Lilly SnatchDragon. Photo: Ayesha Hussain
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The dark side of burlesque – and what can be done about it

Just because performers are taking their clothes off, it doesn't mean they should have to risk sexual assault.

“I’ve been touched by the audience before,” says 32-year-old Ruka Johnson matter-of-factly. “Someone came on stage and just started touching me up.” The sexual assault took place early on in her career, during a one-off performance she was giving at a now-closed venue in Brighton.

“I told the promoter,” she continues. “She sort of just signalled to just carry on performing. So I walked off stage and she said she wasn't gonna pay me… she said I should've given it a bit more oomph.” Johnson bursts out laughing at this – part in disbelief, part in recognition at the outrageousness of the producer's comments.

With aggressive perseverance and a friend to help argue the case, Johnson did, eventually, secure her fee – £50. She decided against formally reporting the incident or taking the matter any further, but she had told security at the time of the incident. They took no action.

With minimal formal research it’s hard to know the frequency with which sexual assault takes place in the UK’s burlesque scene. That it is such an under-reported crime doesn’t help. Johnson has spoken to plenty of women with similar stories to hers: “Pretty much all performers have been touched inappropriately by someone.”

As it is for so many performers in the female-dominated industry, burlesque was a passion of Johnson’s long before it became her profession. Entranced by the world of Dita Von Teese and evocative glamour, allured by the promise of subversive performance and sexual expression, she started taking part in 2003. Her career saw her appear across London’s lustrous burlesque scene and further afield: the longstanding Café Du Paris, Proud, the Box in Soho. But in 2014, Johnson, abandoned her passion and gave up performing indefinitely. 

When I ask her why, Johnson describes at length her experiences in an underground, under-regulated industry, where sexual assaults – often in the form of groping – are common, and where cowboy producers offer low pay, often below minimum wage, and cancel performances at the last minute with no compensation. She cites the unprofessional culture from some venues and their teams, the lack of regulation that enables exploitation, and the micro-aggressions, tokenism and racial discrimination she regularly experienced as a performer of colour.

“I started hating it and I got really busy with my other job and I had just had enough; I didn't really think it was changing,” says Johnson. She now works as a costume designer in the film and TV industry. “When I worked in retail for example there's HR, there's people you can go to if something is not right to protect you. It’s just so unregulated… there's a general lack of safety and protection.”

Johnson’s experiences aren’t unique. Her observations aren’t unusual. International artist Rubyyy Jones is an influential figure on the burlesque scene, particularly in London where she regularly produces her own shows. She has featured multiple times on industry website 21st Century Burlesque’s Top 50 list and appeared at a varied list of venues, such as the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, Arcola Theatre and Hackney Attic. In a seven-year-long career which has seen her adopt multiple disciplines – performer, producer, director and teacher – she has “been privy to abuses against many more people.”

“I would say every single burlesque performer is touched at some point in time,” says Jones. “Depending on who you are and where you're working it's probably happening with more regularity.”

Though Jones has had “relatively positive experiences” throughout her career, she has been groped by audience members on two occasions. Like Johnson, she's had one of her performances – an intimate strip tease – interrupted by someone jumping on to the stage. 

“I was touched on stage and afterwards there was no one around, there was no one for me to talk to,” she recalls. “I was very upset… the performance I did [meant] I was in a really vulnerable place. I was literally just crying my eyes out alone in the dressing room. I had not even another performer there to speak to."

The second incident took place off stage. “Recently I was totally naked walking through a crowd after a really intense arty burlesque type performance and I got touched by various audience members in a really inappropriate way,” she says.

This type of assault – when performers are walking through crowds – can be quite common, depending on the venue. London-based Lilly SnatchDragon is another of the UK’s most prominent burlesque performers, an award winning artist renowned for her ebullience. She too has been groped “quite a few times”.

She considers herself lucky that she predominantly works in venues with experience, such as the Hippodrome in Leicester Square, a venue that she says deals with groping and other forms of sexual assault severely and swiftly. 

“Every show I either go to or attend, there is groping of some form,” she adds. “Most of the time I get groped, I get groped by women because they think it's OK... but I've no problem turning around and telling them to not fucking touch me, and I've broken character.”


While all three women have experienced groping from audience members – and feel that, depending on the venue, it is likely to be happening with some frequency – Johnson has also had to deal with inappropriate conduct from some event producers.

“The organisers came on to me... not even just an audience member, the promoters,” says Johnson of one incident. “They were just kind of like, ‘Do you want to join us after?’. That's inappropriate and there's a power dynamic. No. I want you to pay my wages on time and that's it. I think that sort of thing's quite common.”

