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Spitting out the Red Pill: Former misogynists reveal how they were radicalised online

Subscribers of Reddit's most notoriously sexist subreddit explain what happens when you change your mind.

João describes swallowing the Red Pill as a feeling greater than winning the lottery.

Aged 17 and a self-described “late bloomer virgin”, he was growing apprehensive about going to college when he stumbled across online men's rights forums that seemed to hold all the answers. “I believed in it so much,” the now 24-year-old tells me via Skype from his home in Portugal, “It was such a fantastic thing to me… Back then I used to say that I was so happy about finding out about the Red Pill and pick up artists that I would rather be with them than win the lottery.

“I don't know why I believed so deeply because it really makes no sense.”

Though João experienced two happy years with fellow Red Pillers, his opinions have now drastically changed.  During the course of our half hour conversation, he uses one word exactly twenty times: “cult”.

***

The Red Pill is a philosophy, and reddit.com/r/TheRedPill is its home. The nearly 200,000 subscriber strong subreddit describes itself as a place for the “discussion of sexual strategy in a culture increasingly lacking a positive identity for men.” In itself, perhaps this doesn’t sound too bad.

In practice, to “swallow the Red Pill” is to accept the uncomfortable truth about reality. The phrase comes from 1999’s hit film The Matrix, in which the protagonist Neo must choose between the Red Pill – which would allow him to escape the Matrix but see the real, darker world – and the Blue Pill – continued existence in his comfortable, but ultimately fake, life.

In r/TheRedPill’s instance, the “dark truths” that the subreddit’s subscribers have swallowed are these: feminism is toxic, sexism is fake, men have it harder than women, and everything the media teaches about relationships is a lie. In reality (the argument goes) women don’t want soft-centred men/chocolates; they want to be dominated, controlled, and manipulated. The most extreme Red Pillers even believe that women want to be raped.

“Rejection is not rejection,” reads an extract from the subreddit’s most popular post. “When a woman insults you, belittles you, mocks you, or says something provocative to get a reaction — these are all examples of active tests.” By following the subreddit’s advice, its subscribers are promised a life of successful sexual encounters. If they ignore the Red Pill, they will undoubtedly be rejected, cheated on, and dumped.

“They have theories that are not easy to prove or disprove, they are based on beliefs like all women cheat, they like cheating, and all women are not loyal,” explains João. “There’s this whole conspiracy thing where women are against you, they are this imagined enemy… as well as there's a whole conspiracy that society is against men, that society is anti-male so to speak, that liberals are fucking up society, that feminism is fucking up society.

“I believed everything, everything. And if you didn't believe everything… if you go on Red Pill Reddit and you disagree with someone they either delete your comments or they try to make fun of you and shame you. You can't criticise anything because people will quickly try to diminish you. So I really believed every little thing.”

***

Beliefs such as “all women are evil” and “all women cheat” are what are known as conspiracy stereotypes. Like traditional conspiracy theories, they often rely on cherry-picked evidence. The Red Pill in particular exploits evolutionary psychology to argue that women are wired to want men with a strong “frame”. Much of the subreddit’s misogyny is justified by one of their favourite acronyms, AWALT: “all women are like that”. 

“The movement’s use of evolutionary psychology convinced my rational mind that everything I read was a scientific fact supressed by feminists,” explains Jack, a British 24-year-old former r/TheRedPill subscriber.

“I began to see male victimhood throughout society,” he tells me over Reddit’s messaging service. “It fed the confirmation biases that society was built around men catering to women in return for sex.”

Mike Wood, a lecturer at the University of Winchester and an expert on the psychology behind conspiracy theories, explains that people who believe in conspiracy stereotypes such as AWALT tend to have what is known as a “Manichean” worldview.

“They feel the world is divided into absolute good and absolute evil, and the people behind the conspiracies are of course the absolute evil ones," he says.

Psychologists have a concept, entitativity, which describes the extent to which a group of people are perceived as a single entity. "If you think that a group is entitative, it’s like a swarm of bees or ants," Wood explains. "They’re not just a collection of individuals, they’re actually that a single organism that moves with singular purpose. I think that’s probably likely to be true for groups like the Red Pill, that look at women and see just a flock of harpies.”

Subscribers' experiences in the real world can reinforce their misogynistic views. Trevor*, a 34-year-old former Red Piller, explains how the subreddit led him to towards more extreme views of women.

“When I was 30, I broke up with a woman who was just not a very good person,” he tells me over Skype. “I broke up with her one the phone…20, 30 minutes later she shows up [to my apartment] completely hysterical. I remember I had a large metal tin bowl with potatoes on the counter which I was going to cook for dinner or something, and she grabs it, chucks the potatoes all through the apartment… her shirt catches on a corner of a countertop and then she proceeds to tear the rest of it off like Hulk Hogan.”

When Trevor decided to call the police, it was he that ended up arrested. “I went from being in my home peacefully to being in a jail cell all because I’m a man and she's a woman.

