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Europe’s hidden fractures

The continent’s old crises have not been resolved.

One of the more predictable and depressing rituals during the never-ending European crisis has been the reflexive sounding of the “all clear” after the latest onslaught. The euro crisis, we are told, has been banished by the stated determination of Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank (ECB), to “do whatever it takes” to defend the currency. The refugee crisis, they tell us, has been contained, and the Schengen passport-free travel area saved, through a combination of generous integration, increased border defence and a deal with Turkey.

Better still, so the narrative runs, the “populist” challenge has been seen off. Brexit, far from precipitating an avalanche in mainland Europe, is instead burying the British Isles under a mass of paperwork and regulations calculated to make the most ardent Eurosceptic blanch. Candidates of the far right have been beaten in the Netherlands, Austria and France. The optimists even take the election of Donald Trump in their stride, arguing – as Angela Merkel did recently – that Europe can now stand on its own two feet and provide for its own defence against Islamist terrorism and Russian aggression.

Unfortunately, what is hailed as the “return” of Europe is merely the temporary survival of the European Union. None of the old crises have been resolved, and a new one – the heightened tensions in Catalonia – has just been added. The EU and the British Remainers seriously underestimate Britain’s resilience and ability to retaliate against European “punishment” if the country were so minded, but since Brexit will happen one way or the other even the best-case scenario on this front is bad for Brussels and the national capitals.

Whatever harm the EU inflicts on Britain, or it inflicts on itself through the UK’s departure, the remaining member states will also pay a hefty price. Economically, the cost to Britain will be substantially higher than the cost to the EU – and much larger than the Brexiteers realise – but certain countries, such as the Irish Republic, and certain sectors, such as the German car industry, will be hit disproportionately.

The possible gains (for example, in Paris or Frankfurt at the expense of the City of London) will hardly offset such losses. A recent International Monetary Fund report, which warns Europe to “prepare for a rainy day”, reflects these realities. Politically, the questions that matter will not be who will inflict the most but who can endure the most, and whether the EU is configured to absorb any more pain than it has already suffered. The “EUropeans” like to say that, unlike the British, they are not talking about Brexit at all. If that is true today – and it is already untrue with regard to Ireland – it will not be so for long. The EUropeans will start talking about Brexit again towards the end of 2018 at the latest. By the start of 2019, they will be talking of little else.


In the meantime, they have plenty of other things to worry about. The threat in the east has not gone away: it has merely slipped further down the Brussels agenda. Vladimir Putin still holds the illegally annexed Crimea and continues to support the two separatist republics in eastern Ukraine. The Baltic states, Poland, Finland, Sweden and Romania feel directly threatened and are distressed by the failure of Europe to anticipate or respond to the Russian menace.

Brussels and many other European countries, by contrast, are repelled by the often xenophobically expressed resistance in eastern Europe to Muslim immigration or the imposition of “progressive” values. They are appalled by the increasingly authoritarian behaviour of the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, as seen in his vendetta against the liberal Central European University in Budapest.

For all the rhetorical condemnation from Brussels and some member states, however, it is clear that there is no appetite for a confrontation and some sympathy for Orbán even in Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic party. The contrast with the Austrian crisis of 1999-2000, when the EU imposed sanctions on a coalition government involving the far-right leader Jörg Haider, is striking and reflects not the strength but the weakness of Europe.

The other crises haven’t gone away, either. Not one of them can be deemed solved. Draghi’s announcement in 2012 that the ECB would “do whatever it takes” did not lift the question mark over the euro, as the near-collapse of Greece in 2015 and various other crises have demonstrated.

Its fundamental flaws remain, in particular the impossibility of running a common currency without a common state. Likewise, the refugee crisis has not been settled but merely abated. Syria or some other part of the Middle East could erupt again at any time. The deal with Turkey is precarious. Meanwhile, smugglers are exploring new routes across the Mediterranean.

As with the euro, the fundamental flaw in the system remains unaddressed. The EU is trying to run a common travel area and a common foreign policy without a common state. The EU is unable to close the border effectively, because that is the task of the member states; it lacks the ability to ensure that refugees who are admitted are distributed fairly; and it does not have the capacity to intervene in the Middle East to prevent the flow of refugees. It attempts to achieve federal aims with confederal instruments, and that cannot be done.

As if all this were not bad enough, the EU is in the throes of yet another crisis. Though predicted for at least 18 months (see my NS article with Montserrat Guibernau, published in April 2016), the referendum and subsequent declaration of independence by the Catalan government this October caught Brussels and the national capitals largely unawares. The situation poses a challenge that the EU has helped to cause, has done nothing to prepare for, and is unequipped to deal with.

Catalonia exposes the contradiction at the heart of the current European project. On the one hand, because the EU is in important respects transnational in character, it has tended to weaken the nation state in favour of a “Europe of the regions”. The euro and the Schengen system, in particular, hollowed out key competencies of the member states and suggested that separation would involve a “soft landing”.

