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UAE Makes Arabic Its Official Language

By March 9, 2008

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Strange headline. Why would the United Arab Emirates, a nation whose Arab identity is like a pacemaker at the heart of its very name, decide, as its cabinet did today, to make Arabic "the official language in all federal authorities and establishments"? The answer says a lot about one of the most rapidly changing, even westernizing, chunks of the Arab world.

The UAE's Extreme Wealth

The UAE is a fabulously wealthy federation of seven autonomous emirates. The richest and most famous--for they do have celebrity status among nations, like starlets making good on sexy promise--are Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The latter has 9% of the world's oil and 0.02 percent of its population, netting it an annual $50 billion surplus, and a total severeign wealth fund, which it uses to invest at home and abroad, at around $700 billion. Dubai, besides being a world sports mecca, an architecture mecca, and an emerging financial hub, has big tourism and transport industries.

The gushers of wealth and the UAE's relative economic liberalism have resulted in a huge influx of western investors and Asia laborers. The influx has been so large that the native population is now a minute 20% of its population of 4.5 million. There are Americans, Pakistanis, Indonesians, Sri Lankans, Lebanese, Indians, Germans, French, and so on. Most don't speak Arabic. None can learn all those languages. English has become the default language of business and more, upsetting local purists.

English vs. Arabic

"To my knowledge, there is no nation that allows an invasion of foreign languages in government institutions the way we did in the UAE. The move will correct the imbalance," Dr Ebtisam Al Kitbi, Professor of Political Science at the UAE University in Al Ain, told Gulf News. "See countries like Germany, France and Japan. People there use foreign languages, but you will never see them in the work place other than their national languages. English is widely used in the government in the UAE and this is unacceptable," she said.

Of course, making something official--whether it's a language, a national bird or a national tune--doesn't mean people will sing along. Ask those very Europeans Dr. Al Kitbi thinks aren't using English in their official capacities. They choose not to do so only at the risk of losing their own competive edge.

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