Illustration by Anastasiia Zubareva
It was the innocuous foosball table in the Baraha that helped Aisha Al-Hemeiri, Class of 2020, overcome one of the most commonly perceived social divides at NYU Abu Dhabi — that between international and Emirati students. Only a few weeks into her first year at university, she had already become familiar with the social dynamic of NYUAD.
“It didn’t take me that long to notice the divide,” she said, “Emirati students get treated differently. Although this is true of all other nationalities, I think that Emirati students are looked at particularly differently because of the way they dress and because of the stereotypes that students hear.”
Sometimes these divides are subliminal. “For example, when I am with a non-Emirati friend and we are about to meet a new student, I immediately notice how the student holds back on their reactions or responses when we talk,” said Al-Hemeiri. “It is as though it has been already established that we cannot relate or click on a level that normal friends do.”
Al-Hemeiri found that there is something about foosball that enables people to forget about who they are and where they come from and think of one another simply as other students in the Baraha. “It was incredible,” she said. “My foosball skills became very intense, to the point that I beat a lot of male players. The look on their faces afterwards was hysterical.”
This divide seems to transcend the social. Mariam*, Class of 2021, pointed out that this lack of integration may apply to any dominant nationality on campus. “I think it’s essentially a matter of being comfortable and safe identifying with people from your home country while being in such an overwhelmingly international community on campus. I mean, I can make friends from all over the world, but the people closest to me have always been Emirati,” she said.
Some students also take issue with how this lack of integration is framed — specifically, as a problem that needs to be resolved. To these students, this assertion seems unfair and neglects the nuances of the matter. Hamda*, Class of 2018, asserted that she had never seen an Emirati who does not have any non-Emirati friends on this campus.
“One thing that may be what leads to the perception [of lack of integration] is the visibility factor … When you’re looking at Emiratis and seeing people in kandoras and abayas clustered together, it makes them stand out, and even though each of these Emiratis would then go their separate ways and meet with their non-Emirati friends, individually they are not as visible as when it’s a group standing together,” she said.
Brian Kim, Class of 2020, agreed.
“As misinformed people who might not have had any interactions with the Emiratis, people assume that Emiratis are aloof, or don’t care. And because they mark themselves with their dress — oftentimes you see a cloud of white kandoras or black abayas — you don’t interact with them,” said Kim.
There is also the issue of the approachability of Emiratis, which Kim attributes to a perceived difference in values among students, especially since NYUAD is a liberal arts college. Due to the perceived conservatism of Emiratis, Kim added, people often assume that they might not accept liberal people or ideas.
Hamda was quick to counter the notion of Emiratis being unapproachable.
“Word spreads around quickly that people don’t feel Emiratis are approachable, and my response to that is always, Did you or anyone saying that try to approach an Emirati? And their response is almost always no,” said Hamda. “I’m not saying that you have to put in an effort to engage with Emiratis, but if you feel that this is a problem, the least you can do is try,” she added.
Asma*, Class of 2019, added that part of the approachability issue stemmed from a lack of understanding of Emirati culture, which is more dynamic than most people realize.
“These rules are not fixed,” she said. “Some Emirati women are very okay with hugging male friends, some Emiratis are very comfortable talking about things that are against culture … It really varies from individual to individual, and I don’t think we can be taken under a single umbrella.”
For Asma, the problem goes beyond whether or not Emirati students and international students integrate — it is the aftermath of the integration. She has observed that Emiratis on campus sometimes feel pressured to disregard their value systems for the sake of being accepted in the non-local NYUAD community, which often leads to alienation within the Emirati community.
“Because we have so many cultures coming to us at once, it’s a bit of a shock because we’re being exposed to things we haven’t [been exposed to] to this extent before, and it does kind of lead certain Emiratis into trying to adapt to other cultures, but not in a positive way,” she said. “I feel like they adapt to other cultures more out of the motivation to fit in with the rest, so they lose their own identity and culture, which puts them in a place where they’re kind of lost, and they think, Who am I now?”
This question of cultural integration is one that finds itself at the center of a lot of discussions on campus, especially in the context of programs intended for first-year students. It can be daunting for new students to figure out how exactly to approach Emirati culture and students — Asma even admits that if she were an incoming student from abroad she might herself be scared to approach locals.
Kim, who has also worked with the Office of First Year Programming, points to several programs that aim to build cultural understanding among students, including Sufara’a and Kashtah trips.
“I think that Campus Life does a great job, actually,” he said, “There are plenty of opportunities for people to engage with Emiratis … and it’s just that you have to really want to take the initiative.”
Sufara’a, a program that aims to present the values of the UAE to NYUAD students among other things, is another route that students can take to interact with Emirati students.
Mario Encina, Class of 2018, did not want to leave NYUAD without having fully engaged with the UAE.
“Sufara’a’s extraordinary efforts in conceptualizing this program have given birth to a diverse hub that has helped me get closer to people from other classes, and to Emirati students from many different backgrounds,” he said.
Kim also admits that there is much more work to be done.
“I think that people often expect Emiratis to take the initiative to interact with others but I don’t think that’s entirely valid … there’s a balance between putting the burden completely on either Emiratis or international students. I think it’s a two-way street, it can’t be a one-way street,” he said.
Hamda echoed that thought. She and Asma both agreed that sometimes Emiratis feel the compulsion to overcompensate or socialize more with non-locals just to prove a point.
“Starting with Marhaba,” said Hamda, “the amount of effort put in to make students not terrified of Emiratis is incredible, like the Majlis and a few other initiatives. I mean what’s the point of the whole Sufara’a program? We put a lot of effort into opening up that door for people to come and interact with us, and it’s not okay to not put an effort back and then go and say that we’re not approachable, [that] we don’t engage with other students.”
Over the years, Hamda has learned to think twice about some comments she regularly receives from international students.
“I’ve had students come to me and tell me, Oh, you’re not like the other Emiratis, because apparently I engage with them,” said Hamda, “and at first I didn’t know how to take this. Now I ask, What do you mean by that?”
Whether it is getting involved in programs like Sufara’a or bonding with fellow classmates over foosball, students have slowly begun to change their approach to this issue. Opinions on this matter are different across the spectrum, which tell us that the issue of Emirati-non-Emirati integration warrants deeper dialogue and a more conscientious examination within the NYUAD community. Either way, the blame can’t fall on one side or the other — perhaps because it is this very acknowledgment of sides that lies at the root of the issue.
Some names have been changed due to individuals requesting anonymity.
Shreya Shreeraman is Senior Features Editor and Shamma Al Bastaki is a contributing writer. Email them at email@example.com.