THINK TANK: SENIOR
Tarek Boughediri, chief executive of Oummanity, a social network for Muslims, with his three-year-old daughter, Maryam. His family has settled happily in the UAE. Reem Mohammed / The National
While liberty, equality and brotherhood are cornerstones of French society, there are Muslims who fear that those ideals are window dressing in a country that refuses to tolerate them. Some are moving on – some to the UAE.
When western Muslims make the headlines by moving to the Middle East, it is usually because the destination is Syria, the purpose to join extremists whose capacity for brutality seems limitless.
But for a growing number that attracts relatively little attention, there is another, entirely positive motivation for the relocation. They want to build new lives and careers – and feel valued – in the UAE and neighbouring countries.
A major source of this category of migration is France, which has Europe’s largest Muslim population, unofficially numbered at between five and seven million people.
The French media frequently reports on Jews who abandon lives in France to set up home in Israel.
Just as those émigrés cite a rise in anti-Semitism as an important influence, so is the Islamophobia many Muslims experience in French society a factor in their desire to leave.
France has always struggled to assimilate immigrants from its former North African and sub-Saharan colonies, and their descendants. As a result, many French Muslims feel discriminated against and seen as aliens in the country where they were born or grew up.
Khaled Boudemagh, who runs the Dubai-based Hegire association, with more than 1,300 members among French-speaking exiles in the region, says inquiries from young people considering a move have multiplied in recent months.
“We sense that many are fed-up with discrimination and stigmatisation in Europe,” he says. “In Dubai, there is much less pressure. There’s no need to live a sort of concealed life. One practices one’s religion much more freely.”
Boudemagh, 37, from the northern French city of Lille, finds it refreshing to discuss French Muslims heading for the Middle East when “for once it has nothing to do with Syria, just people making a move to improve their lives and do something good for themselves and their families”.
French estimates suggest at least 15,000 people have gone from France to work in the UAE alone, with thousands more in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait. Reliable proportions are difficult to establish but Boudemagh says he would not be surprised if at least 10 per cent were Muslims.
Boudemagh is co-founder of Dubai’s Golden Age languages institute, which teaches the modern standard Arabic familiar in all Arab countries.
“As the son of Algerians, I would not be understood in the Middle East if I used the Algerian dialect because of the strong influences of French and Spanish,” he says.
After seven years in the UAE, he now misses this country when he returns to France, having settled comfortably with his wife, Nora, also of Algerian family background, and their two-year-old son, Mohammed-Amine.
“I have a good life. I earn a reasonable salary and take advantage of the environment: the beaches, the restaurants, opportunities to go diving and numerous other activities including, once, parachuting with Dubai Sky Dive.”
Community tensions in France have been heightened by such events as the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January and the series of murders, including the killing of three Jewish children, carried out three years ago by a young French-Algerian, Mohamed Merah.
Exploiting the climate of suspicion, the anti-immigration far right Front National (FN) has made steady electoral progress. This has rubbed off on the centre right, currently in opposition.
In one recent example, the mayor in the Burgundy town of Chalon-sur-Saone banned alternatives when pork is served in school canteens. Muslim politicians were aghast but the conservative former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who hopes to return to the Elysee Palace in 2017 and cannot afford to lose ground to the FN, offered robust support.
One young Frenchman of Maghrebin origin, identified only as Mohammed, said while attending a Hegire dinner near Paris for would-be emigrants that the attitude of many in France seemed to be “you fast [during Ramadan], so you’re an extremist”.
Boudemagh says 66 people attended the function but feels it is too early to say how many will end up in the UAE.
“I would not generalise too much because I used to work in France and remember non-Muslim colleagues who were very nice towards me,” he says. “It is certainly not the case that all Muslims want to get out of France, but there are more and more who want to join our group.
“They must appreciate it is not an Eldorado. You have to work hard just as you do in France. What people find here that is so different is that your name and faith cannot be a bar to employment. My brother is called Mohammed and that has sometimes caused him difficulties.”
Tarek Boughediri, 40, was born in Algeria and grew up from infancy in Paris. Now happily settled in Dubai, he says he was lucky enough to avoid prejudice in France and knows others have had more discouraging experiences.
“France gave me everything – school, culture, history, a wife,” he says. “Some people encountered discrimination because of their origin or their religion, but the most important thing is always to have dialogue with others to show them we are all one nation, one people. It’s difficult but feasible. UAE did it, no?”
Boughediri‘s love affair with the UAE began when he honeymooned in the country in 2008 and told his bride, Jessica, from a French non-Muslim family, this was where they should make their lives.
The couple moved to Dubai five years ago and have two children, aged seven and three. Jessica has converted to Islam.
At first, Boughediri ran a trading company but has now created a social network, Oummanity.com, a Facebook-style project tailored to Muslims though open to all.
“When I saw Dubai it was like a dream,” says. “All people from different nationalities lived together with respect and love.”
Salma, born to Moroccan parents and also from Lille, has Master’s degrees in law, politics and diplomacy, but found it impossible to obtain work in the country of her birth.
“It was not just that I could not get the position I have studied and worked for,” she says. “I could not get any position at all. Either I was too qualified for the job, or they were not recruiting a profile like mine.”
She says people like her felt like “strangers in France because we were half Moroccan, and strangers in Morocco because we were half French”.
Eight in 10 of fellow students from her university graduation year have also left to seek employment elsewhere. After two fruitless years of job-seeking, she decided to follow their example, taking her younger brother with her two years ago.
“I moved to find better life and work opportunities,” says Salma, 29, who found a position suited to her skills in a Dubai government office. “But my brother left to avoid this discrimination. And my older sister is moving because of it too despite having a good situation in France with husband and kids.”
Salma – she asked that her real name be disguised – says she progressed by “showing what I can do, taking initiatives, not just being passive. My manager really appreciates it and I think it helped a lot that I was western and a Muslim.”
Back in France, Chayma Haddou, 31, is counting the days until she can make her own relocation to the UAE before the summer.
She works as a financial controller in France but has an offer of a position in sales, another area in which she is qualified, when she moves. She is still looking for other possibilities and wishes ideally to find a job with a western company in Abu Dhabi or Dubai.
She also hopes to perfect her Arabic and is confident her mixture of cultures, education and fluent English will help her succeed.
“I love France,” she says. “I am French before I am Muslim. But we need a change of mentality so that people see France is no longer just the France of the Jean-Francois Martins, but of the Chayma Haddous, Mohammeds and Amadous, too.
“I want to work in the UAE, save some money and maybe return and start my own business, showing that France has achieved something with this product of immigration.”
As with newcomers of all nationalities, some will prosper or adapt better than others in the UAE.
Khaled Boudemagh advises would-be expatriates to obtain at least a working command of English before trying to leave.
Tarek Boughediri, who has borrowed heavily from relatives to invest in his social media project, realises the fulfilment of his own ambitions depends on making his idea work commercially.
But he already feels confident enough to present himself as an example of what can be accomplished with effort and resourcefulness.
He appreciates relatively small benefits, such as the pride he takes in going to work wearing Emirati clothing instead of a suit. The ready availability of places of worship is also important to him.
“Where can I find a better place to live?” he asks. “My blood is Algerian, my brain is French and my heart is Emirati, all that in a Muslim’s body.
“Initially I wanted to go to the United States to look for the American dream. When I saw Dubai I decided there might be a UAE dream, too.”
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