Sopel is clearly having a ball, and If Only They Didn’t Speak English: Notes from Trump’s America (BBC Books) is entertaining and insightful in equal measure. Sopel reflects thoughtfully on what is going on and his chapter on the epidemic of prescription drug addiction that is sweeping America is especially worth reading.

John Burnside

Whenever Kay Redfield Jamison publishes a new book, a part of my world seems to be illumined, the colours become clearer and the shadows more distinct, and superstitions and magical thinking are dispelled. This year is no exception. Her wise and compassionate biography Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire (Knopf) not only reminded me of that poet’s particular gifts but made me think about the nature of creativity and the slapdash thinking we apply to those who endure the burden of an unquiet mind.

As for poetry, it was a rather thin year, but one book by David Harsent makes up for a great deal, and Salt (Faber & Faber) is a masterpiece.

John Bew

In the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, the standout biography is about the man who lowered the hammer and sickle flag. Gorbachev: His Life and Times (Simon & Schuster) is a fitting sequel to William Taubman’s previous biography of Nikita Khrushchev, which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2004.

Mark Mazower’s What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home (Allen Lane) began from conversations about family history with the author’s father. It fans out into a remarkable narrative that spans 20th-century Europe and pivots around the story of his Russian revolutionary socialist grandfather, Max, who fled to England in 1909.

Rachel Reeves

Harriet Harman’s autobiography, A Woman’s Work (Allen Lane), is a personal memoir but also the story of women in politics and public life. Since Harriet entered parliament in 1982 – pregnant with her first child – she has seen the number of women MPs increase to more than 200. Many of us are there because of her – but most important is her work to improve the lives of women across the country, from maternity leave to helping women fleeing domestic violence.

There is still a stigma associated with loneliness and the Jo Cox commission on loneliness, which I have co-chaired since Jo was murdered, shines a spotlight on its causes and effects. That is exactly what Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine (HarperCollins), does, too. It is a beautiful, often funny, sometimes heartbreaking novel, and a reminder that there is a need in all of us for love, kindness and meaning.

Mehdi Hasan

Raise your hand if you think, like I do, that Donald Trump is madder than a box of frogs – or if the thought of his short finger on the nuclear button keeps you awake at night. Now we have a book featuring the verdicts of 27 psychiatrists and mental health experts to confirm our worst fears. The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump (Thomas Dunne Books) joins the dots between the US president’s “extreme present hedonism”, “malignant narcissism” and “sociopathic characteristics”. The book’s editor, Bandy Lee, told me that her concern is that Trump’s condition is “actually probably far worse than people are detecting now” and that “the worst is yet to come”. We can’t say we weren’t warned.

The Unquotable Trump by R Sikoryak (Drawn & Quarterly) reimagines famous comic book covers using real Trump utterances. Picture: © 2017 R Sikoryak

Susan Hill

In a year of outstanding non-fiction, Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own (Viking) shines. Her lives of past writers are meticulously researched but devoid of dryness. Now she looks unflinchingly back at her own life, scarred by griefs, struggles, turbulence and – for so calm and gentle a woman – occasional bad behaviour. This is a piercing book: honest, moving, vivid.

Celebrities who turn to writing children’s books usually do so cynically. Not David Walliams. Bad Dad (HarperCollins) is a blast. Kids will adore it. So did I.

Tom Holland

Richard Beard is a writer whose novels are as clever as they are affecting and as experimental as they are gripping – so it did not surprise me that The Day That Went Missing (Harvill Secker), an account of how, as a boy, he watched his brother drown on a family holiday, should be a misery memoir like no other. A study in bereavement, it is very much more than that: an interrogation of memory, of the English class system, of the limits of language. It also features a surprising amount of cricket. I read nothing this year that I admired quite as much.

Emily Wilson

One of the most striking new books about the legacy of Greco-Roman antiquity is The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity by Johanna Hanink (Harvard University Press), which sets the Greek economic debt crisis against the cultural “debt” that modern Greeks still feel to antiquity and argues that idealising visions of it have had a damaging effect on contemporary European identity.

In fictional responses to the Classics, I very much enjoyed and admired Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury Circus), a politically and psychologically acute novel modelled on Sophocles’s Antigone – but reworked as the story of two British Muslim sisters and their jihadist brother.

