Foreign workforce poses challenge to Arabic language

  • 30 October 2013

Oil wealth has undoubtedly created a high standard of living for citizens of the UAE. But it has also forced many people to move from rural areas to cities, a shift that has brought with it both good and bad effects. For instance, wages may have risen substantially, but the use of the Arabic language has significantly declined since oil was discovered.

I believe that the standard of living in the UAE is not sustainable. In every middle-class Emirati household, you will find a house cleaner; in many of them you will also find two maids, a cook and a driver for each daughter, and at least two cars.

The relatively high average household income allows Emiratis to retain so many staff, the majority of whom are non-Arabic speakers. It might be better in the long-term if we choose to live without some of these privileges.

Society in this country is supported by migrant workers: labourers and domestic help.

Even though estimates of the exact size of this migrant workforce vary, a 2010 study by Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research offers a reasonably accurate snapshot. “In the UAE, migrant workers make up a staggering 90 per cent of the labour force,” it reported. “According to recent estimates, the working population consists of 1.75 million Indians, 1.25 million Pakistanis, 500,000 Bangladeshis; 1 million other Asian; 500,000 European and African.”

The UAE depends on these workers to build homes, schools, universities and roads. It depends on them for every other thing, from health care and teaching to businesses.

For their part, a large number of expatriates are drawn to this country by the employment and investment opportunities it offers, as well as by the relatively liberal rules that govern the society, when compared to some other countries in the region.

Unfortunately, such huge numbers of migrant workers have had a negative impact on the use of the Arabic language.

Non-Arabic speaking domestic workers often spend significant amounts of time with children of Emirati families that employ them. This phenomenon hinders the development of Arabic-language skills among those children.

This, I believe, is the main reason why Arabic is on the decline.

Besides that, the English language is the common language on television, so Arabic speakers are forced to use English in schools, universities, hospitals, restaurants and other public places.

Forgetting our native language means losing a sense of the cultural and traditional symbols that represent the Emirati identity.

But there is a cruel irony here: it’s possible for Emiratis to enjoy this lifestyle partly because of the contribution of hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, most of whom do not speak Arabic.

Their presence has prompted Emiratis to use the English language in every corner of the country. As Emiratis become more and more exposed to non-Arab cultures through the media, the indigenous Arab culture might eventually suffer the same fate as the Arabic language.

Given this situation, it might be time to think about pursuing alternative choices in the way we live our lives.