Show Hide image

Nigel Farage: the arsonist in exile

The former Ukip leader is often described as the most successful politician of his generation – even by those who despise him. As Brexiteers speak of betrayal, will he settle for life as an alt-right shock jock, or return as the head of a new English nationalist movement?

What does Nigel Farage know? What does any successful politician know? What did Tony Blair know that Ed Miliband did not? What does Jeremy Corbyn know that his detractors in the Parliamentary Labour Party do not?

In 2009, Michael Ignatieff, a cosmopolitan intellectual and former Harvard professor, became the unlikely leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. As he began the slog towards the Canadian federal election, from which he was initially expected to emerge as prime minister, Ignatieff was tormented by his inadequacies. High intelligence, deep, immersive reading and considerable literary and philosophical sophistication – he was the authorised biographer of Isaiah Berlin and a former Booker Prize-shortlisted novelist – were, he discovered, no guarantees for a career in politics or for winning a national election.

“I’ve spent my life as a writer, but you have no idea of the effect of words until you become a politician,” Ignatieff told his old friend, the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik. “One word or participle in the wrong place and you can spend weeks apologising and explaining.”

It was as if he was already exhausted by the demands of high politics: “This is by a very long shot harder than being a professor at Harvard, harder than being a freelance writer, harder than anything I’ve ever done – in terms of its mental demands, its spiritual demands and its emotional demands.”

Ignatieff envied successful politicians, serial winners such as Blair and Bill Clinton. He knew they knew something he did not. But what did they know? What is it that a great politician knows, he kept asking himself. “The great ones have a skill that is just jaw-dropping, and I’m trying to learn that.”

Ignatieff never discovered the answer to his question or learned the required skills. Unlike Barack Obama, who was also professorial in demeanour, he had no gift for popular communication. Nor was he adept at the game of politics – or perhaps ruthless and fearless enough, though he was more than ambitious enough. He was routed in the 2011 election by the conservative Stephen Harper, even losing his own seat. Soon afterwards he retired from politics and retreated from Canada, humiliated and humbled by defeat, but wiser.

I was reminded of Ignatieff and his pertinent question – what does a successful politician know? – when I met Nigel Farage one recent morning at the offices of Leave.EU in Westminster. The previous evening, when I texted a friend to postpone our meeting because I was seeing Farage, he replied: “Why are you seeing him? I despise him.” This is not an isolated view, of course.

Farage, who now has his own talk radio show on LBC, is widely despised – not least because of his antics during the referendum campaign and his post-Brexit embrace of alt-right movements in America and Europe. He is despised not only by liberals and Remainers: mainstream Conservatives and many prominent Brexiteers, such as the MEP Daniel Hannan, are appalled by him and his closest associates at Leave.EU.


The Leave.EU offices are subdued and tatty – they have the atmosphere of a poorly resourced magazine or newspaper office the morning after press day – but at least there is an outside terrace, which allowed Farage to slip out for a cigarette on a cold, bright morning. The television was on in his office and it burbled away as we talked. A packet of Benson & Hedges cigarettes was on the desk and on the bookshelf nearby was a paperback copy of the Cambridge historian Robert Tombs’s great book The English and Their History. One of his aides brought him a coffee from Pret A Manger – “I can’t drink that instant stuff” – then Farage settled down, preferring initially to discuss the Ashes cricket series in Australia: a few overs of gentle conversational looseners before the pace quickened.

Farage was in a reflective mood. A former City broker in the metals market who was educated privately at Dulwich College in London (a school today popular with Russian oligarchs), he still sees himself as an anti-system radical, who occupies a space beyond left and right: he told me once that his hero was John Wilkes, the 18th-century parliamentary agitator and pamphleteer.

Unlike my friend, I do not despise Farage, even though I deplore much of what he says. What does he know? That’s what interests me. It’s not enough to condemn one’s opponents: it’s harder, yet more fruitful, to attempt to understand and explain the forces and individuals shaping the history of our era.

