Multilingualism, language management, and social diversity in the United Arab Emirates


The United Arab Emirates is a federation comprised of seven independent city-states: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Umm al-Quwain, Fujairah, Ajman, and Ras al-Khaimah, with a coastline on both the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman; it shares borders with Oman and Saudi Arabia. In a short period, it has morphed from relying on the pearling industry as a source of income to being one of the most modern and technologically advanced nations in the region. The country has developed with such swiftness that writers and scholars have remarked on the speed with which this has occurred as exceptional, astonishing, extraordinary, and inconceivable (Davidson, 2005;Tatchell, 2009; Krane, 2010; Hopkyns, 2014; Solloway, 2019). Up until the 19th century, the emirates were not a cohesive unit. Although the region was never viewed as a British colony, it was a British protectorate (Heard-Bey, 2004; Onley,

  • 2005) . In addition, Great Britain assisted with political and military alliances in the region and was instrumental in helping develop trade routes (A1 Fahim,
  • 2006) . However, following a series of armistices with Britain, the different emirates united to form the Trucial States. They were also known as Trucial Oman or the Trucial Sheikhdoms. The states achieved independence at the end of World War II. The seven emirates were unified into a federation in 1971 by the late President His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan A1 Nahyan. His powerful and far-sighted leadership, in addition to oil wealth, was used to develop the UAE into one of the world’s most prosperous economies.

The individual city-states that make up the UAE maintain a large degree of independence. The seven emirs (or rulers) of each emirate make up the Supreme Council of Rulers that governs the UAE and appoints the prime minister and the cabinet. The federal capital of the UAE is Abu Dhabi, which is also the largest emirate, covering nearly 87% of the entire nation (Peterson & Crystal, 2019), while Dubai, the most populous city, has maintained its position as a global city and the business hub of the Middle East and beyond. In the 48 years since the UAE formed as a nation, the country has swiftly transformed from a desert land, whose economy relied on pearling, to one of the richest and most advanced countries in the Arabian Gulf region. Oil was first discovered in 1958 in the Gulf and then in the desert in 1960. By 1962 the first cargo of crude oil was being exported from Abu Dhabi. The ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed, immediately used the proceeds of the first oil sales to begin building hospitals, schools, housing, roads, and more (Peterson & Crystal, 2019). Today, the UAE is one of the fastest-expanding economies in the world, the second largest Gulf Arab economy and, as ranked by Forbes, the sixth richest country in the world (Khan, 2012, p. 85).


The UAE is made up of a multitude of nationalities and ethnic groups, who work together to help the nation’s continuous expansion and bold movement forward. It blends modern technology' and cosmopolitanism, while retaining ancient customs and belief systems (Peterson & Crystal, 2019). The influx of a large expatriate population has assisted in guaranteeing the UAE’s rapid and unceasing growth in all segments of society. It is estimated that the foreign workforce in the country is roughly 90% of the working population (Al-Khouri, 2010). In 2017, the UAE was ranked by the World Economic Forum as the number one country' with the most immigrants among its population (Kiraleej Times, 2017) and that the majority of immigrants in the UAE are, in fact, economic migrants, not refugees. However, the speedy influx of migrant workers, from all over the world, has led to an acute ‘population demographic imbalance’ (Solloway, 2019, p. 20). Statistics regarding the number of migrants differ; however, the UN estimated their number in the UAE to be around 85% of the population in 2015 (United Arab Emirates, 2016). This demographic imbalance has resulted in Emirati nationals being a minority in their own country' (Badry', 2011), at around 15% of the total population (Adomaitis, 2014; Kennetz & Carroll, 2018; Piller, 2018; Solloway, 2019; United Arab Emirates, 2016). According to a more recent statistic, presented by the World Population Review (2019), Emirati nationals make up about 11.6% of the overall population, with South Asians constituting the largest group at 59.4% (including Indians 38.2%, Bangladeshis 9.5%, Pakistanis 9.4%, and others 2.3%). Egyptians account for 10.2%, Filipinos for 6.1%, Western expatriates (from such places as North America, Western Europe, and Australia) for 8.5%, and other backgrounds for 4.3%. The non-nationals residing and working in the UAE represent a multitude of nationalities, with more than 100 languages being spoken in the country', including Urdu, Malayalam, Hindi, Pashto, Singhalese, Bengali, Farsi, and Tagalog (Habboush, 2009; Baker, 2017).

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