“Now that was a very immoral human being who I was dealing with, certainly not all women are like that but that’s another brainwashing technique of the Red Pill, they say that all women are the same…

“It kind of tricks you so you're agreeing about one thing and the next thing you know you're agreeing about all these other things.”

***

These “tricks” aren’t accidental, according to João in Portugal, who now firmly believes that the Red Pill is akin to a cult.

“If you go to Red Pill and you say something that those guys don't really like then they will just delete your comments or just say that you are a ‘mangina’ or a ‘feminist’ or a ‘cuck’," he told me. "They have this social influence mechanism where they pre-emptively invalidate all criticism by criticising people back… and it is typical of cults to do this.” Other Red Pillers I spoke to also mentioned the threat of harassment. 

João also believes the Red Pill preys on those who are easily manipulated – be they young, nerdy, insecure, virgins, or simply going through a difficult time in life. Most of the ex-Red Pillers I spoke to were teenagers when they became involved in the subreddit, and most say they were exceptionally lonely at the time.

Callum*, a 29-year-old from Western Pennsylvania, has a mild case of Asperger’s syndrome and speculates that “a great many” people on the Red Pill are likely on the spectrum. He became involved with the online men's rights forums at 19. Though he had spent much of his time at school not caring about girls, he became insecure when he started college.

“I worried that I wasn't thin enough, I wasn't tall enough, I wasn't endowed enough,” he tells me over Reddit. “I started getting very bitter about relationships in general. At no point was I ever actually angry or bitter towards women, but I was frustrated with the established societal rules, that men had to put on the show and be the best they could and that women got to pick and choose without trying much themselves, and I wasn't being picked.

“When I turned to the Red Pill subreddit I immediately felt like I figured it out. Like a cult, they give you a few obvious truths (men should be more confident, work towards physical fitness, women aren't divine perfect beings to be worshipped but flawed people, etc.). I definitely think that this enabled me to slide into accepting the more toxic beliefs of the subreddit.

“Any time someone said something outright sexist or alarming, too much for me, others would interject and say that those are just being angry and we should let them vent.”

***

Over the last year, the Red Pill subreddit has become a home for other hateful beliefs. A year ago, the alt-right’s most vocal figurehead, Milo Yiannopoulous, did an AMA (“ask me anything”) on the sub. It is now commonly accepted that the alt-right recruited men from the Red Pill and attempted to radicalise them. In fact, the alt-right has become so conflated with the Red Pill that this month a brand new subreddit – the Red Pill Right – had to be made. “My focus with this new sub is to keep us from diluting the discussion of sexual strategy on our main sub,” wrote its creator.

But how has a place designed for discussions about sex and women become so radically political?

“That is the power of the ideology,” explains Jack, the British Red Piller. “It gives you a lens that brings out the most cynical explanation of social activities…  For a while, it seemed as if a blindfold was lifted and I saw manipulation everywhere.”

Jack became involved with the Red Pill when he was 23, and had been single for a “long” time. “I was numb, lonely and desperate,” he says. “It was a terrible time in my life.”

Though Jack only spent two months on the subreddit, he quickly fell in with anti-feminist and libertarian rhetoric. “An uncomfortable misogynistic streak grew within me,” he says. “At one point [I] thought that Donald Trump was a good candidate for President.”

Like many of the places we frequent online, the Red Pill has become an echo chamber. The psychologist I spoke to, Mike Wood, told me this can lead to people adopting more and more extreme views. "If you’re in some sort of a group that defines itself by its opinions, then people will get more and more polarised over time," he says. "Individuals will try to conform to what the group mandates.” This is true of not just the Red Pill, but its opponents. While radical feminists on Tumblr, for example, become more extreme in their views, so too does the subreddit. In many ways, the extremes of each group justify one another's existence in their minds. 

“People within the group will try to get social approval from other members of the group,” Wood continues. “So they’ll play to that standard that they’re supposed to live up to – and then people will take it further because they reason ‘If I’m more extreme about this then I will get more approval’, so the norms of the group shift over time.”

Jack’s story aligns with this. “Trump represented everything that the Red Pill told me to value at the time in a mainstream political candidate: anti-PC, anti-feminist and social Darwinist policy,” he says. Those aspects of Trump that he still found unpalatable, or racist, he accepted as "a price to pay for the other stuff".

***

There exists another misogynistic subreddit which is, in fact, deeper and darker than the Red Pill. Reddit.com/r/Incels is a place for “involuntary celibates” – people who are struggling to lose their virginity – to talk. In theory, once again, this is not terrible. In practice, however, the nearly 10,000 subscriber strong group breeds bitterness towards women, and a hatred of “Chads” – men who are romantically successful. Elliot Rodger, the Santa Barbara student who killed six people in 2014, considered himself an incel.

For Callum, the Red Piller from Western Pennsylvania, this subreddit spoke more specifically to his own situation. “The feelings of inferiority and utter hopelessness are indescribable and the worst things I have ever felt in my life,” he says. “I think that outsiders looking in just deem these people very bitter and angry and don't understand the long process it takes to get there… It takes a long and drawn out battle with yourself that those people have lost.

