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Croatia: the fragile heart of the Balkans

The youngest member of the EU, Croatia is popular with tourists. But it is still defined by the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, and its young people are leaving.

One of the big tourist attractions in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, is a poky and improbable museum without a Bronze Age fragment or a Roman artefact in sight. It is called the Museum of Broken Relationships, a concept that is at once clever, simple and dead cheap.

It comprises a selection of mundane items sent in by the global public to symbolise their own lost loves. Some are touching: a 13-year-old boy’s letter written to a girl he met fleetingly while fleeing Sarajevo under fire in 1992. Some are gloriously vengeful: an axe used to chop up an ex’s furniture. It speaks to us all, of course, because lost love is universal. But it is also place-specific, because the Balkans could be rechristened the Peninsula of Broken Relationships. And Croatia is at its fragile heart.

Like Slovenia next door, Croatia is doing its best to turn its back on the noisy neighbourhood: it joined the EU in 2013, the only new recruit in the past decade. I have heard it argued that its democratic norms did not meet the alleged requirements; that they did at the time but the politicians backslid once safely in; or that Croatia was eligible long before 2013 but unfairly made to wait. This last argument may be the strongest strand, since this country has a powerful sense of victimhood.

I mentioned to someone in Zagreb that my image of Croatia came from the man who might be its most famous son: the 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivaniševic – brilliant, erratic, funny, infuriating, endearing, a bit bonkers. “Oh no, that’s not us,” I was told. “He’s Dalmatian. It’s the Italian influence. They’re all like that there.” It was as if someone had described Geoffrey Boycott as a typical Englishman.

I still think of it as a Tigger of a country. Many of the Croatians I met had an almost Irish gift for the arresting phrase, even in English – so they must be magnificently vivid in Croat. They don’t hold back. As a comment attributed to Bismarck puts it: “The Croats don’t actually know what they want. But they want it NOW.”

They are especially picturesque when discussing the nation’s grievances. One businessman immediately drew my attention to the map. “Most people say Croatia looks like a dragon. But look at it. It’s the Apple logo. You know: someone’s taken a bite out of it.”

Actually, the bite is much bigger than Apple’s; turn the map round and the country looks more like the letter C or U. That bite is Bosnia and the boundary represents the ancient dividing line between Western Christianity – Croatia remains staunchly, or at any rate showily, Catholic – and the Ottoman empire. The country is defined by its strange shape: the plus of its magnificent, long coastline and the minus of its unfeasibly lengthy land borders. When it was part of communist Yugoslavia everything was held together by the force of Tito’s personality, and bits of string. Now Croatia has five separate international borders and boundary squabbles involving all of them. One Croatian said that the country suffered from middle child syndrome, convinced that those above and below them were getting better deals.

Culturally, it is buffeted by cross-currents: here and there are grand buildings fit for grand dukes; notes of waltzes and chocolate torte waft down from Vienna. Gorgeous fresh fish on the coast; sausage and dumplings inland. But there is history, too, and a lot of that is very murky.


The consensual view of the war of the 1990s, which Croatians call the homeland war, is that the Serbian clique around Slobodan Miloševic was overwhelmingly to blame but that there were also Croatian atrocities (the best short account I know is in Tony Judt’s 2005 masterwork, Postwar). Not all of these are yet fully accounted for, mainly because the Croats – as both victims and victors – have not had the reckoning that comes with defeat.

Yet that is not the only war in living memory. In what Britain still calls “the last war”, Croatia was under direct Nazi rule from the local variant, the Ustaše, led by Ante Pavelic, who may have been second only to Hitler as a genocidal maniac. Again the reckoning was incomplete: even Pavelic died in bed, in Franco-era Spain. Croatia is a place where there are secrets and lies, a sense of unfinished business, of an unconfronted past. A loud country, where some subjects have to be discussed in whispers.

In between there was communism. UK-born Marijana Dworski, who sells Balkan books from rural Wales, has returned regularly to her ancestral home all her life and says the questions she gets haven’t changed since those days: “Where do you live in Lon-don [always pronounced as written]?” “How much do you earn in Lon-don?” “What car do you drive in Lon-don?” The most cherished Western goods in that era were blue jeans, detergent and decent coffee. And to this day, she says, coffee is the gift of choice to take to a hostess, rather than wine or chocolates, though the local coffee shops are ubiquitous and strong enough to keep Starbucks at bay.

What I never did sense in Croatia was the kind of Yugo-nostalgia I encountered in Slovenia (“Where the wind blows softly”, NS, 8 December 2017), and this is backed up by polling data – because Croatia did not have a jolly little war of independence, it had a horrendously bloody war. So its victory remains the central fact of the country’s politics. “There’s this group of half a million people who are recognised as homeland defenders,” says Dejan Jovic, professor of international relations at the University of Zagreb. “They are not one homogeneous body but they are represented by various organisations whose interest is to see the war never ends. They talk as though they are the creators of the state and therefore they are sovereign and the state is not.” Thus they have an effective veto on government policy, of the kind exercised by big money and the NRA in the US and Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre in Britain. Jovic, however, is beginning to sense a change. “My students no longer have a memory even of this war. They’re a new generation. They are also split into several groups. Some are looking to be heroes of the next war and some challenge the heroic narrative completely. But the largest group just repeats the rhetoric as ritual. It’s like communism was for my generation. They learn it in school but they don’t really believe it.”

Eventually this stop-banging-on-about-the-war-dad generation will inherit the country. But it hasn’t happened yet. The conflict in some way touched almost every family in Croatia, including improbable people in improbable ways: the art historian Theo de Canziani was sent, along with other experts, into the battleground frontier town of Vukovar, two weeks after it was liberated, to assess the damage to its heritage. “The place was smoking,” he recalled, “and there was this strange, very sweet smell. It was only later, when my grandmother died and I was with her, that I realised what that smell was.”