Speaking on 14 November in the Commons, Ken Clarke, perhaps the last true Tory parliamentary Europhile, called Farage the “most successful politician of my generation”. It’s hard to disagree, though he tried and failed seven times to become an MP.

More than any other politician – more than the cranks and headbangers on the Tory fringes – he created the conditions for Brexit, and we are living with the consequences. Through sheer force of will, charisma and a kind of relentless monomania, Farage transformed what was once a fringe cause into a national movement (the “people’s army” is what he calls his followers). He galvanised the Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party and harried David Cameron, who in 2006 dismissed Ukip supporters as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly”.

For all of Farage’s success at ventriloquising the sentiment of a large section of the population, his behaviour has often been contemptible: never more so than when, in the final week of the referendum campaign, he launched the anti-immigrant “breaking point” poster depicting a column of Muslim Syrian refugees in the Balkans, the wretched of the Earth. Farage deliberately conflated legitimate economic migration with the refugee crisis and illegal immigration: even the former Ukip MP Douglas Carswell called the poster “morally indefensible”.

Farage remains unapologetic. “Jacob [Rees-Mogg] says he thinks that poster won the referendum, because it dominated the debate for the last few days. The establishment hated it, the posh boys at Vote Leave hated it, but it was the right thing to do. Now, I don’t think we’d have won the referendum without Mrs Merkel. But that poster reminded people what Mrs Merkel had done.”

Farage was referring to the German chancellor’s decision in 2015, at the height of the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the end of the Second World War, to open the borders to more than a million dispossessed people from the Middle East and Africa.

“After the election in 2015, [Farage’s close associate] Chris Bruni-Lowe said to me, ‘If on the Sunday before the referendum we’re discussing three million jobs, we’ve lost.’ I launched the poster, there was a bit of commentary, I had double-page spreads in five national newspapers. There was the usual criticism of it. It was only when Jo Cox got murdered that they chose to focus on [the poster] as the big issue.”

The Labour MP was shot and stabbed on 16 June 2016 in Birstall, West Yorkshire, by Thomas Mair, who shouted “Britain first!” as he attacked her. Farage told me: “I remember thinking, ‘Can I live with this?’ Not because of what I’ve done – just the hatred, not my conscience… Basically, it’s your fault she’s dead. I came in here, a bit down. It was rough, and Chris said, ‘Remember what we said last year: what’s the conversation? It’s immigration.’

“But it was obviously very unfortunate that a young woman got murdered, and all the rest of it… I don’t think her death ultimately changed the way people voted, but what it did do was kill the momentum. It did kill the momentum. Sorry, that’s the wrong word to use. It stopped the momentum. Because we had the ‘big M’ going. Momentum’s an odd thing, because when it’s going with you, you just feel it. You know it’s happening. So, yeah, that was quite a thing.”

That phrase, “quite a thing”: you could call it a euphemism.


Simon Heffer, a commentator, historian and authorised biographer of Enoch Powell, believes that Farage is one of the most important politicians of the entire postwar period. “Enoch was the first British Euro­sceptic,” he told me. “He kept the argument going throughout the 1970s and 1980s when most others had given up. As he faded, Farage took over, at the crucial moment when the Maastricht and subsequent treaties started to raid British sovereignty and democratic accountability. Nigel built up huge momentum over the 20 years before the referendum and, unlike the fantasists of Vote Leave with their £350m a week for the NHS, concentrated on the key intellectual argument for Brexit: the reclamation of sovereignty and the reinstitution of democratic accountability.

“And he galvanised the working class, whose criticisms of the EU and failed aspirations had been ignored by generations of Labour politicians, to support Brexit. He, not Boris Johnson or any of his crew of poseurs, was the key to the Brexiteers’ victory.”

Farage winced when I mentioned Heffer’s comment and Powell’s name. “Enoch was, er, a brilliant man,” he said, with unusual hesitancy, “but somehow the words he used, the analogy he chose, destroyed the debate [on immigration] for a quarter of a century. It made it impossible to even talk about it.”

He sensed an opportunity to reopen the debate with the enlargement of the EU in 2004, when ten new countries joined, eight of which had been part of the former communist eastern bloc. Of the existing member states in 2004, only the United Kingdom, Sweden and Ireland did not impose “transitional controls” restricting the freedom of movement of migrants from the new accession states, a fateful decision as it turned out. The New Labour government forecast that only 13,000 migrants would arrive from Poland and other eastern European countries; in the event, more than a million came to live and work in Britain as annual net migration, year after year, rose inexorably.

If – as Isaiah Berlin wrote in a celebrated essay in 1953 – the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing, Farage is a hedgehog. The single defining thing that he knows is how to exploit people’s unease about immigration. That was his great wager: the revivifying of the immigration debate.

“The European Union and immigration wasn’t an issue before 2004,” he told me. “It was the mistake of letting in the former communist countries. Many in Ukip said, ‘No, no, don’t do that, you mustn’t do that. They’ll call us all the names under the sun.’ I knew that touching the immigration issue was going to be very difficult. But I think the impact that had on me, the family, I think all of that was bad, yeah. And frankly… the only thing that upsets me about it is that, had it been wilfully and overtly a racist message, I might have deserved some of it. But it wasn’t. It never was. It never, ever was. It was a logical argument about numbers, society.”

The emergence of Ukip destroyed the British National Party. Farage made a direct appeal to its voters. “The problem was that with the demise of the BNP, the haters on the left had to have someone to hate, and that all transferred to me.”

He doesn’t like the term “working class” but agrees with Simon Heffer that his rhetoric and plain speaking appealed to those he calls “good, ordinary, decent” people.

“The one thing I had going for me is that I’m able to cross classes. You know I do what I do, I am what I am – people like it or they don’t like it, but I’m not confined to the Shires or the inner cities. I can do a bit of both. You know how our class system is… The sort of middle, upper-middle class never say what they think to anybody, you know, just in case. But the lower down the social scale you go, the more people are very blunt in what they say and how they approach things. So, I use direct language, never trying to come across as being too clever.”

Farage respects Jeremy Corbyn because he is not a conventional career politician. “Corbyn’s a bit different, and maybe that’s why he’s working with a certain segment… Corbyn’s popularity among the young is astonishing. But he comes across as very genuine. His technique is so similar to mine in an odd way, and Trump’s. He’s very similar to Trump, the way he does it!”

What does he do?

“One, the embrace of social media. He understands it; I understand it. If you look at the social media following of UK politicians, it’s just him and me. The rest are so
far behind us, it’s almost incredible.”

Both Farage and Corbyn have more than a million Twitter followers. I suggested that Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, is excellent on Twitter and understands how to use social media.

“Yes, she is. Her numbers at the moment are very small, but that may change. But she understands it. The rest of them haven’t got a clue. I mean Boris Johnson! Boris should be huge on social media and he’s not. Corbyn also gets that the big public meeting works. It energises people in the most incredible way.

“And some of the stuff he said in this general election was not entirely dissimilar to some of the stuff that I said in the previous general election. On the fact that you’re living in a society where the rich and powerful are richer and more powerful than they’ve probably ever been…

“And he comes across as genuinely caring about those that are having a tough time. And that’s his big card. I’ve got a certain admiration for that. What I don’t have an admiration for is the thought of [John] McDonnell running the British economy.”


Before this interview, the last time I had seen Farage in person was in November 2016 at the Spectator parliamentary awards dinner in London. There, he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by George Osborne. Farage had been drinking and gave a raucous, triumphalist speech during which he mocked the “pasty-faced” Osborne, whom he loathes, and then told the guests, who included the Prime Minister, Theresa May, that Donald Trump would be “the next leader of the Western world”. Farage’s comments were received with derision. “Oh, come on,” he said that night. “What’s the matter with you? That’s… the attitude you all took to Brexit. [You said] it could never happen… [But] my achievement was to take an issue that was considered to be completely wrong, perhaps even immoral, and help to turn it into a mainstream view in British politics.”

