As if the steady drumbeat of terrorism in neighboring Saudi Arabia were not enough to make expatriate workers want to leave the Persian Gulf, the UAE Ministry of Education and Youth has promulgated legislation to make to make Arabic compulsory during the last three years of high school for all students in the country, whether Arabic-speaking or not, whether Muslim or not, whether going to private schools or not.
In a Gulf News report on May 13 titled "Students see red over compulsory Arabic," an unnamed staff reporter gave an unvarnished set of reactions from principals and students.
Reacting to the circular, principals of schools catering primarily to expatriates felt that imposing a unified examination in Arabic at this level will put an additional load on the students, who are already reeling under pressure while appearing for their board examinations. …
Students who spoke to Gulf News expressed shock at the new rule and suggested that the ministry should rethink the decision. They felt it should either be scrapped, or made an optional language.
The article then fleshes out these generalizations with some juicy quotes, to which I can add one, told me by an expatriate of my acquaintance: "A country that does not allow us to become UAE citizens because of our religion wants to impose Arabic and brainwash our children with very ‘conservative' Islamic lectures. What a way to confuse our children and what a way very stealthily to spread the Islamic faith."
Two days later, however, probably under pressure from the UAE authorities, Gulf News came out with a second story by Bassam Za'za', this one titled "Compulsory Arabic will help bridge culture divide," that tried to undo the damage – calling the Arabic language decision one "hailed and scorned at the same time," again with a profusion of quotations.
Comment: It will be interesting to watch the conflict between the urge to propagate Islam and the urge to maintain a high standard of living unfold in the United Arab Emirates. At this point, the two forces seem about evenly matched. (May 15, 2004)
June 3, 2004 update: A reader reasonably asks why I associate the instruction of Arabic with the propagation of Islam. Two points in response:
First, I neglected to mention that the schools also must teach their students about Islam. Here is an extract from the first of the articles above, quoting a circular issued on April 27 by the Ministry's Private and Special Education Department:
Due to the importance of conducting a unified exam stipulated in Article No. 9 of ministerial decision No 4443 of 2001, regarding the organisational guideline for accreditation of certificates issued by private schools, the decision stipulates that the subject of Islamic education and Arabic language is a must for non-Arab Muslims as well as for others from Grades X to XII.
Second, for the connection between Arabic and Islam, see James Coffman, "Does the Arabic Language Encourage Radical Islam?" Middle East Quarterly, December 1995, where the author finds, looking at Algeria, that "because Arabs draw so close a connection between classical Arabic and the faith of Islam, Arabization invariably leads to an identification with the … Islamic religious tradition."