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What does Brexit mean for Arabs?

On Thursday 23rd June, about 52% of British voters chose to leave the European Union. The decision had serious implications. The pound sterling became volatile, Scotland is considering another referendum for independence and there’s talk of Northern Ireland uniting with the Republic of Ireland. The City of London, who also voted to remain, is in shock. Furthermore, the majority of young people voted to stay in Europe, but their vote was outnumbered by an older generation who will not have to live with the consequences of this huge decision as long as the youth. The same generation that voted to leave Europe had, in 1975, voted to remain and created the path-dependent situation we are now in that makes leaving the EU even harder. This has created a tense atmosphere between generations, and raised questions about the status of 16-17 year-olds who cannot vote in the UK. The situation has even inspired headline titles like ‘Mum what have you done?’ in the Guardian. However, as an Arab and as a millennial, I would like to know – what does Brexit mean for me?

I am focusing on the effects on Arabs here purely because there are no other articles addressing the topic. I am merely providing a focus, as opposed to exaggerating how important Arabs are as a community within a community in Europe. From this perspective, I don’t feel a unique sense of entitlement compared to any other Brit, although Brexit does concern me.

Identity Crisis

Of course, I can’t talk on behalf of every other Arab living in Britain, but I personally felt a sense of identity crisis when the historic leave result was announced. As a British-born Moroccan, I have a variety of ideals that are drawn from my multiple cultures. Being a ‘citizen of the globe’ is one way that many European nationals of Arab ethnicity reconcile their multi-layered identities. The Brexit vote, however, gave me the signal that the majority of people in the UK don’t want to continue working towards a cosmopolitan world, and many of the leave voters are even nostalgic about the sovereign country that Mother Britannia once was.

My immediate thought was that this nostalgia over Mother Britannia is contradictory from the perspective that Nigel Farage and many others from the extreme side of the leave campaign were longing for a British nation that empowered itself through a series of imperial policies (i.e. through globalisation). In fact, imperialism was viewed as a solution to unemployment and overpopulation in Britain (check out the views of a British politician called Cecil Rhodes): the exact same considerations that had mobilised the Brexit result the other day. The way to go back to the ‘good old days’, it is now said, is to decide that globalisation is rather compromising our sovereignty; a complete U-turn on previous British attitudes. It is also apparent that the older generation, regardless of their contradictions in this light, do not believe that “Britishness” is correctly expressed through a continued process of opening-up the world to free movement. This understanding of Britishness is an exclusivist one that risks leaving out hundreds and thousands of British people of foreign descent who cannot possibly express their British identity in this linear and rigid way due to their multi-layered cultures and ideals.

Therefore, if the majority of the British electorate believe that the way to continue as British citizens is to reluctantly engage with the rest of the world, I (and I will talk for myself here) cannot possibly feel the same sense of Britishness as everybody else. This is a biological, social, political and cognitive reality that is almost beyond my control, and it is from this perspective that Brexit creates an identity crisis for me.


Related, now I must choose. Do I enter cognitive dissonance and completely redefine my identity, enforcing conditions and exceptions to my cosmopolitan worldviews – or do I remain, as many other young people, a citizen of the world in principle regardless of the referendum result? Either way, I am isolating myself. In the former case, taking on the restricted understanding of Britishness means I can no longer access my Arab ideals freely, isolating myself from my family abroad. In the latter case, remaining cosmopolitan in principle means I am not adjusting to a new understanding of Britishness that many other Brits now appear to hold. I suppose one way around this is to believe that one’s isolationism is actually exceptionalism, and that there is nothing wrong with a unique take on one’s identity in the world.

One final consideration in respect to isolationism is the fact that many European citizens of Arab origin often feel a connection and affinity to one-another through a European Arab identity. Tariq Ramadan is a big proponent of this, although he tackles the subject with greater religious connotation. Leaving the EU creates, at least for me, a greater rift between myself and other North Africans in France, Belgium, Holland, and so forth who are more greatly discriminated against in these countries. Subsequently, I have to ask myself: what implication does this hold on the way other Arabs in other Western European countries feel about Brexit? They are often treated as second or third class citizens and are already greatly divorced from their more “elite” Arab kin in the European Free Trade Area. Do we now risk fragmenting and isolating Europe’s Arab community even more?


Another feeling I have – and I suppose that this feeling is not unique to British Arabs – is disenfranchisement. The majority of young people voted to stay in the EU. The majority of Londoners voted to stay in the EU. This didn’t matter because the vote of the older generation had out-balanced this instinctual desire. Of course, this is a democratic process, and I must respect the result, and I do. However, I can’t help but feel a sense of disempowerment because, had 16 and 17 year-olds been able to vote, we may very well have had a very different result.

Millennials are the first generation to grow up through to adulthood with the internet. Therefore, our minds do not operate within a nationalist space but within a globalised or internationalist space. Our bodies are in Britain largely by chance, but our minds are connected to a more global and holistic understanding of how the world should develop over the next few generations. Through social media, Arabs and others are talking to family members abroad, and even “indigenous Brits” (an ambiguous term) are interacting with others of different cultures and languages almost all of the time. The vote of a generation who lived in a very different reality – and who will not have to live as long as millennials with the outcomes of this huge decision – has nonetheless rendered our reality as a cosmopolitan generation almost irrelevant. I therefore can’t help but find the decision to leave the EU very disempowering, particularly as the rest of the world is becoming increasingly globalised, although I do respect the democratic outcome.

The Economic Question

The question remains: will it be easier for ethnic minorities to find jobs in the near future? What happens to the EU nationals already working here? Do we “deport” them? What if Arab businesses decide to not invest in the UK – or even withdraw from the country – in the near future due to unprecedented levels of uncertainty, wouldn’t this create net unemployment? I genuinely believe that the economic effects of Brexit are still not as clear as the leave campaigners made them out to be, at least until we complete our withdrawal negotiations with the EU over the next two years. Even Nigel Farage has very recently admitted that the leave campaign promise of £350m a week to the NHS in the event of a Brexit was not a grounded commitment – what other economic truths will soon unravel? Whilst I don’t speak for all British Arabs, I suspect that Brexit will be a very turbulent time for many people of different backgrounds.



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