It was a fair self-assessment and he was correct about Trump winning. Farage, who understands that in the age of social media outrage cuts through, has had an astounding effect on our politics. He is blamed for coarsening and poisoning the public discourse and inflaming racism and xenophobia, charges that he rejects. Instead, he told me that angry Remainers, such as Alastair Campbell, had created what has become a foul and feculent national conversation.

“I think some of what’s happened has been appalling. Alastair Campbell, he’s almost lost reason! I mean, the classic example of what’s happened since the referendum is the death of the Polish man in Harlow [in August 2016]. So, the story is: ‘Polish man gets beaten up because of race hate caused by Brexit.’ That’s the story. It’s everywhere: BBC Two’s Newsnight even ran a report saying, ‘Nigel Farage has blood on his hands.’

“Talk about fake news… The collective shock of the liberal establishment, they still can’t get to grips with it, and they’re trying to find a reason why this illogical thing, as they see it, happened. In this country, they put it down to lies, and in America, it’s the Russians!”

Ah, the Russians – let’s hope they love their children, too, as Sting sang.

Carole Cadwalladr, an Observer feature writer who has been investigating what she considers to have been malign outside influences on the EU referendum result, is convinced that Farage is at the centre of a network of alt-right white nationalists and libertarian billionaires who are intent not only on destabilising the West but engendering hate and overturning the liberal order. “Farage has been making speeches in the US for Roy Moore, for example. Is he being paid to do that? And if so by who?” she said when we spoke.

Cadwalladr has been abused on social media by Farageists and by Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore of Leave.EU, which posted an abusive video of her on Twitter. The video has since been removed and Wigmore told me that it was meant to be a joke and he regretted the upset it had caused.

“It seems to me that Wigmore and Banks are using Trumpian rhetoric for effect,” Cadwalladr said. “It doesn’t ring true. But Farage is ideological. That’s the difference. And he’s been given a free pass in Britain for too long. It’s disturbing. It’s made me question our institutions – including the press and media. There’s no covert conspiracy with Farage. He’s part of this overt, right-wing, pro-Putin bloc. He loves Putin. He supports Hungarian demagogues.”

Farage believes that Vladimir Putin is “a strong leader”, but he would never wish to live in Russia. “You know, 120 journalists have gone missing in the last nine years… I wouldn’t want Putin as my leader, no, no, no. This is not some unqualified fan club, far from it. But, you know, he’s a strong national leader who, when it comes to playing strategic global politics, is a bloomin’ sight smarter than No 10.”

Farage spoke with enormous gusto and energy, his voice animated. “There was a piece the other day,” he continued, “that said I was the only person that connected all the dots. That I was the centre of the web. I mean, it’s just baloney… A person of interest to the FBI, etc, etc. I can tell you hand on heart, it is total and utter baloney. I have virtually no Russian links at all.”

What about Donald Trump (we met before the American president disgracefully retweeted anti-Islamic propaganda from the account of the deputy leader of the neo-fascist Britain First movement)? Farage described himself as a “supporter” and said that Trump had restored America’s reputation as a powerful nation overseas. Farage was encouraged by the administration’s programme of deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthiest and corporations, but there had been no contact between them for many months.

Farage is, however, still in touch with Steve Bannon, the executive chairman of Breitbart News and a former Trump strategist at the White House. I suggested that, with the departure of Bannon, Trumpism had lost its ideological fervour and drive – after all, Bannon has a theory of history, however demented. Farage disagreed. “Trump had that belief system anyway,” he said. “Steve may have reinforced it.”


Before Ukip’s post-referendum collapse into irrelevance and Jeremy Corbyn’s rise, Farage reached out to and captured a certain demographic of Labour voters, several million of whom ended up voting for Brexit. One of the most serious mistakes made by Ed Miliband as Labour leader was to underestimate Ukip, which he believed would hurt the Conservative Party more than Labour. By the time of the 2015 general election, increasing numbers of voters were abandoning Labour for the so-called people’s army.