Besides, the improvement in mainland European political culture encouraged by the EU constrained the capacity of national capitals to contain the peripheries, or appeared to do so. Fifty years ago, Catalan aspirations would have been drowned in blood before they got as far as a unilateral declaration of independence. Today, Madrid – for all its clumsiness – has to tread more carefully. The admonition of Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, that the force of argument should prevail, rather than the argument of force, was a clear shot across its bows.

On the other hand, the EU is also – and perhaps increasingly – an intergovernmental confederation of member states. Most EU citizens have burgundy-coloured passports, but there is no European Union citizenship as such. Rights are enjoyed via the member states. The new European defence initiative for “permanent structured co-operation”, or “Pesco”, announced with great fanfare, is not a union army, or even a pioneering step towards one, but a reshuffled deck of the usual member-state armies acting in concert.

All of this was not what the founding fathers of the European project intended. Their vision was hijacked by Charles de Gaulle’s counter-project of a “Europe of the Fatherlands”. European integration did not transcend the continental nation state but threw it a lifeline after the experience of the early 20th century nearly killed it off.

Years ago, the economic historian Alan Milward described this process as the “European rescue of the nation state”. This is why, unlike British Eurosceptics, continental Europeans regard membership of the EU not as a qualification of their sovereignty but as its vindication. Both cannot be right, although it is possible that both are wrong.

The Catalan crisis forces Brussels and the member states to decide what the EU actually is. Is it primarily a supranational project that seeks to transcend the sovereign state? If so, Catalonia should pose no problem, for both sides would be merely two bald men fighting over a comb. After all, neither of them would control their currency or their borders after victory; these have already been ceded to the EU.

Or is the EU just an alliance of sovereign “nation” states with shared institutions? That appears to be the current position, for Brussels has not only adopted Madrid’s view that the Catalan government is “separatist” – even though, unlike the Brexiteers, it is fervently attached to membership of the EU – but has connived in the arrest of member-state citizens for what are surely political crimes.

Worse still, the flight of the Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont to Brussels and the issuing of a European arrest warrant against him by Spain threaten to make the EU the active accomplice of Madrid.

Before Merkel: an 1815 portrait of the Austrian chancellor Metternich by Thomas Lawrence. Picture: Deagostini/Getty

Talleyrand, who served both Napoleon and the restored Louis XVIII as minister of foreign affairs, remarked that treason was a matter of dates. So is separatism. To take but one example, the Republic of Ireland split violently from the United Kingdom and now enjoys separate membership of the EU. Brussels can insist that Catalonia, which is larger, more populous and much richer than many existing member states, has no right to a separate national status, but it risks making itself look ridiculous.

The EU claims to defend the “rights” of its citizens in a post-Brexit United Kingdom, yet it not only accepts the incarceration of Catalan politicians, in breach of EU human rights law, but provides the machinery for their extradition from third countries. It claims to have transcended the nation state, but it is actually privileging one national claim, that of the Spanish, over another, that of the Catalans. We are often told that the EU is primarily a legal order, but it is hard to see anything ordered or lawful in its response to the Spanish crisis. If that is what European law says and is, then European law is an ass.

The EU thus has the worst of both worlds. It has pulled off the feat of being too intrusive to be compatible with UK sovereignty, yet it has not sufficiently transcended the sovereignty of the remaining member states to make the common institutions workable. It is losing healthy limbs – both the British and the Catalans would feature highly on the “save list” in any European ark – while stubbornly retaining its sickest ones, dragging Greece along behind it like a shrivelled leg it would like to amputate.

Nobody is more conscious of all these travails than the leaders of the Franco-German axis. In Berlin, the defence ministry has started to make its first contingency plans for a possible disintegration of the EU, leaked this month – a wise precaution, and one that does not suggest that the union is out of the woods. Merkel’s strategy seems to chime with the overall direction of the EU away from political union towards something resembling the early-19th-century “Concert of Europe”, which emerged after the traumas of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Then it was the Austrian chancellor, Klemens von Metternich, who rallied Europe against revolution, forced German states to persecute radicals under the “Carlsbad Decrees”, oversaw the ramshackle military mobilisation of the German Confederation and managed interventions against uprisings in Spain, Italy and other places.

This was known as the “Metternich system”. Now it is Merkel, seeking to avoid disaster, sceptical of grand schemes for improvement, encouraging moderate reforms, enforcing “austerity” and generally  intervening whenever necessary to police the agreed norms, or “rules” as they are called today. Some have called the German chancellor “Merkiavelli”, accusing her of secretly planning the reimposition of German power; others have said she was “Merkozy” or “Merkcron”, focused on maintaining the Franco-German axis. But she was Merkelnich all along.


The problem with this approach is that while the new Concert of Europe can just about manage current crises, it cannot solve them and will sooner or later be overwhelmed, just as Metternich was by the revolutions of 1848-49. The response to Catalan nationalist aspirations (and the use of the European arrest warrant against the leaders) is reminiscent of the Carlsbad Decrees, and the underpowered initiatives for greater EU military co-operation remind one of nothing so much as the pathetic failure of the German Confederation to provide for the defence of its territory.

Far from preparing the continent for new challenges, the current EU has ranged itself with the forces of stasis, rather than those of movement. To adapt Stendhal’s categories from Metternich-era France, Merkel’s EU increasingly stands for the “black” of austerity and conservatism against the “red” of hope (at least in southern Europe).

