Archive | April, 2014

Dreams in the desert

29 Apr

God is preparing the way for a spiritual awakening in the Gulf

IMG_0907It’s the planet’s largest importer of gold and boasts the tallest building, the fastest power boats, the richest horse races and the biggest shopping mall. The United Arab Emirates delights in breaking world records–maybe because Emiratis themselves still marvel at their newfound wealth. The discovery of oil has catapulted the UAE from camels to Cadillacs, from shifting sands to six-lane highways and from tents to state-of-the-art office blocks–all within the space of 50 years.

Not all Western imports to the Arab world have been beneficial. Drugs and alcohol are serious problems, and an over-indulgence in fast food has turned one in five residents into diabetics. The initial oil wealth has attracted enormous levels of foreign labour– western management and expertise combined with low cost manual and semi-skilled labour from South Asia –and this has resulted in spectacular economic development. It has also resulted in bizarre demographics, with expatriates making up 85 per cent of the population.


Even Islam takes second place to the affluenza virus. Newly arrived Christian workers are bewildered to find churches abounding in all denominations; the government has even gifted them with land. In December, malls carry all the trappings of Christmas. And nowhere do fierce mutawa–the religious police so notorious in neighbouring Saudi Arabia–strike fear into the hearts of less-than-conservatively-dressed tourists. Life is deceptively easy.

Although religious police do exist, they concentrate on deflecting extremist elements like Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. Nobody wants terrorists rocking the boat of prosperity. The real difficulty for foreigners lies in getting close enough to the Emirati people to share the truth of Jesus Christ. Nearly 100% are Muslims and although a good number are secularised, Islam is still an important part of their identity. Mosques are within walking distance in every neighbourhood, by law; there are even places for prayer in shopping malls. Every day they join the billion all over the world who bow toward Mecca.

IMG_0944Locally-born residents are easy to spot, the women veiled head to toe in black, men elegant in flowing white dishdashas and head coverings. But how does one make friends with them?

Expatriates require a visa, which means most of them, including Christian workers, must have full-time jobs as bankers, teachers, architects, business consultants, and so on. “It’s very easy to lose focus, to get busy and lose the way,” confess these workers. “You have to be intentional in ministry even when you’re tired, and make an effort to learn the language.” But the fact that almost everyone around you speaks English or Hindi or Urdu or some other language makes learning and practicing Arabic doubly difficult.

“The UAE–and Dubai in particular–is one of the toughest nuts in the Gulf to crack because of the economic prosperity,” admits another worker who has lived in the area for 13 years. “However, this is the front line. This is where my heart has always been directed, and that’s why I’m excited to be here!”

Major  ‘quakes’ in the Arab world

He points to three major shake-ups in the Arab world identity in recent years: 9/11, which made many Muslims question the ethos of Islam, what it is really about; the big economic crash of 2008, which hit Dubai – the business hub for the Arab world – particularly hard; and the “Arab Spring” of 2011–a season of great political upheaval for many societies in which ordinary Arabs discovered they could effectively challenge authority, both political and religious.

“God is unsettling all the assumptions that have recently governed the Arab world. While it looks stable, a lot is going on underneath. Western education has undermined a lot of Islamic assumptions and there is vast disillusionment, especially among young people. The trickle of pent-up frustrations of women is also becoming a deluge. Things are falling into place, so we must be prayerful and as ready as we can be. It’s not us who will decide when the change will come, it’s the Holy Spirit.”

How then should world Christians intercede? “Pray that God will equip His people with boldness,” he says. “It’s so easy here to be inhibited by security concerns. Also pray for personal holiness. The temptations we face here are no less than what we have at home. But if we have a heart for these people and we are focused, faithful and holy–we will get to be part of a truly amazing work of God!”