Dubai, Asharq Al-Awsat- When famous Iranian singer, Googoosh, appeared on the stage in Dubai nearly six years ago, she had selected the country to mark her first appearance in the Middle East in 20 years. She said that despite a distance of over 150 kilometers between the two countries, “I feel as if I’m singing in my homeland to my own people.”
The singer’s statement may be regarded as an indicator or reflection of the extensive decades-old Iranian presence in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Although Iranians do not constitute the largest foreign community in the UAE – a state where foreigners account for 80 percent of the population – that does not prevent them from having powerful social and economic and influence in the country. This is what triggered something of a crisis for the Iranian Republic when it evinced its discomfort of the American plan to ‘spy’ on it from the Dubai.
The Indian presence in the UAE, which is the most dominant in terms of numbers and constitutes the majority among foreign nationals (over 200 nationalities live in Dubai alone) has not attracted any considerable attention from observers, but the situation is very different for Iranians with the country’s nuclear program and the regional situation in general. However, the Iranian presence in the Arabian Gulf is not new. Since the beginning of the last century, Iranian immigration into the gulf came in a steady influx and many of the area’s citizens are of Iranian descent. Despite the fact that most of Iranian immigration to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states mainly involves Huwala [descendants of Sunni Arabs who originally migrated from the eastern shore of the Persian Gulf to Iran (Persia) and returned to the Arabian peninsula in the eighteenth century], the Iranian presence in the UAE differs from that in the GCC states as most of the Iranians have Persian roots.
Following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the UAE witnessed a wave of Iranian immigration, many fled in apprehension of the revolution and its impending impacts. According to semi-official statistics, the number of Iranian residents in the UAE is estimated at about 500,000 throughout the emirates, with an estimated 400,000 people in Dubai, their stronghold, most of who immigrated after the Iranian Revolution when the Shah was overthrown. Although many of them might not have intended to settle, arriving in the UAE as a transit stop to resume their travels to America, Canada or Europe, the various incentives Dubai offered its residents, including the Iranians, as well its proximity to their country geographically convinced many of them to stay on and engage in the UAE’s trade industry. The growth of the Iranian community in the UAE is on the rise as figures from the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DCCI) show that 6,500 Iranian companies are currently operative in the UAE and 10,000 Iranian students are enrolled in UAE schools and universities.
The total Iranian investments in Dubai stood at over US $200 billion in 2005 and the figure was expected to increase to US $300 billion in 2006. The Iranian community has its own residential districts and markets throughout the UAE, in addition to its clubs where many meet so that one may say that some of Dubai’s districts can be dubbed ‘little Tehran’. There are many places that are seemingly exclusive to Iranians where they hold their private parties and spend their evenings, as there are Iranian restaurants dispersed throughout the emirates.
The UAE is Iran’s first trading partner; the volume of Iranian imports from the UAE during Iran’s last financial year (which ended March 20, 2006) was US $7.5 billion while the volume of exports was US $2.5 billion, according to figures released last May by Masoud Mirzaei, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) deputy chief in charge of News Affairs, and the Iranian commercial attaché to Dubai. The primary commodities exported from Iran to the UAE over the last three years are pistachios, oils, steel and precious metals, while Iran’s imports from the UAE are bananas, petrol, oils, auto parts, communication systems, mobile phones, heavy equipment and machines.
Generally speaking, the Iranian community living in the UAE is focused on the economic dimension, displaying no interest in politics in their ‘second’ home. Farukh Sadiq, a UAE-born Iranian says that the Iranian residents in the UAE find in Dubai, and in the other emirates, a safe haven for themselves. “It is true that my country is not so far from the UAE; however, we enjoy a freedom that may not be possible there,” she added. Farukh is intensely upset by statements voiced by some that the Iranian community may be a cause of concern due to the tense relations between her country and some of the Gulf States. “We have found here a place that has embraced us. We have worked and coexisted with the citizens and the residents, too. We stay clear and are far removed from political affairs. The Iranian community has never committed anything that might reflect badly on the Iranians in the UAE.”
Lieutenant General and head of the Dubai police, Dahi Khalfan Tamim asserts that the Iranian community lives in Dubai like any other expatriate community, adding, “The Iranian residents here are among the best expatriates in the country. They keep to themselves and are only concerned with earning a living,” he said. “Iranians are traders; they buy and sell. We have nothing to fear and there are no sensitivities regarding their presence,” Tamim added.
