Saif Al Mazrooei
The nationality of a person is represented formally in various forms, including official documents such as the passport, or identification card. However, a person’s affiliation with said nationality—although legally tied to one another—does not essentially have to be represented by the person. Nationality in the form of an identity plays a large role in the development of a person’s cultural and religious identities as these respective factors of identity rely on the geographical location of the country the person is from including their inherent culture and religion. Identity requires “active engagement” (Woodward, 2004, p.6) by those who take up said identities, as well as a link between personal and social aspects. The national identity of a certain population is affected by various aspects of every individual’s backgrounds as their preceding generation may have altering beliefs in religion, cultural influence on the upbringing of a child, or even ethnicity. Therefore, the environment in which people are raised in can play a large influence on the identity of their nationality. In this essay, the contemporary identity of the nationals of the United Arab Emirates will be discussed. This essay will consist of the factors that play a role in the formation of the national identity such as Westernization and globalization, the contemporary Emirati identity, and the steps taken towards the preservation of the national identity.
In the United Arab Emirates, where all ends of the world collide and create a concoction of culture and nationality, it would seem that the Emirati identity would be diluted and influenced by all that surrounds it. While this is true, the fact remains that such a young country influenced and created through the purpose of trade and commerce is still, itself, a country with a rich culture; the Emirati culture derives mostly from neighboring countries in the Gulf, full of religion-based beliefs and practices. However, the modern day has evolved the identity of the UAE from a typically conservative, Muslim Arab nation to a liberal, multi-ethnical society where everyone is welcome and plays a role in the development of the national identity. As a result, there are conflicting points of views from the Emirati nationals regarding the direction in which the United Arab Emirates is heading towards in terms of national identity; because much of the Emirati youth being taught English more than Arabic “in most private education institutions has also weakened the Arabic language” (Al Saayegh, 2008). More so, Al Saayegh states that the youth are “haunted by many ideologies” resulting in them adopting “new trends and foreign values that are incompatible with their own.” And that some “some adopt the ideology of openness”. Whilst this is the key argument for the ongoing identity crisis occurring in the United Arab Emirates, it is essential to view identity in a closer and more personal setting.
I have been raised in a liberal and modern-thinking household. My extended family such as my grandparents and uncles and aunts are more closely tied to religion and conservatism, following the more traditional Emirati culture and hence, a Muslim culture. Although my parents still held traditional values related to religion, such as being strictly against the consumption of alcohol, smoking, and sex before marriage, they allowed my brothers and myself freedom to explore ourselves and surround ourselves with people different from ourselves, in a private institute focused mainly on English, consisting of more than seventy different nationalities among the student body. This has resulted in a more unusual network of friendships between myself and people from various backgrounds such as South African, Russian, German, Indian, Syrian, and much more with differing religions, traditions, and cultures. I say this is unusual because most Emiratis—and most nationalities within the United Arab Emirates as well—tend to surround themselves with people of the same origin. This is because the United Arab Emirates resembles a hub, where it is nobody’s and everybody’s home, and therefore, people search for ‘home’ in a place unknown to them. This irregularity occurs due to the population percentage of each nationality; the Emirati population has continuously fallen from 60% in the mid-1900s to around 10-12% in the twenty-first century. I have been subject to many aspects of traditional and contemporary culture. My affiliations with my nation are as strong as ever despite what some may call my “diluted identity” — and as a result, an inner “tug-of-war” (Maalouf, 2000, p.5). Al Saayegh states that although the use of the Arabic language is crucial to preserving moderate Arab-Islamic identity, it is “declining in the UAE”. Consequently, this will make “the Arabic language lose its importance and status – and eventually its role in defining identity.” (Al Saayegh, 2008). In my household, my family almost exclusively communicates in English, with the use of Arabic to fill in certain sentences or phrases. This is a fairly common practice nowadays within Emirati households, where many children lack the ability to speak Arabic as well as they speak English.
