Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates in the Arabian Peninsula. It is virtually an island because of the way the inland waterways from the Persian Gulf weave around it. The population is just under a million. It’s a 90 minute drive southwest from Dubai.
As with the other major cities in the UAE, about 80% of the population of Abu Dhabi is expatriate. This includes the lowest paid laborers who live in camps outside the city, and the highest paid executives and managers who may live in luxury. It strikes me as a fragile arrangement for the Emiratis. If, for some reason, the foreign labor force and industrial leadership left the country, the economy would be crippled.
A Cordial Relationship
This contributes to a relatively cordial relationship between the Sunni Muslim government and the expatriates, including the large Christian presence. Land has been given to the Christians for a cluster of Christian church buildings. In the Evangelical Community Church of Abu Dhabi where I spoke, there are 67 nationalities. This was probably the most ethnically diverse group I have ever spoken to. In addition to ECC, 61 other churches meet in this building — every day of the week.
Another evidence of the cordial connection between Muslim leaders and the Christian church is that Christians were allowed to rent the National Theater for an event so long as the advertising included “Christians from all denominations are invited.” The advertised topic was: “Why Does Jesus Want Us to Worship Him?” I spoke freely about Jesus as the Son of God, explaining what that does and does not mean, and about his substitutionary death and resurrection and about the necessity of faith in him for salvation among all the peoples of the world. Muslims were not excluded. The authorities were present to make sure we crossed no proselytizing lines.
The Natural Conversation
It is against the law to proselytize in the UAE. But this does not mean the Christian faith cannot be explained and heralded as the truth. It means you do it in the places and the ways that are tolerated. If that sounds ambiguous, it is. And probably intentionally. This is a benevolent Muslim dictatorship. They retain the right to deport whom they regard as a problem. From what I have seen this ambiguity about what proselytizing is results in a good deal of freedom and boldness among Christians to respond to Muslims at work and in the neighborhood with clear gospel explanations, when they want to discuss religion.
I have been told by more than one person here that they have spoken more about their Christian faith with interested Emiratis than they did for 20 years in the States. One reason is that unlike America, virtually everyone here is religious. It is natural to talk about religion. Those kinds of conversations are not regarded as awkward.
Consider the UAE
One implication of this situation is that the UAE is an astonishingly strategic place for Christians to be. Not only are there 23 unengaged peoples indigenous to the country, but hundreds of ever-changing peoples visit and work here. One church leader told me that 60% of the expatriates who are in the churches came to Christ here. They came to the UAE looking for money, and what they found was Jesus.
The global significance of filling this region with gospel-focused, God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated churches seems immeasurable. I spoke to expatriates in high positions who said there is always need for skilled professionals in education and industry. If you have five years of successful experience in your vocation and a passion to be part of spreading a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ, consider sending your CV to a company in the UAE.
Interestingly, the pervasive surveillance here is not because Christians are here. The Emiratis have a high trust level for the Christians. They are hard-working, competent contributors to the economy. What is feared is radical Islam. The destabilization of the country through groups like the Muslim Brotherhood is the main threat. The Emiratis enjoy their partnerships with the West, and this would be undone by a move toward isolation and Sharia law.
One of the reasons the UAE has escaped the violence of the Arab Spring is that the enormous oil wealth here is shared liberally with the Emirati citizens. The UAE can produce three million barrels of oil a day, each worth $100. They say the reserves are good for a hundred years. A typical policeman, I am told, makes the equivalent of $20,000 a month (month is not a misprint). This kind of prosperity among the indigenous people has been a successful deterrent to revolution.
Tell the Whole Truth Everywhere
Ironically, the most common topic I have been confronted with is the prosperity gospel. Not from the Emiratis, but from church members who have come from lands where it is pervasive — which includes most countries in the developing world. I made a point to touch on this in most of the messages I brought. Romans 8:17 was the focus several times: “If we are children of God, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” Virtually all of Romans 8:17–39 is meant to prepare the children of God to suffer with a spirit of triumph.
One Indian man told me that he had not heard the kind of things I was saying about the necessity of suffering and how God ordains to use it for our good. In his church back home they had only been taught the promise of prosperity in this life.
Surely this means that we must give ourselves all the more to simply telling the whole truth everywhere. People are kept in the dark even as believers when their leaders give them distorted fragments of the Bible. I have found people around the world eager to listen and learn about the biblical teachings on suffering and how God’s sovereign goodness provides a massive foundation for joyful living in this painful world.
The sum of the matter is: For many reasons you may be of great use in the UAE. Pray about it.