The lieutenant general denied the presence of special security procedures for Iranians or others, affirming that political differences should not reflect on the citizens of these states. “It is faulty and foolish of governments to reflect their relations on the people. Political differences should be confined to their underlying causes,” he said. Although many Iranians settled in countries on the Arabian Gulf, obtaining citizenships to these countries, having equal rights and duties towards these states – among them successful businessmen whose investments reached billions –Iranians in the UAE still have a special influence. One of the reasons is that Iranian-UAE differences over some issues are not linked or confused with the Iranians who live in Dubai. Official authorities in the UAE have dealt with differences with Iran in a balanced manner. Despite the fact that Iran has been occupying UAE territories (the three UAE islands) for over 35 years, dealing with the Iranian authorities has remained balanced and is accurately calculated – escalation was not met with counter-escalation for more than three decades and the differences over the three islands did not impact the presence of the Iranian community and its economic power, or relations with Iran in general. Perhaps the last in a string of UAE positions in this same spirit was when the UAE stressed that it would not allow the United States to use its territories to spy on the Iranian Republic at a time when Tehran stated through the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Muhammad Ali Husseini, that it intended “to take the necessary procedures to prevent the UAE from becoming a base for American hostile actions against Iran.”
In mid-October 2006, without drawing too much attention, Washington launched a diplomatic mission in Dubai that specialized in Iranian affairs in the emirate. The US State Department’s ‘Iran Regional Presence Office’ is the first of its kind since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the severance of the Iranian-American relations. The office sits inside Dubai’s US consulate and has started act with caution as bilateral relations deteriorated recently after escalation over the Iranian nuclear standoff. Just 150 kilometers from Iran, the US found an important location in Dubai to watch Tehran and reach out to its people, according to analysts. In press statements last March, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns emphasized that they had no intention of reopening the US embassy in Tehran any time soon; however, he added, “We plan to place more specialists on the job of monitoring Iran.” It was unclear whether this monitoring would be on Iranian political or economic activities. The UAE later affirmed that it would not allow for the country to become a base for any activities against Tehran. During a visit to Iran earlier this month, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed al Nahyan denied receiving any request to establish the aforementioned office. He stated that his country wanted to maintain regional stability and peace. Responding to a question about the allegations that the US was using some states in the region to launch an attack against Iran, he said, “The mere thought is absurd.”
The Americans affirmed that the new office they opened in Dubai aimed at improving America’s understanding of Iran. Responding to a question posed by Asharq Al Awsat on the role of the Iran Regional Presence Office in Dubai, R. Nicholas Burns said during his visit to Dubai last week, “We have a physical consulate here [in Dubai] and the activities of the Iran Regional Presence Office in the consulate seek to cater to the enormous needs of Iranians wanting to travel to the US. Therefore, it [the office] exerts huge efforts in issuing visas as well as establishing communication between the people of the two countries, especially as the official bilateral relations have been severed for over three decades. Consequently, a small number of Iranians visit America and a limited number of Americans visit Iran.”
The American official cited the US Dubai consulate’s organization of a trip for the USA Wrestling team to Iran the week before last after an invitation from Iran’s wrestling association [to compete in the Takhti Cup Freestyle Wrestling Tournament in Bandar Abbas]. The US team held a series of meetings with its Iranian counterpart. According to Burns, “The Americans were treated respectfully by the Iranian audience in the stadium. Members of both teams had a good time.” He added that the office had organized a trip for Iranian doctors and nurses to visit hospitals in the US. “We exert efforts in encouraging relations between the people of the two countries because of the problems in relations between the two governments. Of course, we want to send a large number of Iranian students to study in American universities, and want to see American students studying in Iran. Additionally, the consulate is geographically located close to Iran and this office seeks to create all these connections between the Americans and Iranians. I believe that most states would agree with us that establishing contact is a positive thing. The office is intended to issue visas and seek to understand Iran and to acquire an understanding of the Iranian people. This is exactly what we try to do in Dubai,” he said.
However, because the US Congress has recently approved a US $85-million plan to support ‘freedom’ in Iran by funding local radio and television programs to be broadcast in the country in the Persian language, moreover earmarking US $5 million in scholarships for Iranian students enabling them to study at US universities, opening the office has raised Tehran’s concern that the intention may be to damage Iran’s interests. Yet so far, all signs indicate that Iranian business activities, rather than their nuclear program, are the focus of US interest. Abbas Bolurfrushan, president of the Iranian Business Council (IBC) in Dubai, said in statements to the Associated Press that he met with newly appointed US diplomats in Dubai that “it is necessary to have an [American] office to monitor the Iranian situation seeing as they do not have an office in Iran,” he said. He added that the US diplomats do not attend IBC meetings but that the council had close ties with the American Business Council of Dubai. The estimated multi-billion Iranian investments in the country and various Iranian companies in Dubai maintain ties with companies in Tehran. The American government has recently given the UAE a list of a number of Iranian companies that Washington considers ‘bogus companies’ that seek to violate the American embargo on Tehran. In September, US Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Treasury, Robert Kimmitt said, “We hope that our friends here in the UAE will watch these companies closely.” Nevertheless, the contacts between the UAE and Iranians in the UAE are deeply rooted ones, interactions over the past few months have proven that this will remain to be the case because of geographical location and common interests.