“It's listening to the voices in your head, telling you how shit you are, telling you that you will never be wanted, never be normal, all your friends and family are laughing at you behind your back at failing at the easy task of finding a girlfriend. You are a walking shame to your gender. Nothing you can do can overshadow such laughable inferiority. You are nothing.”

A meme from r/Incels

It is easy to see how the inferiority complex of Incels and the superiority complex of Red Pillers both in turn breed hatred and contempt. However, some subscribers to the subreddits manage to avoid being radicalised. From those I spoke to, it seems this is more likely if they have pre-existing political beliefs or circumstances that contradict the theories of the group. 

Tim*, a 22-year-old from New Zealand, believes that r/Incels didn’t lead him to become a misogynist because he was already interested in progressive and feminist politics. He found the sub when he was 16, after growing frustrated with the advice on Red Pill and other sites. As a self-described “nerdy” young man, Tim felt anxious about how relationships worked.

“I'm not very good at following my nose in those sorts of situations,” he says. “I can't dance for instance, because I have no idea what specifically to do, so anything without a ‘rulebook’ is pretty much impossible for me.

“I spent so long searching for my ‘rulebook’ until I realised that it's doesn't exist, no one seems to have any clue what makes a relationship happen. It kinda drives you mad thinking like that, that you're the only person in the world who doesn't ‘get it’. That's where places like r/Incels come in.”

Tim says that the fact he has always been friends with women might have meant he wasn’t convinced by the group’s misogyny. “It's possible to accept that you'll be alone forever, and accept that you're very unhappy about that, without becoming hateful or misogynistic. But it seems like everyone kind of forgets that,” he says.

Louis*, a 19-year-old from Albany, New York, joined r/Incels aged 16, and does feel that it made him more bitter and misanthropic. “You feel the world actively hates you so you need to hate it back,” he says. Nonetheless, he stopped frequenting the subreddit when, like the Red Pill, it began spreading extreme right-wing beliefs. “The alt-right is how I broke from incels as the racism sort of woke me up to the reality of it,” explains Louis, who is black.

***

Each of the Redditors I spoke to has a different reason for leaving the Red Pill.

João and Jack were both influenced by Mark Manson, author of Models: Attract Women Through Honesty. “Most of what he talks about is the mind-set to care for oneself and strive to improve. Hate is energy better spent finding and enjoying activities you love,” says Jack, who also began reading about feminism.

João says he left the Red Pill because he was attracting girls that were “emotionally damaged” and not “mentally healthy”. He also felt like its advice didn’t really work. “I was going out to bars to talk to women and I would have to talk with like literally like 100 girls just to pick up one, so the whole thing is a numbers game, a probability thing,” he says. He now considers himself a feminist and has a “fantastic girlfriend” who he has been with for nearly three years.

For Callum, it took “a series of psychedelic trips” to begin getting out of both the Red Pill and Incels. “The very idea of gender was alien to me when tripping hard enough,” he says. When I ask him how he feels about women now, he says: “I still hold on to the belief that women enjoy a major advantage in the dating world even though they suffer disadvantages in other parts of life." Nevertheless he now sees women as "scared, flawed, imperfect humans just like I am".

***

Not everyone who has left the Red Pill, then, did so because of some feminist revelation. Trevor, the man who ended up in a police cell after a confrontation with his ex, still holds many of the subreddit’s beliefs.

“Look, a lot of what they say is true unfortunately,” he says. “So it isn’t really a question of I don’t believe any of that any more, it's just I don’t believe it’s useful to continuously expose myself to that sort of stuff.” Although Trevor says the Red Pill helped him to “bed an unusually high number of women”, he now desires deeper relationships and hopes one day to start a family.  

Trevor has only been out of the subreddit for a few months, and it isn’t apparent whether his views will slowly change. As it stands, however, he believes that our culture is breeding itself out of existence, that the Red Pill and feminism are equally toxic in contributing to this, and that women who sleep around are "indirectly contributing to the depopulation of the white race".  

“I’m roommates with some Muslim people here, some Algerians, two girls and a guy, and these people take themselves more seriously," he says. "They kind of understand the importance of the tribe and community and family."

There is one Red Pill belief, however, that Trevor has completely shunned. “One thing I do believe is you can show a little vulnerability to your significant other,” he says. “A little, a little.”

***

No one still active on the Red Pill would admit that they are simply lonely, young, or vulnerable. The group is exceptionally hostile to outsiders, and the toxic beliefs on the subreddit easily inspire revulsion and hatred on first sight. But we are perhaps as guilty of considering Red Pillers a complete entity as they are considering all women to be joined together in some evil mission. In reality, there are many complex stories behind the subreddit, with some ex-users even claiming that they were struggling to come to terms with the fact they were gay or trans. 

Every man on the Red Pill has a different story. However, each of them do have striking similarities. The main one is anger. Like the name of the subreddit itself, it is blazing red. We must understand the psychology behind the philosophy not to condone it, but to better tackle the poisonous spider slowly infecting those across the web. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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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.