Another producer engaged in even more explicit sexual harassment. “He sat really close to me and kept touching me in ways I felt were inappropriate,” says Johnson. “He kept telling me how he liked chocolate and stuff like that and how he'd been with a black woman before.” Johnson never worked with that producer again.

The culture of groping, assault and harassment described by the three women is exacerbated by the stigma that surrounds burlesque. SnatchDragon suggests that a significant number of people who don’t see burlesque as a legitimate art form, or the performers as artists. She says there’s a type of audience member – one that comes with an innate disregard for women already – who sees burlesque as a form of sex work.

“I don't think it's taken seriously,” she says. “Obviously if you’re a woman and you're taking your clothes off there's that big ‘well you're a whore, you're really open and you have to be expect to be treated like this’. With audience members when you're touched and groped that's what people think they're paying for.”

Jones suggests that as burlesque is an industry built on sexual expression which predominantly attracts women, including vulnerable women, it’s also going to attract predators. The issues aren’t unique to burlesque, they’re societal. Many of the perpetrators who grope women either don’t realise groping is a form of sexual assault – that’s listed in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 – or they don’t care.

“We're just a microcosm,” says Jones. “But we do work in sex and we do work in a world that does involve women's sexuality…no matter what style of burlesque you're doing, unless it's got a family friendly finish, it is sexual expression. It does make sense that people, plus substances and absolute fucking ignorance, go out there and think that they can just touch people or do whatever. And I get it: we’re inspiring you to feel sexy or adventurous or silly or whatever it is, but that's not consent now, is it.”

Each of the women is quick to point out that this culture of sexual harassment isn’t prevalent in every club. It’s worse at some venues and non-existent at others. Longstanding institutions with well-drilled security teams and bar staff have the experience to deal with incidents swiftly, and can draw on their reputation as a deterrent to would be offenders. But not all venues have such luxuries and not all producers have the necessary experience.

Burlesque remains a popular art form to get into with many new performers entering each year. But this surge in popularity arrives amid a decline in the number of burlesque venues. Performance space is now at a premium. As with any property shortage the situation is felt most acutely in London, where even the famous club Madame Jojo's has failed to fend off the steady stomp of gentrification in Soho (at least for the time being – it may yet reopen). Finding suitable spaces to put on shows now requires more ingenuity from producers.


One solution is to occupy areas in non-burlesque pubs, clubs and theatres. These partnerships can be mutually beneficial to all: the bar profits from the extra foot-traffic, the producers have a space for their show, and the performers can bring their craft to a new audience. But such crowds are often unfamiliar with burlesque culture and etiquette. Unfortunately the world is such that people, especially those who are intoxicated, seemingly need to be reminded that groping is sexual assault. Many shows now rely on the host to educate the uninitiated throughout.

“They play a really important role in schooling the audience and telling them what isn't acceptable,” says Glory Pearl, a traditional performer of burlesque – what she describes as character-based with aerial equipment – who started professionally in 2008. “If you get a burlesque literate audience then they kind of know what they're seeing and they tend to be reasonably well behaved. Often if you're performing to an audience who aren't used to burlesque they will overstep the mark.”

The decline in permanent venues has meant there’s less regular work to go around. With more performers scrambling over fewer gigs, rates have fallen. For those unable to sustain themselves on burlesque alone, performing becomes an infrequent hobby, rather than a full-time profession.

It’s not unusual for a creative industry to attract hobbyists; it's an inevitable part of trying to make it in burlesque – you have to build up your reputation before you can warrant better paid, more regular jobs. But a lack of professionalism in burlesque can increase the risks performers face.

“Often people – and this is something you do find with newer performers – bring people backstage, boyfriends and friends and things like that,” says Pearl, reflecting on the lack of professionalism she’s encountered at some gigs. “That really bloody pisses me off: they have no reason to be there."

“It's often new performers that do it and often people that don't come from a performance background, so don't get that etiquette or the sense that when you're on stage you're doing a job and when you're not on stage you’re in your private life and you don't really want people to see you naked. If you chose to put that on stage that's your choice and you’re in control of that situation.”

Amateur producers bear responsibility too. Without proper training, maintaining safety standards is hard. Curating a culture that protects performers is even harder.

Saph Rox is a producer, casting agent and director of her company, Agent Burlieque, which creates burlesque and cabaret shows across the UK. After training in musical theatre, she started her professional career working in strip clubs. It’s her experience in this environment – where the more overtly sexual nature requires stricter security and more careful management – which has helped her protect the performers she employs.