Alan Johnson

I have loved every Salman Rushdie book I have read and The Golden House (Jonathan Cape) is no exception. Woven into its rich fabric are huge contemporary themes: the suspicion of experts, gender identification, the Trump phenomenon. I have friends who can’t get past the first sentence of a Rushdie novel – but the glorious opening line here is almost worth buying the book for.

Alan Bennett must be tired of being described as whimsical. As A Life Like Other People’s (Faber & Faber) demonstrates, the adjective is insufficient. He is a superbly gifted observer of the human condition and this book moved me more than anything else I’ve read this year.

Ahdaf Soueif

I enjoyed two books in particular. One tells the story of a boy and a girl living in a small, specific, enclosed location; the other discusses the state of the entire world and why it is how it is today. Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present (Allen Lane) makes fresh and significant associations between historic moments in different parts of the world over the past 200 years.

William Sutcliffe’s We See Everything (Bloomsbury Children’s Books) is confined to a dystopian, circumscribed London, patrolled by the murderous drones of the enemy. Both books describe our world: a world where politics has almost ended and money and brute force have taken over.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce

Two books made me think about what it is to be human, from two different directions. In To Be a Machine (Granta), Mark O’Connell recounts his encounters – some hair-raising, some hilarious – with those who believe that the future of our species lies in a merger with machines.

While O’Connell’s engineers try to build computers that mimic our ways of thinking, Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life (William Collins) describes an intelligence so different from our own that it makes you question what intelligence means, in a book that is full of wonder and tough questions.

Sebastian Barry

I’ve always leaned on poetry as something more thrilling than… well, almost anything – religion, for instance. The older I get, the more essential poetry seems and, alas, the converse for the latter. Two books from this year give further proof of this: Sinéad Morrissey’s starry poetic engineering in On Balance (Carcanet) and Michael Longley’s angelic Angel Hill (Jonathan Cape), which was also proof, maybe, that Homer never died. Northern Ireland’s poets continue to outstare miserable politics and offer instead the better firearms of beauty and truth.

Jon McGregor

Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (Hamish Hamilton) is a series of wonderful, thorny, scrupulous essays about writing and life, and the writing life. It is generous and fearless and difficult to hold in your hands.

Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Corsair) is an excellent collection of poems. Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing (Bloomsbury Circus) is a novel as blazingly hymn-like as its title suggests.

Sara Baume

The book that left the most indelible mark on me was To Be a Machine (Granta) by Mark O’Connell, which describes the author’s journey through the transhumanist movement. After reading it, I dreamed of severed heads and super-intelligent robots. O’Connell’s style is at once sceptical and open and warm; his book is both frightening and full of humanity.

In the aftermath of Attrib and Other Stories by Eley Williams (Influx Press), I had to resist the urge to weigh every book in my house in order to find the heaviest. It left a gentler mark, but no less stubborn.

Rowan Williams

Among new novels, Marie-Elsa Bragg’s debut, Towards Mellbreak (Chatto & Windus), stood out for me – a closely observed rural family chronicle, a fierce indictment of the ignorant authoritarianism of government agencies in recent decades promoting untried, environmentally disastrous and lethally poisonous pesticides in the countryside, and an understated but strong celebration of spiritual discovery and resilience.

The other book to remember was the reprint of E Amy Buller’s Darkness Over Germany (Arcadia Books), first published in 1943: reports of her conversations with a wide range of “ordinary” Germans in the 1930s, pointing up what happens when national confusion, mistrust in public servants and public service, cynicism, xenophobia and economic chaos take over a society. If we want to know – and we ought to want to know just now – what prompts the collapse of law-based democracy, this is a good place to start.

Erica Wagner

I can’t choose Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury) by George Saunders: everyone will, right? Still, it’s utterly astonishing. As is Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko (Apollo), a window into the world of Koreans in Japan, an epic family saga.

Helen Dunmore’s final collection of poems, Inside the Wave (Bloodaxe), is heartbreaking: she was a poet always in her heart, and she left us far too soon when she died in June. And the second volume of Simon Schama’s magisterial history of the Jewish people, Belonging (Bodley Head), is a masterpiece of historical narrative.