Recent events in Germany suggest that the end of the Merkelnich system may be at hand. Whatever one thinks of Merkel’s decisions on the euro and refugees, the result has been a surge in opposition not merely abroad but at home. The talks following her narrow victory in the September federal elections have collapsed, after she failed to assemble the necessary “Jamaica coalition” of the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union, Free Democrats and Greens. Fresh elections risk further boosting the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which is already on 13 per cent of the vote. If Merkel is forced out in a second election or palace coup, she will not need to leave Berlin – as Metternich fled Vienna – in a laundry cart, but like that earlier chancellor she might wish to consider a spell in Brexited Britain. Her popularity in the university towns and leafier suburbs is undimmed, and after Catalonia you never know what use a future AfD-dominated government might make of a European arrest warrant.

Amid all this, there is only one ray of hope. In his book Revolution, published in English translation in mid-November, President Macron has set out a clear vision for the revitalisation of the EU. First, he plans to demonstrate French bona fides – especially towards Germany – through a programme of domestic economic reform. Second, he plans to use this credit in Berlin to push for fundamental change in Europe.  Borrowing from the British “Leave” rhetoric, he wants the continent “to take back control” and address the grave challenges facing the union, especially the common currency, climate change, the digital transition, youth unemployment, terror, Russian aggression and illegal migration. Regretting the current failure of economic integration to create political union, Macron condemns the existing machinery of the union as “not workable” and insists that we have to “go back to the drawing board”.

Macron’s “true political plan” envisages “recovery” of “full sovereignty”, by which he means the exchange of an illusory “national” sovereignty for democratic participation in a wider “European sovereignty”; the locus of sovereignty is moved to a larger territory. The president proposes a eurozone budget and a finance minister with the ability to authorise investments and oversee the economy, responsible to a “eurozone parliament” made up of a monthly meeting of representatives of the state legislatures. Tax, social and energy convergence should be agreed in two years and achieved in ten. There should be a joint foreign and border policy. Unlike the usual incremental EU initiatives, these radical changes are not to be effected by stealth but through a Europe-wide process of national consultation ratified by referendums or the various member state parliaments.

Some dismiss Macron as a waffler, but there is nothing vague about his programme. Hiding in plain sight is a proposal for the creation of a full political union. If successful, it would at a stroke do everything that the current German-run Concert of Europe has failed to achieve. It would end the euro crisis and secure the union’s borders against terror, illegal migration and external aggression. It would help solve the Catalan crisis by providing a superior sovereignty – neither Spanish nor Catalan – to which both sides could relate. The difference between Madrid and Barcelona would then be no more than that between Virginia and West Virginia in the US. Europe is finally being presented with a plan that is at least viable in theory, and in Macron it has a leader with the standing, the energy and the ruthlessness to carry it out.


Macron does not expect – and perhaps does not even want – all of the existing member states to join him. “It is up to France,” he argues, “to take the initiative and to work with Germany, Italy and some others to set our Europe right.” He is, to borrow the language of mid-19th-century German nationalists, hoping to create not a “Greater Europe” (a continental version of Grossdeutschland), of the EU27 but a tighter “little Europe” (Kleindeutschland), which is centred on a reformed and possibly purged eurozone.

The dangers are twofold. First, the sequencing is problematic. France no longer holds two important levers of sovereign power: control over its borders and its currency. While the former can theoretically be re-established (though only at the price of destroying the Schengen Area), the latter has, in effect, been given up for good. This makes it difficult to effect change in France without transforming Europe at the same time. Macron thus resembles the 1960s intellectual who said, “I cannot change myself without changing society, and I cannot change society without changing myself.”

The transformation of the EU and its member states must therefore be undertaken not piecemeal and sequentially but simultaneously, just as the two great British and American unions were in 1707 and 1788.

Second, there will be fierce resistance to Macron’s vision, abroad and at home. The “core” states will resist what amounts to their dissolution, and those slated to remain outside the new closer political union, such as Poland and Hungary, will not lightly accept their more marginal status within the wider EU. Their co-operation is essential if the external borders are to be secured; the alternative would be the erection of new barriers between Macron’s core state and the periphery.

Merkel, the “black” to Macron’s “red”, will be particularly hard to persuade. Treaty changes and referendums are not things Merkelnich welcomes, let alone the absorption of the federal republic into a larger political union. Above all, the French president’s plans must mean the end of de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic and the creation of a Sixth (French-European) Republic. They will galvanise not only the Front National, but also many conservatives and socialists.

There is still plenty worth saving in the EU but there is little time to lose. The crises are becoming more intense and the intervals between them shorter; the contractions are getting closer and unless something is done fast they presage not life but death. Emmanuel Macron should start his European surgery without delay and not wait for the success of the  operation in France. The chances of success may be no more than even, but without the attempt failure is certain.

Brendan Simms is professor in the history of international relations in the department of politics and international studies at the University of Cambridge. He is a New Statesman contributing writer

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Families stroll down the Corniche

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A group of Filipino men take a selfie 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder