India in ArabiaYesterday I spoke with a study agent here in the UAE and he told me that Australian universities trying to attract students from the GCC region just didn’t get the market. What he meant was that Western universities looking to recruit students here exclusively target the local Arab population and overlook the non-national population. In a country where less than 20% of the population are UAE citizens, that’s a huge market to overlook. According to the CIA factbook, the UAE is the world’s top migration destination and more than 50% of its inhabitants come from the Indian subcontinent. There is a perception outside the country that this demographic consists mostly of underprivileged migrant construction workers and domestics. However, these are only one group among many of Indian background. Many Indian families have lived here for generations, are wealthy and well-educated, and willing and able to invest into the education of their sons and daughters.

India in ArabiaTo me, the prevalence of an Indian culture indigenous to the UAE is most apparent in the radio stations. These billboards on the highway from Dubai to Abu Dhabi provide some examples. Both City 101.6 and Hit 96.7 are stations in the Arabian Radio Network targeting urban young people with an Indian background. Without any knowledge of Hindi and Bollywood movies, it took me some time to figure out the slogan “Sara shehar mujhe city 101.6 ke naam se jaanta hai.” It turns out that the slogan on this billboard is an intertextual reference to a famous line spoken by the Bollywood actor Ajit Khan (1922-1998) in the 1976 movie Kalicharan. What he said was “Sara shehar mujhe Lion ke naam se jaanta hai,” which translates as “The whole town knows me by the name of Lion.” I’m amazed at the complex cultural references on a simple billboard and that a movie line spoken a world away in space and time continues to “fly.”

I’ve learnt two things from the conversation with the study agent and the exercise of trying to figure out a billboard: you ignore diversity at your peril, and I wish I knew Hindi!

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Mira-chan

    Well that’s really an interesting post because it was only yesterday that i was chatting with some of my friends about how the big number of indians the UAEs hosting. As a teacher in schools, i met some liltte emirati children who spoke some sort of hindi very well because they had an indian housemade, and they would sumtimes confuse it with arabic. (There is more than 700 lang in india, btw)
    And i think the UAE is overlooking other nationalities because they’re trying to have citizens as a top priority, they want to provide the best for them. However, i believe its not really fair because indians n other other nationalities do work for the development of the UAE even alot more serious than the citizens themselves do.

  • Hazem Kawafha

    Dear Ingrid,

    This is a very interesting post. UAE is indeed the top migration destination in the world where less than 20% of the population are UAE citizens. These citizens are dominating the workplace in terms of managerial positions, whereas the rest of the population ( the migrants) are representing the labor sector. Communication among all of these different nationalities is with the universal language, English. Someone migrating to UAE needs to be able to communicate in English fluently in order to socialise in the community and hence find a stable job.

    A friend of mine, currently working in UAE as a lecturer, mentioned to me that English is the dominant language of the country not Arabic. When he first arrived there, he found it difficult to find employment since his English was weak. He also noticed some rapid changes occurring in the country in terms of social values and culture. The migrant language and culture are fast becoming the norm and replacing the nations Arabic background. It seems that in the long term that these changes will affect the identity of the nation.

    From my perspective, the multiculturalism, while positive in many aspects, seems to have a negative impact on the nations first language. In comparison, Australia and America have maintained the nations language, while welcoming migrants from all parts of the world. The culture and identity have been maintained and not affected by the growing number of migrants. Instead, they have encouraged migrants to adapt to their culture in order for them to assimilate into the society.

    UAE is making rapid progress in all aspects of life, however; it is at the cost of the nation’s identity and language.