Mark Cocker

The Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West (Oneworld) by Nate Blakeslee weaves together three narratives in one superb book. He tells of the intensely sociable and frequently violent world of the wolf pack. There are the naturalists studying wolves at Yellowstone National Park in the US, whose devotion to their totem animal borders on the religious. Then there are the ranchers, hunters, politicians and so on who hate and kill wolves so often that it is a miracle that any survive. Blakeslee’s triumph is to tell all three stories with deep sympathy and insight.

Vince Cable

I am a great fan of Robert Harris, who I regard as a role model for anyone who wants to get into political thriller writing. Munich (Hutchinson) is a wonderful tale of personal relationships and political drama, built around the Munich conference before the Second World War, when Neville Chamberlain produced the infamous “peace for our time” speech. This is a very, very good read.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Madeleine Thien’s novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta) vibrates with creative energy. It’s a chronicle of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and also a haunting fable of music silenced and of loves postponed, played out over the melancholy vastness of an imagined China.

In CE Morgan’s The Sport of Kings (Fourth Estate), the breeding of racehorses provides a potent metaphorical language for the discussion of racism. In grand, lyrical prose, Morgan summons up the Kentucky landscape and tells a tale full of charismatic characters and idiosyncratic voices.

Mark Lawson

Seeking a template for these dark and strange days, many works (from the BBC series Doctor Foster to novels by Salman Rushdie and Colm Tóibín) have modernised Greek dramas. A particularly classy example was Home Fire (Bloomsbury Circus), in which Kamila Shamsie relocates Antigone by Sophocles to Western and Eastern capitals during the “war on terror”.

In The Feud (Pantheon), Alex Beam tells the improbably enthralling comi-tragic story of how the Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov and the American Russophile critic Edmund Wilson ended up viciously duelling with typewriters over prosody and vocabulary in Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

Chris Patten’s First Confession (Allen Lane) draws on his experience of four controversial institutions – the Tory party, the Vatican, the Chinese government and the BBC – to swell the tiny list of intelligent and cultured memoirs by front-line politicians.

Helen Lewis

Looking at my Kindle history, two themes dominate: America’s racial divide and the ways that big tech companies are shaping our personal lives, society and democracy. On the former, Strangers in Their Own Land (New Press), Arlie Russell Hochschild’s warm, perceptive study of right-wingers in Louisiana, stands out, as do the collected essays of Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power (Hamish Hamilton).

On big tech, Everybody Lies (Bloomsbury) by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a sobering guide to how much of ourselves we’re putting online and what private companies might do with that information.

For personal reasons, I loved Robert Webb’s How Not to Be a Boy (Canongate), which started life as a New Statesman article and is now a funny, moving book.

Alexander McCall Smith

Memoirs of friendship have a particular appeal. They are often touching and not infrequently they throw a light on a life that a conventional biography might not supply. Alan Taylor’s Appointment in Arezzo (Polygon) is a charming, beautifully written account of the author’s friendship with Muriel Spark. The centenary of her birth is coming up, and there are plans to bring out a uniform edition of her novels. Taylor’s memoir is the perfect prologue to this celebratory year, providing a sympathetic and intimate picture of the author of such timeless classics as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Jim Crace

Much of my reading nowadays includes anything remotely Shakespearean. This has been a bumper year, including Fools and Mortals (HarperCollins), an absorbing novel by Bernard Cornwell that invents the life of Shakespeare’s younger brother, Richard, and Margaret Atwood’s wickedly wise Hag-Seed (published in paperback by Vintage). She casts The Tempest adrift in a prison and makes a magisterial case for the timeless, classless relevance of Shakespeare’s plays.

The work I most enjoyed and valued, in any category, was a first book by the economist Andrea Mays. The Millionaire and the Bard (Simon & Schuster) tells the gripping story of Henry Folger’s amassment of the First Folio and the establishment of his library in Washington, DC – a narrow focus, perhaps, but one that is not only fascinating about Tudor publishing but delves more broadly into Anglo-American relations and big business, obsession, privacy, marriage and money.