As one diplomat observed to me: “You see on the commemorative days that Croatia is not yet ready to move on. They have not got to the point when they can remember the sacrifices on both sides. There’s a quick mention of Serb deaths in the politicians’ text but then they’re into nationalist celebrations and even chanting Ustaše slogans.” And after the war criminal Slobodan Praljak’s suicide in court in November (an act of what seemed to me very Croatian theatricality), there was an unseemly degree of sympathy.

The war did achieve, more by chance than judgement, a nationalist objective that sets Croatia apart from most developed nation states. It has gone from being multi-ethnic, multicultural and multi-religious to more mono-ethnic, monocultural and mono-religious. Croats rushed back from neighbouring countries to replace the minorities who fled the other way. Not merely did Croatia end up as an independent state and a member of both Nato and the EU, its minority population went down from 22 per cent to below 8 per cent. “This did create a sense of stability,” explained Bojan Aleksov, senior lecturer in Balkan history at University College London. “But externally it brought lots of troubles, particularly Croatia’s bad relations with its neighbours.”

That homogeneity helps a lot of mould fester behind the democratic facade. “We have a politicised civil service and judiciary and high levels of patronage,” a political analyst told me. “They always talk of reform. It goes down well in Brussels. It goes down well locally. But nothing ever happens. Court cases last five, ten, 20, 30 years even. A 30-year divorce case? Can you imagine?”


Homogeneous or not, there are (over-simplifying somewhat) three very different Croatias. The Croatia the world knows is its frontier with the kindly and beguiling Adriatic – a thousand islands, islets and reefs, 3,600 miles of coast in all. Here the communist-era blocks of flats are now being matched by the jerry-building of the new capitalism, and the country’s highly successful tourist industry.

Aleksov gives the credit to Islamic State. “No one wants to go to Egypt, to Turkey, to Tunisia. So they go to Croatia. We go every year and notice some terrible new tourist development and tell people no one’s going to come to Croatia because these places are so dreadful. And they tell us that every year it’s fuller. Fifteen per cent increases. So what can you say?” (If your hotel collapses, don’t even think of suing. Not in Croatia.) As well as the shoddy buildings, there are smart new ones too, built dubiously without obvious regard to the technicalities of ownership, never mind planning regulations. There are people here with whom one does not argue.

Inland, there is Zagreb, a lively and attractive city, and the prosperous region nearby. But I took a pre-dawn train east from Zagreb into Slavonia – not to be confused with Slovenia, Slovakia or indeed Snowdonia. “Pancake-flat, river-rich Slavonia,” the Lonely Planet guide’s very short section on the region begins, “is all but untouched by tourism…” It then devotes the next few pages pretty much to explaining why it’s likely to stay that way.

The entry does not even mention Slavonski Brod, the second-largest town in the region, though it is set on the broad River Sava looking across to Bosnia, and is both historic and attractive – provided the wind is not blowing smoke from the Bosnian oil refinery their way. This was not one of the places the world half-heard of on the news while quarter-understanding the hell the Yugoslavs were inflicting on each other in the 1990s. But in the summer of 1992 it was bombed on a daily basis as the Serbs tried to breach the bridge over the Sava.

Twenty-eight children were killed there – more, I was told, than anywhere else in Croatia – a story depicted on accusatory Belfast-style murals facing the river. And in a playground nearby there is the official monument to all the Croatian children who died: a 15ft-high metal jigsaw with a couple of pieces missing. It was unveiled last year and is the most affecting war memorial I have seen.

But Slavonski Brod is still losing its children, not as tragically but perhaps almost as finally. There is a strong industrial tradition here and the local college still turns out kids ready for the workplace, in metal processing especially. They find jobs all right, just not here – but across the EU’s free-labour market, in Germany, Austria and (the UK having pulled up the drawbridge by the time Croatia joined) Ireland.

The deputy mayor, Hrvoje Andric, speaks at the graduation ceremonies: “These young people are a strategic resource of the Croatian republic,” he told me. “I tell them, ‘Each one of you is worth more than a freshwater spring or a beach on the coast.’ It’s hard to look at these people and think that at least half of them will be gone in months. We are doing our best to improve the town. But central government has no idea how to stop this happening. We have to have some return value on these people or it’s not fair.”

The council’s development officer, Dejan Vuksanovic, talks proudly about the innovation incubator that is helping tech firms get started and provide jobs at home. “But why wouldn’t your brightest kids go to Germany, where they can earn three times the money?” I asked. “That’s the problem,” he replied sadly. The irony is that if one of these companies does take off, it will have to recruit from the poorer countries of the Balkans, bringing back the very minorities to whom Croatia has just said good riddance.

In the second half of the 20th century Slavonski Brod’s population trebled to a peak of 64,000. Now it is falling sharply. In rural Slavonia the problem is even worse: whole villages deserted, fields untilled. And there is a new crisis: the collapse last year of supermarket chain Agrokor, a company that bought up pretty much every major food and retail business in Croatia in a way that made Enron look rock-solid. Its founder, Ivica Todoric, was last heard of in that well-known offshore bolt-hole, London, where he was arrested on a European warrant and bailed in November. A fair few high-ups in Zagreb will be hoping he stays there.

Free movement of labour must sound great at BMW HQ in Munich, less so here. This does not mean Croatia is jealous of Britain as we head to the EU’s exit. Indeed, the most withering comment on Brexit I’ve ever heard came from the art historian de Canziani: “You know, the Pekinese was a big dog once, but the size was bred out of it. So when it sees another dog it thinks it’s still big and tries to bark. But it can’t. It can only yap.” Ah, these Croatians: they could be wordsmiths to the world. 

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry

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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 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry