Saturday, April 14, 2007

Demographic Time-Bomb

There's an interesting editorial in today's Gulf News. The piece is written by Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, Professor of Political Science at the Emirates University, Al Ain. He says:

8 out of 10 people living in the UAE were born abroad. If the current double digit annual economic growth continues, the percentage of non-citizen will reach 90 per cent by 2015.

Henceforth, by 2025, the citizens of the UAE will constitute zero per cent of the population.

A county with a zero percentage citizens is unprecedented in modern history and will make a new entry in the Guinness Book of Records.

I guess his estimate for 2025 is meant to be a joke, or it might mean 'so close to zero as makes no difference'. Actually it does make a big difference: there could never be a condition where the local population reaches zero (well, there could, but we won't go there). His projections are a bit flawed: the current massive imbalance is a result of the decision to buildeverythingallatonceasfastaswecanquickbeforetheoilmoneyrunsout, rather than the traditional way of spreading it out over, say, a few centuries. In 5 - 10 years the current crop of projects will be finished and the last of the workers will be packing up and going home, having made their fortunes in the Emirates. So unless there's a fresh crop of mega-projects that haven't been announced yet, we can expect a dramatic fall in the population - maybe more than 50%. But, to counterbalance that, we will then have an influx of new residents who have bought into new residential properties and will be planning on staying forever - or at least having a holiday home in the sun forever. And they will be wanting some say in what goes on, some form of extended right to residency (rather than the current debacle whereby if you do not have residency by virtue of working here, the master developer will fix you a visa), and all kinds of things that permanent residents in other countries are entitled to. I'm stopping short of asking for actual citizenship: the Government won't even give that to Bedu who have lived on this land for hundreds of years.

The writer does not mention the tourism and business travel population; the Government is hoping to attract huge numbers of these people and this will endlessly distort the local demographic. But his point is valid. Emirati citizens represent a small minority of the population, and that proportion is going to get even smaller. This is an inevitable result of the Government's dramatic growth strategy, but we are not hearing anything from the Government about how they plan to deal with the problem. I suspect they don't think there is a problem. If that is true then they are mistaken. Property-owning foreigners will not accept a total lack of representation for very long - witness the recent 'rebellion' by property owners at the Green Community when the land-owner tried to raise annual propery maintenance charges by 300%.

When expats came here purely for work, the situation was different. Everyone knew what the deal was: you came. you worked, you left. Admittedly it could be hard on kids born here to expat parents (and there are many thousands of them) because they feel that the UAE is their home. But now we have foreigners who own their own businesses, maybe own their own home (but not the land it is built on) who want to feel a bit more welcomed.

The sad fact is that if every single expat left tomorrow, the UAE would collapse totally. And it would stay collapsed for all eternity. The reliance on cheap foreign labour and highly-skilled foreign labour is so total that it doesn't bear thinking about. The Emiratis need to decide: are we going to be a self-reliant people, or are we going to work in partnership with other people to help us run our country. If it's the latter then the 'other people' are due a bit more recognition than they are currently getting.

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