Peter Wilby

I suppose Claire Tomalin’s autobiography, A Life of My Own (Viking), is written by a member of the liberal elite (she is a former New Statesman literary editor), about the liberal elite, for the liberal elite. I do not recommend it to Nigel Farage since, aside from anything else, Tomalin is half-French. But no other book this year so moved and beguiled me. A life punctuated by glittering career success and personal disaster – a wayward husband’s death in his forties, a daughter’s suicide in her twenties, a son born with spina bifida – is recalled in translucent prose with honesty, modesty and a complete lack of self-pity.

Kezia Dugdale

The Scottish rapper Darren McGarvey – also known as Loki – wrote my book of the year. Part memoir, part manifesto, Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass (Luath Press) charts McGarvey’s life and the political life of his community in Glasgow’s Pollok housing estate. It covers addiction, abuse, depression, love and loss in raw, upsetting yet powerful detail. Somehow it retains hope and a sense of humour. Poverty Safari is a bold and ambitious work. No one in politics could fail to be shocked by it, or fail to see some light and guidance in its conclusions.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit

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As one of Abu Dhabi’s unofficial citizens, when will I get to call my country home?

Abu Dhabi is my home and it is where I come from, despite the utter illegality of my claim. 

The United Arab Emirates tends to lure three types of Western scribblers to its shores. First off the plane are the well-heeled jingoists, many of whom hardly ever seem to leave Abu Dhabi or Dubai's airports and hotels. Despite the oppressive heat, these intrepid correspondents take to bashing “morally destitute” Emiratis with great gusto, pausing to wax lyrical on their hatred of that “scorched, soulless land of labour abuses” or to condemn the country's obsession with Vegas-style kitsch. Finally, their “patience frayed”, they find themselves “snapping” and take their leave, citing their dreadful experiences as further proof the West should dread the dark cloud of Arab oil money, or Islam, or both.

Next come the neoliberal Orientalists, who attempt true-to-life portraits of this sandy, oil-rich Eldorado, where life is good under the tax-free sky and red-lipped young women in abayas clutching Gucci bags stride confidently into university lecture theaters and government jobs. A litany of clichés invariably follows: dhow rides along the creek, camels, sheesha cafés, elusive Emiratis in blingy rides, indoor snow-skiing and cosmopolitan shoppers in gargantuan, Disneyesque malls – perhaps a wee glimpse of despotism here and there, yet not enough to spoil the happy picture.

Finally, there are the fly-by reporters, who prowl the gardens of the UAE's otherness for the inspiration they're unable to find back home in London and New York. Their takes on the UAE range from the chronically confused, such as denying the country's tight censorship, defending its sodomy laws, or comparing Dubai to “an unreliable Tinder date” – to the embarrassingly naïve, turning the UAE and its highly complex society into exotic curios. Adam Valen Levinson's The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East, for instance, was deemed so problematic that a magazine which ran an excerpt was forced to issue an apology. For the latter writers, life in the Emirates is so “confusing and eclectic” that they are forced to wonder whether “such a nomadic population could ever settle down long enough to develop a culture”, as an article in the New Statesman recently put it, which depicted the UAE's foreign-born residents as hardly ever seeing the country as their home. I am glad to say the reality is altogether different.

*

Abu Dhabi is my home and it is where I come from, despite the utter illegality of my claim. After all, I am not a citizen of the United Arab Emirates, nor could I ever hope to be. Acquiring Emirati citizenship is almost impossible and besides, I don't even look the part: being white-skinned, whenever I speak Arabic my interlocutors assume that I'm Lebanese. As the son of an Iranian father and an Italian mother, and raised almost entirely in the UAE's capital during the 1990s and early 2000s, my statistical designation throughout my childhood was clear. I was a guest worker's dependent, alongside my mother and younger brother. Thus, although I come from Abu Dhabi, I am not Emirati.

Regardless, the island of Abu Dhabi is the only place I think of as home. It is where my parents' romance blossomed, where I was conceived and where I was reared. My father, a leftist forced to abandon Iran at the end of a barrel in 1979, had worked on and off in Abu Dhabi since 1980. As such, I have few memories of Venice, my birthplace, where my mother was obliged to go a couple of months prior to my birth, since unmarried pregnant women were required by UAE law to return to their countries of origin.

