An Irish community has been established in Dubai since 1974 with a surge in those migrating there since 2008. Dubai is a city and an emirate with a long history of inward migration and has only recently been recognised as a ‘new immigrant destination’ for Irish migrants. Irish migrants there are popularly identified within the categorisation of Western ‘expatriates’, with Irish women stereotyped as teachers or as ‘Irish sky princesses’ (a colloquial term for Emirates cabin crew). Current and intending Irish migrants are attracted to Dubai by career and business opportunities in a ‘desert paradise’ with a low tax regime. It is also a key global city within the GCC and ‘node’ in the world city network that has been ‘place-branded’ as happy, migrant friendly and inclusive.
While the majority of Dubai Irish are newly arrived, other migrants can claim a migration of over almost forty years. Many just stay for two to three years (especially teachers) but some exceed a five year migration as part of their ‘migrant career’. Dubai now contains the largest Irish community in the UAE and GCC, guestimated at 20,000, with two members of the Dubai Irish community awarded the Presidential Distinguished Award Service Award for the Irish Abroad. My research identifies the Irish wafidah (single foreign females) and Irish wasta (professional networking) and contextualises white Irishness in a city where white identities do not dominate. It can also lay claim to the diversity, heterogeneity and longevity of this recently recognised migrant community contained within a racial migrant hierarchy, who constitute an anomalous male to female ratio of 4.1:3 within the population, and where Irish women have developed a high and favourable profile holding key roles in diverse industries.
Citizenship in the GCC ‘is legally consolidated along highly selective lines’ underpinned by the Kafala (sponsorship) system. Irish migrants and the children born to Irish migrants in Dubai are denied the right to Emirati citizenship, although there are some specific exceptions. They are entitled to renew an Irish passport, or apply for a new passport for a child born in the UAE. Given the constraints of the Kafala system, ‘few migrants can ever aspire to [Emirati] citizenship and most are strictly temporary guest workers’, even if they are highly skilled’, have lived in Dubai a long time, or are born there. The non-realisation of ‘local’ citizenship rights does not impact directly on the Dubai Irish as it is an accepted feature of what is considered a temporary labour migration system in the UAE, but one that prevents permanent residency.
The twenty-eight participants in my research were drawn from ‘the island of Ireland’ and this allowed participants who self-identified as Irish to be interviewed. The study drew three participants who were born in the North and twenty four who were born in Ireland, five were also part of inter-ethnic marriage (some had met their non-Irish spouse in Dubai). Some had mixed race children born in Dubai (three participants with a total of eight children), two participants had spent their early childhood in Syria and Lebanon (as part of their fathers’ military deployment) and had been ‘brought home’ to Ireland by their parents, one participant was second generation London Irish. All participants who were born in the North clearly self-identified as Irish and this was evidenced by their presentation for interview, however the effects of intergenerational citizenship for one participant, who had two children born in the UK and a subsequent child born in the UAE (placed on the Foreign Register of British Births), summarised the legacy complications of intergenerational British citizenship for his children, whilst another participant explained why she had applied for an Irish passport for her mixed race children.
A key association between the participants and myself was the return home conceptualised as ‘return migration’. The Dubai Irish bring with them the dream of ‘coming home’ to the ‘rural idyll’ whilst also accepting this return can be planned (or particularly sudden in Dubai), and goes some way to explain the interconnected threads of migration and intergenerational family life that are tightly bound, no matter what part of the island (or world) you were born, how long you have been away or the ‘colour’ of your Irishness.
The location of Dubai as my research site and the nature of the cohort itself expands what is understood about migration contemporaneously, what is means to be Irish, and how Irishness emerges, in what is sometimes misrepresented as a conservative and restrictive society. It also touches on emerging areas propitious for further research, that includes non-white Irishness, such as mixed race Irishness, Black, and Asian Irishness.