Saph Rox. Photo: Joust

In Rox’s 17-year career she’s witnessed just a single incident of sexual assault at one of her shows, when an audience member grabbed a performer coming off the stage. The security team removed the audience member immediately.

“It’s dealt with very seriously,” she says. “It’s sexual assault, it's not something we can just brush off.” Though it’s rarity in the shows she produces, she accepts that elsewhere that’s not the case and even knows of a couple of people who “experienced things like this regularly.” She suggests the reason some venues and shows might experience a higher frequency of sexual assault – particularly of groping – is due to the way they’re run.

“I would say it comes down to security, production and how high the level of the production is,” says Rox. “I know that it's prevalent in some shows. I've been told by people that there have been issues. If you've got an amateur producer who thinks they're just going to put a few acts on a stage and that that is production, it's not, that's not what you do. There is huge amounts behind it and making sure that performers are very well taken care of is very important.

“We're dealing with women and men who are removing their clothes, but the boundaries need to be in place and people need to be made aware of what they are,” she continues. “So it's very much a producer issue. If anybody is thinking that we're giving somebody permission to touch them, there is something wrong with that person, but at the same time we need to make sure that everybody knows the rules.”

Even producers who want to protect performers and educate audiences and aren’t always able to follow through on their ambitions, especially in non-burlesque venues.  If an incident takes place – say, a regular patron gropes one of the performers as she crosses the bar – the manager or venue security might not agree that the crime warrants the perpetrator's removal. The producer then has an awkward choice to make.

“What I’ve noticed is a common conversation is about performers not being able to follow through on the kinds of protocols, or boundaries that they would like to enforce,” says Jones. “A producer doesn't want to risk their sure bet gig…it becomes hard for a producer to take a stand.”

Performance space is a valuable commodity. Performance space that comes with a guaranteed recurring weekly spot even more so. “If the producer is disagreeing with a venue manager, as much as they want to side with this performer, and with all women of the world, at the same time here's their booking on the Thursday of every month that's hard to get, which they sell out every month,” continues Johnson. “There's always something beyond morals that make it difficult.”

Johnson also worked in strip clubs throughout her career, and, like Rox, noted its stricter security. Though she recognises that there are many burlesque nights that are managed impeccably, Johnson feels the laissez-faire attitude of some producers is directly enabling a groping culture.

“They don't give a fuck,” she says. “They've got their performance, that audience member had fun, some of them thought it was funny. That was your second performance, you're going home in a minute anyway. Who cares? You're not bringing money directly to the club, so it's lower priority.”

She feels more producers need to take responsibility for the shows they put on, particularly those doing so in non-burlesque clubs. “It's just lots of people running around doing whatever they want,” she says. “I don't feel like it's enough to just put on a night and then spread the word, you have to cultivate your audience. At the end of the day you're having people take their clothes off or performing really intimate personal pieces. [In a] life drawing class you wouldn't let anybody in without briefing them on what's gonna be happening or how to behave.”


When I met Johnson she explained that her decision to quit in 2014 was actually the second time she had left burlesque. Disconsolate and exasperated, the issues she’d experienced saw her retire early from performing in 2008. She returned, somewhat optimistically, four years later in 2012, hoping it had improved.

“I wanted the audience and the performers to be more diverse, and I wanted more accountability for burlesque as an industry,” she recalls. “I don't know if I was being naive but I kind of thought maybe things would visibly change.” Johnson is adamant that this time her retirement as a burlesque performer will last forever.

For those still thriving in the burlesque scene, the rise of social media has allowed performers to self-police. On Facebook especially, all issues that affect the community are discussed at length: the rates, casting practices, racial discrimination, professionalism. Venues and producers that aren’t doing enough to protect their performers from sexual assault no longer go unnoticed.

“It's all about word of mouth,” says Rubyyy Jones. “Many burlesque teachers will take it on themselves to talk to their students about it, which I definitely do.”

As for the venues that are getting it right, SnatchDragon puts forward Her Upstairs in Camden as a wonderful example of an independent venue breeding a culture of consent and understanding among their audience. Jones cites The Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club as a case for how it’s possible to transform a traditional east-end London venue into a highly successful burlesque club, one that doesn’t compromise on the safety of its performers.

“What is excellent about that venue, and what other venue managers could learn from them, is their ability to listen to criticism or issues when they arise and then to adjust practices or distribute education as needed,” says Jones, who’s produced several shows there. “It's not fucking rocket science. And no venue is perfect, but the ideal ones are the ones who are listening and trying when it comes to protecting their own staff, visiting producers, the events performers and audiences."

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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.