The Emirati national identity is represented by a set of symbols and culture. For example, symbolism such as the Falcon—the national animal—represents the young country soaring and rising above all. Also, many steps are being taken by the government to preserve the national identity, such as ‘Vision 2021’ which aims to develop the United Arab Emirates into one of the best countries in the world by improving many factors such as a first-rate education, a preserved identity, world-class healthcare, and a sustainable environment. In 2015, the government “initiated the ‘Youth Empowerment Strategy'” (Government.ae, 2017) which allows young Emiratis to work towards delivering ‘Vision 2021’. However, despite the government’s aim to improve quality of life and ultimately preserve a national identity, it does not nullify the ongoing identity crisis in the country; The constant clash between liberalism and conservatism has resulted in an everlasting spiral of confusion and loss of identity, with no clear goal being set for the future of the nation. This can be shown in what is perhaps the most fantastic juxtaposition in the country, ‘Old Dubai’ and ‘New Dubai’. ‘New Dubai’ would be dominated by the most magnificent architectural work of skyscrapers, shopping malls, homes, and fountains, meanwhile ‘Old Dubai’ would be a preservation of what was once Dubai in the mid-twentieth century, filled with old-style bazaars and gold markets, dhow boats, and clay homes made with windcatcher towers. This juxtaposition plays a significant role in portraying the forward-minded thinking of Dubai and the way in which it has developed rapidly into a global metropolis; the significance of preserving ‘Old Dubai’ despite the remainder of the city developing into a post-modern metropolis is that it represents the roots of the city and where it emerged from, therefore preserving the identity of the past.
Moreover, the development of the city was to make it an economic powerhouse, a world capital and to make it more appealing to the West. This change has caused Dubai to become one of the most liberal and open-minded cities in the Middle East as it is attractive to western people and their ways of life. This has resulted in the national identity to shift into an indeterminate state between traditional Arabic-Islamic culture and Western-influenced liberal culture. The influence of the West starts from before the formation of the United Arab Emirates as it was a protectorate of the United Kingdom. Western influence has developed many English speaking private institutions and has greatly affected social interactions as it was uncommon for communication between females and males. This was the foundation for the shift in national identity. As a result, many young Emiratis now utilize the English language more so than Arabic, causing an identity crisis as they live two different lives at home and at school. Consequently, the government has implemented a program, “aimed at enhancing the national identity of Emirati students” (Al Kuttab, 2016) called ‘Haweyati’ (My identity) which will “address topics such as values, culture, citizenship, culture, society, history and a sense of belonging.” (Al Kuttab, 2016). More initiatives have been implemented to increase patriotism and teach the youth about their country and culture, such as the mandatory national service for all Emiratis between the ages of eighteen and thirty. The service aims to “instill values of loyalty and sacrifice” (government.ae, 2017). The service is optional for women and all must serve for one year if a high-school diploma is obtained, and two years if not. Citizens who complete the national service are entitled to a range of benefits such as “priority for taking up jobs in government institutions and private businesses, marriage grants, housing plots and scholarships.” (government.ae, 2017).
In conclusion, factors such as diversification, westernization and western influence, nation-building, and educational and government influence all take a toll on the identity of the United Arab Emirates and its people. Regardless of young Emiratis being strayed away from their culture and origin due to popular media, education, and westernization, and thus altering their identities, it does not change the fact that their identity will be fluid and ever-changing and does not make them any less Emirati and patriotic than the rest. “Identity can’t be compartmentalized” (Maalouf, 2000, p.3) and therefore all the different factors do not change your identity, it is “made up of many components combined together” (Maalouf, 2000, p.3). The contemporary Emirati identity is disputed as older generations would rather hold back future generations from drifting from their heritage, although “the media depicts one who speaks foreign languages as a symbol of openness and modernity.” (Al Saayegh, 2008). The main steps required in order to preserve the national identity would be educating the youth about their country’s history and origin as it is not taught in private education systems. In my 20 years of living in the United Arab Emirates, I have witnessed the development and blossoming of Dubai from a young and simple city to a multi-cultured metropolis. The fate of the United Arab Emirates’ identity is in the hands of the future generations, though I believe the fundamental aspects of the culture of the United Arab Emirates will withstand the inevitable changes and modernization to come.
Al Saayegh, F. (2008). How can we maintain a national identity? online Gulf News. Available at: http://gulfnews.com/news/uae/general/how-can-we-maintain-a-national-identity-1.107008 Accessed 9 Jan. 2018.
Government.ae. (2017). Initiatives to preserve the national identity of the UAE. online Available at: https://government.ae/en/information-and-services/social-affairs/preserving-the-emirati-national-identity/initiatives-to-preserve-the-national-identity-of-the-uae Accessed 9 Jan. 2018.
Kuttab, J. (2016). ‘My Identity’: Enhancing national identity of Emirati students. online Khaleejtimes.com. Available at: https://www.khaleejtimes.com/nation/abu-dhabi/my-identity-enhancing-national-identity-of-emirati-students Accessed 9 Jan. 2018.
Maalouf, A. (2000). On Identity. London: Harvill, p.3.
Maalouf, A. (2000). On Identity. London: Harvill, p.5.
Woodward, K. (2004). Questioning identity. London: Routledge Ltd – M.U.A, p.6.