The Labour-to-Ukip defectors were, on the whole, not city-dwelling liberals. They mostly lived in towns and did not have degrees. They were anxious about immigration, fearful of change, pessimistic about the future and weary of austerity. Caricatured as those “left behind” by globalisation, they made themselves heard at the referendum in 2016, an act of rebellion that the Blue Labour thinker Jonathan Rutherford likens to an Orwellian “tug from below”.

“Cameron would not have won the election in 2015 had it not been for the Ukip vote,” Farage told me. And if Cameron had not won the election, there would have been no referendum. “We hurt Labour far more than we hurt the Conservatives. And I remember thinking, ‘These cretins.’ The Daily Mail didn’t understand it! The Sun didn’t understand! They didn’t understand it! We were digging deep into that Labour vote. And that was the gap Miliband created. It was the gap that, Jason, you saw earlier than almost anybody, to be frank, and we did well with them. We did very well with them. So, 2015 was an odd moment, because… we had four million votes and we’d got nothing for it [Ukip ended up with one MP in 2015]. But we had a referendum!”

Call it the revenge of the fruitcakes.

On 14 November, Farage made a speech in the European Parliament during which he denounced George Soros, the 87-year-old billionaire financier who funds the Open Society Foundations, which supports civil society and liberal democracy. Soros has been traduced in his home country of Hungary and is the victim of conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism. I put it to Farage that his speech had been interpreted as an anti-Semitic “dog whistle”. For the first time, he became angry.

“Fuck off, for God’s sake. Excuse my language – but honestly, isn’t that incredible? Is this what we’ve sunk to? If you attack Soros, you’re anti-Semitic? They’re desperate aren’t they, these people? You know why? They’re losing. Because even if Brexit’s delayed, even if it’s not done properly, public opinion is hardening around the kind of things that I campaigned for, for all those years. They’re losing.”

What is it they are losing?

“Their very nice, comfortable, narrow vision of what the world is and what it should be: that’s what they’re losing. But honestly, for goodness sake. Soros? If we talk about Russian influence, let’s talk about Soros’s influence. It’s massive. David Miliband’s paid by him… And I’m being told I can’t talk about it. I mean, please. Anti-Semitic – bloody hell. Think of all the prominent Jewish people that have stood up and supported me over the course of the last few years. Sorry, that makes me angry.”


In his book The Shipwrecked Mind, the American academic Mark Lilla draws a distinction between the conservative and the reactionary mind. Reactionaries are, in their way, “just as radical as revolutionaries and just as destructive”. Farage is a radical and a reactionary: his instincts are destructive. He wanted to blow up the British establishment. He wanted to smash an elite consensus. He is relaxed about the idea that Britain might exit the EU without a free trade deal. He delights in describing Brexit as an “earthquake”, the aftershocks of which continue to move the ground beneath our feet.

“I’ve thought for a long time,” he told me, “that this question about Europe and our relationship with it was one that had the potential to realign British politics. In the last few months, I’ve been thinking that Brexit might not be the last earthquake. There might just be another one. There may be something seismic still to come. And it could be the Conservative Party that’s the most vulnerable to it.”

This year, far-right parties have suffered notable electoral reversals in France, Austria and the Netherlands but they have not been decisively defeated. We are not witnessing the return of a more liberal, optimistic Europe. Marine Le Pen won 34 per cent of the vote in the second round of the presidential election against Emmanuel Macron, after reverting in the final weeks of the campaign to the politics of her father, an old-style Vichy fascist. To defeat Geert Wilders’s anti-Muslim Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the centre-right Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, had to adopt some of his rival’s positions and borrow much of his xenophobic rhetoric. In the illiberal democracies of eastern Europe – Poland, Hungary – an ugly form of the old right has re-emerged. The Czech Republic has embraced anti-establishment populism after the ruling Social Democrats were crushed by ANO (“Yes”), an insurgent party led by a billionaire oligarch, Andrej Babiš.

