Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Ra- Ra -Ra -Racism

For all its history and culture, its beautiful people and traditions, the Arab world is pretty much a melting pot of contradictions and hypocrisies. Political turmoil isn't new to the Levant, with age-old conflicts (and silicon-enhanced Lebanese pop stars) governing the general 'Western' view of what Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan have to offer the world. The Arabian Gulf is also majorly disregarded as nothing more than FC Barcelona funding-grounds, spoof fodder for American series and blockbusters and MI4. An overwhelming opinion of the Arab world is that of blatant prejudices based on sex and race (where blue-collar workers and labourers are concerned).

Now, we can rant and rave and pretend like we're a lot more civilised than we actually are, but the truth is, have we earned that right? Wat have we done, on the ground, in our home countries, to dispel these misconceptions? And more importantly, do we really have a concrete argument to help refute these claims and judgements?

The issue of racism is one particularly close to my heart; my postgraduate degree in Social Change and Development produced a harrowing thesis on the treatment of blue-collar workers in the Arabian Gulf. However, we'd be fooling ourselves to think  of the mistreatment of labourers as the sole embodiment of racism in our midst. Ironically enough, it is that racism in itself that forces me to quote another author as opposed to using my own words, and I haven't seen anyone do it better, or more honestly, than Emirati social commentator Taryam Al Subaihi:

Nationality-based Discrimination is Still Widespread

For all the accomplishments and progress the UAE has achieved in terms of cultural understanding and acceptance, many private sector companies and organisations are still practising the worst kind of prejudice: open discrimination against people based on nationality. Regardless of how much people have achieved in terms of education and experience, they are still judged by the type of passport they possess.

If it were only personal prejudice practised by a few individuals, based on their opinion, the matter could be tackled through education and personal development. Unfortunately, there is a sort of unacknowledged policy that exists in many companies as part of their human-resource strategy, with detailed charts grading different nationalities.

Take, for example, three engineers, all of whom studied at the same high school and university, and graduated with the same marks and with the same degree, and are now applying for the same job in the UAE. In many private sector organisations, their chances of been recruited would depend largely on their nationality.

Their country of origin, in the minds of many HR professionals, will have dictated the standards of education and training they have received. This may prove true in some cases to a certain degree, but what of individual merit? Many times, those who are less fortunate struggle through life to achieve much more than other people in terms of education, experience and wisdom.

This is not to say that the public sector does not have its own set of issues, but with the majority of government employees being Emiratis, the major challenges in government employment have to do with Emiratisation. That is an entirely different subject to consider in the UAE.

Over the course of my career, most of which has been in the private sector, I have witnessed first-hand how openly discriminatory many companies can be. I have had the privilege of knowing many talented, extremely capable individuals who have remained in the same position, and with the same job title for many years, because of the countries they are from. What's worse, some of these people have never stepped foot in their "home" countries, having been born and bred right here in the UAE.

As an example, one of the smartest men I know, a close childhood friend, is from an African country. I have watched over the years as he excelled in the education system, but later struggled to be recognised for his efforts in the job market with no success, regardless of how relentlessly he pursued his opportunities.

Realising that his passport would dictate his destiny here, he decided to start over in Malaysia, where he opened a successful business. When I visited him in Kuala Lumpur, our conversations made me realise that not only had we lost a great mind but, more importantly, we had lost some of the respect and love this man had felt for the UAE.

And on the other hand, society is often glorifying individuals who seem incapable of any contribution to their companies but are fortunate enough to have a passport from one of the more "developed" countries.

Experts will argue that this is the practice in many countries, based on politics, economics and international relations, yet that does not make it any easier to swallow. Many companies have succeeded in standardising job packages and career development plans for all their employees, regardless of their nationality. These same companies are flourishing and should be used as examples to others.

However, there are many private sector organisations that continue to recruit and develop their employees with the candidate's nationality as a selection tool. The practice exists not only in major companies, but also in small businesses that have the freedom to take discrimination as far they want simply because no one is watching.

Based on the number of different nationalities living side by side here, the UAE should be the first to recognise the problems associated with this practice. Anyone who has lived and worked in the UAE will have seen the contributions and achievements every nationality has to offer. It is incomprehensible that judging a person's value by his experience and contribution can be anything but right.

A policy should be put in place and applied to all organisations, not only to forbid this kind of bias, but to enforce a stern fine for discrimination.

Note: Al Subaihi's article lives online on The National's website, here.

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