Abu Dhabi is where I spent my childhood and adolescence. I planted saplings in Mangrove National Park, just off the T-shaped island's eastern shore. I whiled away hours at the Cultural Foundation, then the city's only public library, next to Qasr Al-Hosn, the ruler's abandoned 18th century fort, where I devoured Abdel-Rahman Munif's Cities of Salt novels, which chronicle the rise of the Gulf's oil kingdoms. I slept feet away from the ruins of the Nestorian monastery on Sir Bani Yas island; and I visited the old pearling grounds of Abu Al-Abyad, which once provided locals with their only tradable commodity before oil. I grew to know the city and its people's language, culture and history well. However, like all the male children of guest workers, at age 18 I was forced to leave, and I have re-entered the country ever since as a tourist. Despite having spent close to two decades in the UAE, each return visit has been limited by the 30 day visa stamped on my passport on arrival. Notwithstanding, Abu Dhabi has shaped my outlook and sensibilities more than any other city I have lived in. Much as I have tried to deny it at various times in my life, I am an Abu Dhabian.

My parents, for their part, wouldn't think of themselves as Abu Dhabians. Nevertheless, they were perfectly happy to spend their lives in the UAE, and absurd as it might seem, in their long decades there they hardly gave a thought to the inevitable prospect of one day being forced to leave. We weren't alone: approximately 86 per cent of the UAE's population is currently made up of foreigners. Although over the years I have grown used to seeing my hometown pointlessly praised, or derided, for having the world’s most expensive hotel, the world's largest theme park – and rather bizarrely for a majority Muslim country, the world's most expensively decorated Christmas tree – this is the record Abu Dhabi should be chiefly remembered for: the world's highest number of foreign-born inhabitants.


Families stroll down the Corniche

Since the late 1960s, the world's nationalities have spilled into the UAE, supplying it with nurses, doctors, teachers, lawyers, shopkeepers, service workers, entertainers and police forces. For certain Westerners, the UAE is a revolving-door country in which to spend a lucrative two or three years. We, though, defined ourselves as long-termers and hardly ever came into contact with such opportunists. My father, who speaks four languages including Arabic, was an architect employed by an Emirati prince. The masons, carpenters, electricians, drivers and foremen he worked with were almost entirely from South Asia and the Middle East. There were times when, despite my father's stories of his Emirati friends and my few Emirati classmates, I thought that I lived in Little India: a solid 60 per cent of that 86 per cent majority was – and remains – composed of people from the Indian subcontinent, mostly men employed in the construction and transportation industries.

Our Abu Dhabi wasn't as tall then: the island's neighborhoods were mostly capped at five or six stories and stubby palm trees still jutted out of the gardens of crumbling villas built in the wake of the 1970s oil boom. The polished steel and glass skyline that can be seen today was still being sketched on the drafting board. The famously heavy, humid air was always pregnant with two kinds of sounds: the call to prayer five times a day, and the drone of 24-hour construction sites. The sandstorms and sea-salt constantly lashed against the cheaply-built beige apartment blocks, which were studded with the loud but vital external AC units that rattled precariously on their sandy perches. Tagalog, Malayalam and Hindi tinkled constantly in my ear. I went to school with Arabs, South Asians and Africans, ate Afghan bread fresh from the downstairs bakery and was more familiar with Bollywood than Hollywood, perhaps owing to our living above a cinema that played double-bills of Hindi hits every night. Although there were a few Westerners, they largely kept themselves confined to their own residential enclaves, schools and beach clubs.

Our fellow long-term, informal Abu Dhabians exhibited no desire to leave, but also made no attempt to entrench themselves, either. Foreigners cannot own property in the Emirates, they can only lease it. Since naturalisation was deemed impossible anyway, the general understanding was that there was no point in doing anything about it. The longer the permanence in the UAE, the shorter the visits back to their real, supposed homes became. While first-generation immigrants remained somewhat more connected to their origins, their children were often horrified by the prospect of ever having to leave, even though they mostly knew this was inevitable.