Meanwhile, Angela Merkel’s centre-right government has been severely weakened in Germany and her standing diminished after the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, energised by the migrant crisis, won nearly 13 per cent of vote in the federal election in September: it now has representation for the first time and is the third-largest party in the Bundestag.

“All that has happened, especially in France, is that the rise of the far right has been paused,” said the philosopher John Gray. “What’s driving all this, I think, is that the emerging European state, or super-state, cannot discharge some of the primary functions of a state. It claims many of the prerogatives and authorities of a state, but it hasn’t got the means to deliver on the functions of a state – which do include control of borders.”

But the liberal order, although threatened, is not crumbling. The EU27 end 2017 in a stronger, more unified position than they began it, in spite of the turmoil in Spain and the intensifying Euroscepticism in Italy. In the US, the worst excesses of Donald Trump are being constrained by the courts, by Congress and the free press. And Brexit, as Farage knows, has not yet happened.

According to John Gray, “Farage is taking an Oswald Mosley-like gamble. I’m not saying he’s a fascist, but he’s reinventing himself as an alt-right politician in a culture that, despite everything, has no room for the alt-right. He has made a fundamental strategic error. Let’s say he’s arrived at a point of non-arrival. There is no alt-right position for him to connect to, because the great achievement of British politics has always been to marginalise the far right. The dark European stain that has re-emerged – and now the American stain – is altogether different. As for Farage, I think he’ll be beached in five years and probably end up in America as a shock jock.”

The man himself thinks differently. “America is very tempting. But I’m just a bit too English really! I like going to Lord’s.”

At the end of our conversation, Farage accepted that the Brexit negotiations were in trouble. He was alarmed by the economic forecasts but accepted no responsibility or blame. “It’s not Brexit that’s caused the uncertainty,” he said. “It’s Theresa May. Let’s be honest about it: the prospect of a hard-left government with McDonnell as chancellor and Corbyn as leader is scarring business.”

He believes that the Prime Minister has no conviction. “Brexit is an instruction from the electorate to turn around the ship of state by 180 degrees,” Farage said. “You cannot do that unless you believe in what you’re doing. You have to actually, passionately believe in what you’re doing. Ignore all criticism, you just have to do it. It’s like an act of going to war… And she’s managing the different wings of the party as if this is politics as normal.”

Boris Johnson – whom Farage thinks should leave politics to become an academic and television celebrity – has disappointed him. The next prime minister, he said, will come from outside the cabinet, and it could be Jacob Rees-Mogg, his choice. “Whether it’s on the question of a transition deal, whether it’s on the question of ‘go whistle’ – Boris has been very weak. The likelihood is that we will leave the European Union legally but finish wrapped up in a whole series of transition deals that mean we’re not able to take advantage of the positive sides of Brexit.”


The ultimate irony of Brexit is that the UK is now more at the mercy of the EU than ever. And though Farage can afford to run this ideological experiment, many of those who voted Leave cannot. He expects Labour to offer a second referendum on the unresolved Europe question in its next manifesto. “I have a feeling that Labour will fight the 2022 general election, if we go that long – we will not be fully out, we will still be in a transition of some kind – on a ticket of either, ‘We’ll have a referendum to rebalance our relationship’ (which would not be fully rejoining, but it could be a single market compromise), or an EEA compromise, or something. That’s a very realistic possibility.”

At which point, Farage may return to front-line politics, perhaps at the head of a new party or movement. “My position is this: if they really make a mess of Brexit, and if there’s a job that has to be done…”

He lowered his voice almost to a whisper and looked straight at me. “I’ve got no choice! Actually, I honestly don’t really want to. I’ve done it. I don’t want to do it again. You know climbing mountains without crampons is quite tough – you take on the establishment. But, no, if the gap is there, if it needs to be done, if the job needs to be finished, I’ll do it.” 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

Show Hide image

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 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special