Posted by: Titus Presler | March 21, 2013

27 nationalities and 17 languages, but one team = 21st-century diversity working

“We are 27 crew members aboard this flight, and we come from 27 different countries,” an Emirates flight attendant told me on yesterday’s flight between New York and Dubai, the flagship city of the United Arab Emirates on the Persian Gulf.

What made that comment jump out at me was how well those 27 crew members functioned as a team – cooperatively, cordially, cheerfully, effectively.  Promoting particular airlines is not my business, but in fact Emirates is now not only one of the world’s major airlines but one of the best in welcome, service and reliability.

Linguistic diversity naturally comes along with national diversity.  As on every Emirates flight, the purser announced a list: “The languages spoken by our crew members on tonight’s flight include Arabic, English, French, German, Korean, Spanish, Thai, Portuguese, Hindi, Czech, Croatian, Serbian, Italian, Malay, Cantonese and Tagalog.”

That’s 16 languages.  The purser tore off his handwritten list for me at flight’s end. I know it wasn’t exhaustive because the flight attendant I spoke with was Slovakian and Slovak was not on the list.  Probably a number of crew members from different nations shared Arabic, English, French, Spanish or Cantonese as their primary language.  Additional languages mentioned on other flights I’ve been on have been Filipino, Amharic, Swahili, Russian and Mandarin.

Employed by Emirates for six months so far, the Slovakian flight attendant said she has rarely worked with the same crew member twice, so on every flight she is getting to know an entirely different set of people – all of them, again, from different nations and with differing mother tongues.  Everyone must know English, which obviously acts as a conduit for collaboration and solvent of misunderstandings among the approximately 3,000 cabin crew staff members she said Emirates employs.

Working with different crew members on every flight is probably standard on most airlines, but it’s not as standard for those crew members to be from so many nationalities.  It does not seem as common on British Air, American Airlines, Qatar Airways or Delta.  It certainly contrasts with the practice of many USAmerican fast-food chains, which deliberately employ people from the same ethno-linguistic group – say Haitian, Hispanic or Chinese – to facilitate teamwork in any particular outlet.

What’s remarkable about Emirates is that the airline is able to offer such superior service out of such diversity.  It doubtless stems from the quality of the people they hire and the nature of the two-month training the staff undergo before beginning work.  More crucial, I’d guess, is the corporate vision and culture of cherishing the world’s diversity that Emirates pursues.  This is why I’m reflecting on it for mission, which is ministry in the dimension of difference, and world Christianity, which shares one gospel across the range of human cultures.

A key challenge for the world community in the 21st century is the encounter with difference and the modulation of responses to difference – national difference, linguistic difference, cultural difference, religious difference.  For many of the world’s long-established nations, working through the encounter with difference has been and continues to be a rocky transition from the narrow blinders of a monocultural mindset to the inclusive perspective of a multicultural world view.  Certainly this has been true of the UK and most Western European countries, for whom immigration is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Even as immigrant-constituted nations, both Australia and the USA have similarly struggled to broaden from an ethos dominated by their British heritages.

On a global basis, the experience of the 21st century so far has been the accentuation of enmity around the phenomenon of human differences.  The aggravation of ethnic differences in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, and the heightened tension and violence between people of different religions in many parts of the world are just two instances of such difference-induced enmity.

As a Gulf Arab emirate that in the 1930s had just 30,000 inhabitants, Dubai until fairly recently was even more isolated and monocultural than its western counterparts.  Largely through the vision of Sheik Rahid bin Saeed in the 20th century, Dubai adopted a fresh vision to function as a commercial and financial crossroads of the world.  Today its population is 2.1 million and GDP is $77 billion, only 6% of which comes from oil.  Dubai’s construction of the Burj Khalifa as the world’s tallest building is an obvious attempt to signal its arrival as a world cosmopolitan center.

Dubai’s airport opened in 1960 and has been expanding every since.  In 2000 it handled 12.3 million passengers.  Its 47.3 million passengers in 2010 made it the world’s 4th busiest airport for international passenger traffic.  Today it’s the most international setting I know in the sense that there I experience a greater spectrum of nationalities than I’ve seen anywhere else in the world – more so than in London Heathrow, New York JFK, or the streets of Cape Town, Los Angeles or New York, all of which are pretty international settings.

Recognizing the breadth of difference in the human community, catalyzing encounters among differences, and cherishing the environment of difference – these must be hallmarks of the 21st century.  This should be home territory for Christian mission, what I have called the world’s most extensive and prolonged intentional engagement with human difference.  As a Muslim society, Dubai and its airline are pointing in some instructive directions.

Linguistic and cultural diversity is evident in ICE, Emirates Airline’s onboard entertainment system, which stands for Information, Communication and Entertainment.  The over 600 channels include video and audio offerings in English, Arabic, Hindi, Gujarati, Kannada, Marathi, Malayalam, Punjabi, Tamil, Telegu, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Malay, French, Russian, Spanish, Italian and German.  English classical music offerings include “Emirates Guides” to the Renaissance, Baroque, Romantic, Post-Romantic, and Modern eras of Western music.  There is even an audio recording of Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel reading his book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (Penguin Audiobooks, 2011).  So in addition to broadening standard Western fare to include “world film” and “world music,” there’s also an intentional effort to educate Eastern audiences about Western culture and discourse.  It all seems ahead of the curve, a harbinger of this century’s future.

Not all is ideal, of course.  For all their relative liberalism – currently evident in support for the Syrian opposition – the Gulf emirates are very protective of their Arab identity when it comes to national citizenship.  In 2005, just 17% of Dubai’s population had UAE citizenship, and similar proportions hold in Qatar.  The rest of the population are immigrant workers, mostly men without their families and hailing from such places as India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand and Philippines.  For them there is no route to citizenship even if they spend decades working there, as many do, so they are there to serve the Arab ruling class.  In this sense the ethos of Dubai and the UAE is anything but inclusive.  When I recently heard the son of an Edwardes colleague considering a move to Dubai I cautioned that he would be consigning himself to permanent second-class status.

Similarly, facilitation of religious diversity is not on the agenda yet.  Emirates’ onboard screens continue obligatorily to show the direction of Mecca for Muslims wishing to pray in that direction, at least virtually, during the flight, with no nod to other religions. Terminal 4 at New York’s JFK Airport includes four chapels – Roman Catholic (sponsored by the Archdiocese of Brooklyn), Protestant (sponsored by the New York Council of Churches), Jewish and Muslim – but the many “Prayer Room” designations in Dubai Airport signify only worship spaces for Muslims.

Last year an Indian from Kerala who has worked as a Dubai cab driver for 15 years told me he gets back to his wife and children for a month a year.  He estimated the Indian population of Dubai at about 700,000.  When he told me he was a Hindu, I asked how many Hindu temples there were in Dubai.  Just one, he said – that’s all the Hindu community was allowed to build, a claim verified by various sources.  So facilitating other religious communities is not a major theme in Dubai.

Nevertheless: 27 crew members, 27 nationalities, one team – something to learn from there.

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