The choice facing all male children at the age of 18 is this: find employment and thus secure a sponsor for your visa, or else attend one of the country's franchise Western universities. The first is a near impossibility, since businesses in the Emirates do not hire untrained adolescents, especially foreign ones. The second is exorbitantly expensive. (Unmarried daughters are allowed to remain in the family fold.) Knowing that that my parents could not afford to continue paying for my education in the Emirates, I applied to several institutions in the UK, where, thanks to a clerical error, I was offered a place at university at the lower “home” fee rate, then just slightly over a thousand pounds.

Adapting to life in Britain, I often reflected on how, despite causing me a great deal of pain, my illusion of permanence in the UAE had nevertheless been an incredible gift. Such an illusion was denied to millions of other informal Emiratis. Visitors to the cities of the Emirates over the past few decades will have all stumbled on the same inescapable sight: the striking preponderance of men, in particular the millions of South Asian labourers who spend their lives in the UAE entirely alone, denied the option to bring their families over. While many could afford to do so – at a stretch – they are systematically blocked by strict entry quotas based on their countries of origin, no matter how long they've lived and worked in that country.

In the early 1990s, visitors to Abu Dhabi's Corniche, the broad waterfront boulevard on the western shore of the island, would be struck by the sight of thousands of South Asian laborers in their distinctive blue overalls. Back then, the Corniche was one of those few places where Emiratis and foreigners, and the poor and the rich could mingle. On Thursday nights, labourers would pose in front of the Corniche's Volcano Fountain, an 80 foot water feature lit by bright crimson lights at night, making the drops look like lava.

There, they would snap photos of themselves to mail back to their families. The ideal stance involved leaning one elbow against the trunk of a palm, with the sputtering Volcano in the background. The rest of the week, the labourers were restricted to the construction sites and their accommodations in hangar-style shacks outside the city limits, on the mainland.

The Volcano, which grew into one of the city's most beloved landmarks, was demolished in 2004. It made way for a sleeker, broader Corniche, yet one that was ultimately far more exclusive. Today its beach pavilions and cafés are the bastion of the middle class, part of a trend that has seen the city grow more segregated. Although the UAE is a cacophony of cultures and nationalities, the government's unwritten policy is straightforward: one is welcome to live there so long as one silently subscribes to its system of apartheid by consent. While foreigners are free to mix, the UAE's informal hiring practices mean that jobs are allotted almost exclusively according to race: East Asians are employed in service industries and as maids, construction workers are South Asian, lower middle-class jobs go to Arabs and managerial positions are the near-exclusive preserve of Westerners, leaving the friendly, languid Emiratis perched alone on top. You are free to live here and make your money however long you can, the Welcome Sign should say, but never fool yourself into thinking you'll ever remain. The PS should also read: if you don't like it, leave.

Despite the terrible odds presented by this game of roulette, there is no short supply of willing gamblers. For better or worse, the UAE remains a beacon of potential prosperity. It is the promised land to the Subcontinent's poor, a safe haven for the Arab world's elites and a tacky oddity ripe for the plucking to the West's middle classes. Precisely because of that, most of the aforementioned would happily accept Emirati citizenship in a heartbeat, and therein lies the problem. Rather than open the floodgates, the answer, it seems, is to make the process a near impossibility, no matter how long one has lived there.


A group of Filipino men take a selfie 

Abu Dhabi has certainly grown larger, denser and richer in recent years. It has also become visibly unhappier. For expatriates, visa restrictions are increasingly tough. A new law making “good conduct certificates” mandatory to get work permits came into effect on 4 February 2018. Meanwhile, despite the UAE government making no distinction between short-term opportunist and those whose families have made the UAE their home for decades, generations of residents now feel both estranged and at home. Many Abu Dhabians ejected at eighteen do, after all, come back. As the Abu Dhabian writer Deepak Unnikrishnan recently explained, his unexpected return to his city in 2015 led to a “difficult” re-adjustment: “Mentally, it was as though I couldn’t return to the city I had left, as though someone had changed the locks to my home without telling me.”

It is fittingly ironic, then, that the UAE's government newest obsession just so happens to be happiness. In February 2016, the UAE became only the fourth country in the world after Bhutan, Ecuador and Venezuela to appoint a Minister of State for Happiness. Dubai's PR-savvy ruler – and self-styled poet – Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum even went so far as to pen a slim tome entitled Reflections on Happiness & Positivity (Explorer, 2017). In it, he wrote: “What makes us proud of our United Arab Emirates is not the height of our buildings, the breadth or our streets or the magnitude of our shopping malls, but rather the openness and tolerance of our nation.” It is nevertheless unfortunate to see that Al-Maktoum's openness and tolerance does not stretch to include the millions of expatriate men and women who built his principality in the first place.

Emirati citizenship grants one instant access to a host of socio-economic privileges unavailable to the UAE's foreign-born inhabitants, and is granted solely by royal edict. The rationale for such exclusivity is simple. Citizens enjoy lavish benefits, including a college fund, free health care, a guaranteed job in government, and access to a government Marriage Fund. Open up citizenship, and the less than a million existing Emiratis would be politically overwhelmed overnight. While a provision exists in Emirati law which allows expatriates to apply for UAE citizenship after a 20 year period, it is almost never put to use. UAE society is thus bitterly divided. The expats resent the Emiratis' privileges, while Emiratis quietly worry about losing the reins of their own country. Mixed marriages between Emiratis and foreigners are actively discouraged, with Emirati women forbidden from marrying foreign men altogether.

Meanwhile, informal Emiratis have been there for decades longer than the actual country has existed. One of my father's oldest friends during his early years in Abu Dhabi was an engineer. He was both a third-generation expat Emirati and a Palestinian. His grandfather had left his village in Galilee in 1949 and had wound up in the northern emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah, where he had started a chicken farm. By my early teenage years, this Emirati Palestinian clan counted over twenty individuals, who occupied various posts in both private businesses and government enterprises. Their story mirrored that of many Palestinians after the Nakba, who alongside the Lebanese, Egyptians, Iranians, Indians and Pakistanis, played a vital role in the building of the modern Gulf petrocracies. Unfortunately, the supply of willing workers long appeared inexhaustible. Each new conflagration in Israel-Palestine prompted a new flight of migration, and so the Palestinian immigrants in the Gulf were largely treated as expendable. While the UAE's government has always made a public show of its sizable contributions to Palestinian charities, it has never extended the warm hand of citizenship or long-term residency, which is precisely what the overwhelming majority of expat Emirati Palestinians both want and deserve.

A pragmatic solution to the woes of expatriate Abu Dhabians remains as distant now as it was when my family first moved to the UAE. However, their cause – and the overall issue of an individual's right to place – is nevertheless a global cause for concern. In his Reflections on Happiness & Positivity, Sheikh Mohammed claims to have taken cues from Aristotle, Ibn Khaldun and the US's Founding Fathers to reach his conclusion that “tolerance is no catchphrase, but a quality we must cherish and practice” since “the government's job is to achieve happiness”. For the moment, however, the UAE's interpretation of happiness excludes almost 90 per cent of its people.

Whether the UAE survives as a functional state may well largely depend on its ability to retain and absorb its long-term expatriates. It is time for the country to attempt what Benedict Anderson called a “sophisticated and serious blending of the emancipatory possibilities of both nationalism and internationalism”. The UAE is no paradise for migrant workers, but meanwhile those nomads and their children have developed a culture the rest of the world should finally begin to contend with. Last year, the UAE Pavilion at the Venice Biennale featured non-Emirati residents, such as Vikram Divecha and Lantian Xie. Deepak Unnikrishnan's novel Temporary People (Restless Books, 2017), which explored Abu Dhabi's hidden nuances through a sequence of interlinked stories tinged with magical realism, was recently published to highly-deserved acclaim. Dubai has even become home to exiled artists like Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian.

For all that the Western world likes to caricature the UAE, the question of citizenship is not one confined to the expatriates of Abu Dhabi. Los Angeles, the city where I currently reside, is presently home to thousands of “Dreamers”, beneficiaries of the Obama-era legislation that protected the children of people who entered the US illegally, many of whom now face a very uncertain future. As for me, the familiar sight of pump jacks and foreign migrants outside my window keeps my memories of home – and hopes for a better future there – alive. Impractical or not, Abu Dhabi is my home, and I don't need a passport to prove it.

 

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit