The UAE will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the qiyam al-dawla (establishment of the state) and qiyam al-ittihad (establishment of the federation of seven emirates) on Dec. 2. Since 1971, when the emirates regrouped under the guidance of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, the Emirati political elite has addressed the complex responsibilities of building a functional bureaucratic apparatus while shaping the nation’s identity. An oil-based model informed this state-building process and the expectations of citizens for decades, but the country now faces a more complex environment. New challenges such as the growing youth population, the drive toward sustainability, and changing patterns within the global economy affect the current Emirati political agenda; however, the UAE leadership must balance the urgent search for innovative strategies with Emirati haweeya al-watani (national identity) and turath (heritage).
Praising the tribe: The origins of national identity
Identity draws on what Benedict Anderson termed “imagined communities,” and is the outcome of a binary distinction between a so-called “us” and “the other.” This process of choosing who is included and who is excluded produces a sense of belonging that reproduces and adapts itself to cope with new challenges and demands. That said, identities are not necessarily an expression of a black-or-white, highly segmented, and rigidly compartmentalized understanding of the world. In many cases, identity does not imply a mutual exclusion, and different groups overlap, giving rise to a blurred patchwork of multidimensional affiliations.
The UAE represents an exemplary case of peaceful coexistence between apparently dichotomous identities. More than 80% of its population is non-national and includes residents with different religious and cultural beliefs, and that does not include the increasing inflow of tourists. Modernity dominates everything from the architecture of Abu Dhabi and Dubai to the technology that drives the economy. Instead of a clash between the “transient populations,” modernity, and tradition, Emirati identity has developed by accepting these differences. “The most powerful force behind the formation of a national identity in the UAE was the collective experience of modernization,” notes Matthew MacLean, a research fellow for the study of the Arab World at New York University: Abu Dhabi.
The unprecedented well-being brought about by the state-led process of oil-financed modernization in the early 1970s revolutionized the individual, societal, and urban spheres of daily life in the UAE. Through welfare services, massive infrastructure projects, and the distribution of public jobs and residences, the federation became a visible and reliable political entity. The rapid transformation from nomadic life to modernity created a new identity in the imagination of the Emirati population and was the common national myth around which Emiratis defined themselves.
Parallel to the “material modernization” of the country, the UAE also promoted the image of the federation over bay’ah (political allegiance) to a specific emirate. This attempt at nation building faced obstacles, however, and chief among them was tribal affiliation. The newly born state had no particular meaning or appeal to Emiratis, whereas one’s tribe was a tangible and deeply rooted source of belonging that had oriented the collective imagination for centuries. To overcome this so-called “twin identity” complex, the UAE state anchored its efforts to shape the Emirati national identity on tribal Bedouin heritage. Instead of framing tribal affiliation as a threat to the state identity, the federation hailed local loyalty as a sign of “pure Arabness.” This not only defused potential conflict, but became a building block for the country and a major source of strength.
Elaborating on the ideas of anthropologist Arjun Appadurai on the role of the past as a source of knowledge and authority, one can say that the UAE embraced the Bedouin past in its nation-building effort and allowed the emergence of a “heritage-legitimacy-authority nexus.” This strategy achieved a continuum between the tribe, the emirate, and the federation, and granted the national leadership the legitimacy and credentials to have its political authority widely recognized and accepted by citizens. This process did not go unchallenged though. Calls for further centralization intensified divisions between “unequal brothers,” the southern richest emirates vis-à-vis their northern cousins without natural resources. Even through these periods of conflict, however, the tribe-based Emirati national identity held firm.
The first wave of nation building ended in the 1990s. With the acceleration of globalization, the UAE implemented a number of measures to cope with the increasingly competitive environment. The heightened awareness of international pressures has unexpectedly renewed the quest for national belonging. “Globalization has been accompanied by a booming interest in Emirati heritage,” McLean notes. This second wave was driven by state-led and grassroots initiatives that have shown the resiliency of the idea of Emirati identity.
Rewriting the social contract … via Snapchat: Identity for the digital age
When it comes to national identity, the UAE state is still in “the driving seat,” as NYUAD Middle East scholar Nelida Fuccaro puts it. The central government promoted “the unstoppable march toward progress, civilization, and happiness” during the oil-based era and still does so now in the hyper-globalized world. The difference is that whereas the UAE once was a latecomer trying its best to keep up with modernity, the country is now committed to entering the global economy from a position of strength and leadership. “The discourse on national identity concerns a great deal about the balance between tradition and modernization,” affirms Courtney Freer, provost’s postdoctoral fellow at Emory University. “The UAE wants to continue to modernize and remain globally competitive whilst maintaining its traditional identity.”
The UAE government aims to develop what Calvert W. Jones has called “globalization-ready citizens,” individuals who are “more market-oriented, entrepreneurial, and civic minded; highly patriotic; less government-dependent; and uninterested in politics.” To achieve this goal, the UAE wants to reform its domestic economy and promote modern values in its official narrative. The opening words of UAE Vision 2021, the blueprint orienting the country’s policy-making since 2014, are emblematic of the rhetoric the government uses to promote this change in mindset: “Work is a true criterion of citizenship,” writes Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the UAE and emir of Abu Dhabi. “It is evidence of sincerity and loyalty.”
The UAE state is encouraging a shift in the concept of citizenship, which is no longer understood as mere entitlement to state-provided benefits, but as requiring a more active engagement by the population. This process has been dubbed by Jones as the “making of citizens 2.0,” and describes “the challenge of building citizens ‘after’ the era of nationalism, when states already have populations who know ‘who’ they are, need to focus less on preparing them to fight on the battlefield, and find themselves having to compete in increasingly competitive global markets.” As the socioeconomic effects of globalization are felt at all levels of society in the UAE, “the social benefit to which citizens have become accustomed may not be sustainable, with citizens’ expectations needing to be scaled back and the social contract renegotiated.” The government is thus promoting a new Emirati national identity, one that embraces globalization as the country moves away from the model of a “cradle-to-grave welfare state.”
During the last few years, the social engineering process has accelerated significantly with liberal reforms that position the country as a secure, business-friendly, and welcoming environment in a region known for conflict and instability. In March 2016, the government created two new Ministries of State — one for Tolerance and Coexistence and another for Happiness — and released the UAE Charter of Tolerance. A year later, the leadership established the UAE Soft Power Council. These announcements reassured nationals about the country’s economic performance and solid international reputation, while signaling to foreign residents and international observers that the UAE is a modern country that is attractive for investment and migration.
Major institutional reforms have been coupled with policies aimed at fostering confidence for tourists and non-nationals residing in the country. For example, Cabinet Resolution No. 56 (2018) established a 10-year-long Golden Visa scheme for investors and knowledge economy specialists. In November 2020, a number of “secular-leaning reforms” removed the threat of prosecution for behaviors such as alcohol consumption, out-of-marriage cohabitation, and attempted suicide. In January 2021, it was announced that a select group of expatriates could become Emirati citizens without giving up their original nationality, while a recently approved decree allows non-Muslims to address marriage, divorce, and joint child custody through civil rather than shari’a law.
The language of tolerance is deeply embedded within the UAE official state narrative, and it has been successfully institutionalized through flagship projects. The construction of the Abrahamic Family House, expected to open in 2022, is a modern regrouping of worship places from the three Abrahamic monotheistic religions in one building. Another example is the launch of the Global Tolerance Alliance on the International Day of Tolerance at the Italian Expo Pavilion in November, an initiative focused on promoting global efforts for peaceful coexistence among societies. In addition, as Courtney Freer points out, “In recent years, religion, and particularly the notion of moderate Islam, has also been promoted as part of Emirati identity."
The Projects of the 50, the roadmap guiding the country’s development over the next decades, was announced in September 2021. The plan includes policies to improve the attractiveness of the UAE as a competitive, business-friendly environment; at the same time it suggests measures aimed at encouraging Emirati citizens to become full participants in the private sector’s development. The country’s Golden Jubilee celebrations and accompanying World Expo provide a perfect backdrop to show off the country’s adherence to the international system and its norms and present the new values of Emirati national identity to a domestic and international audience.
You might be done with the past, but the past is not done with you
Although the UAE government’s official narrative is clearly based on openness and liberal values, Osman Antwi-Boateng and Amira Ali Alhashimi note that “the embrace of international norms such as religious tolerance would not automatically solicit universal approval among conservative citizens.” A face-to-face survey of 152 UAE citizens in 2019 conducted by Dubai’s Research Konnection supports this assessment. Only 34% of interviewees agreed with the statement: “Communities in the UAE should be Given Rights to Practice Their Traditions.” The remaining 66% either disagreed, said they were neutral, or declined to answer.
Despite the government’s push for a globalization-ready society, the Bedouin component of the UAE heritage has experienced a renewal. Traditional Emirati identity has become an accessible and consumable good for both nationals and foreigners, and is the focus of several cultural, educational, sport, and gastronomy projects. The Qasr al-Hosn Festival in Abu Dhabi and the SIKKA Art Fair in Dubai attract both nationals and tourists interested in exploring the country’s traditional music, poetry, and crafts. Festivals and recreational events such as the International Falconry Festival and the Arab Heritage Saluki Race Festival have become popular in recent years as well. These “modern heritage sports,” along with camel racing and mahmel (traditional rowing boat) racing, also nurture a sense of national cohesion. “[Sports help] individuals to imagine themselves as belonging to a discrete ‘nation’ and to internalise the geopolitical imagery of a world divided into nations,” writes Sarah Koch of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in Syracuse.
These high-profile, state-sponsored events “disseminate narratives about the country’s national identity” and allow the government to continue the successful strategy of uniting citizens through an appeal to their common Bedouin heritage. The UAE’s nation-building effort is deeper and more structured than a generic public relations campaign. By implementing reforms and inaugurating cultural projects, the leadership is trying to achieve a long-term transformation that encompasses the behavioral, cultural, and personal dimensions of its citizens’ daily life.
“One, No One and One Hundred Thousand”: Alternative ways of “being Emirati”
Despite the considerable resources devoted to fostering a sense of national cohesion, this effort has ultimately fallen short in consolidating the state’s monopoly over what “being Emirati” means. “What is important to remember is that the UAE is a very young nation,” explains Idil Akinci, early career teaching and research fellow at the University of Edinburgh. “Its boundaries, its conception, like other national communities, is constantly adapting and changing in relation to socio-economic and political circumstances, and demographics.” In fact, the idea of cultural homogeneity, shaped according to the Bedouin tradition, is not representative of the local diversity inherent in the Emirati social fabric. Alternative ways of expressing and displaying Emirati identity have emerged at the grassroots level through informal and spontaneous initiatives.
Narrowing Emirati national identity down to its Bedouin component neglects a significant part of the country’s cultural heritage in the name of national cohesion. While the Bedouin heritage is certainly a valuable component, the Research Konnection’s survey confirms that respondents do not consider the Bedouin past as the primary marker of national identity. When asked to prioritize the key factors that define “Truly Being Emirati,” respondents rated other identity markers such as being a Muslim (97%), speaking Arabic (96%), respecting UAE institutions/laws (91%), and the feeling of being Emirati (86%) higher than having Emirati ancestry (82%).
The UAE’s geographical location, which connects the Arabian, Persian, and Indian worlds, has historically been a crossroad for different cultures, populations, and traditions. Even though influences from Ajami, Baloch, East African, and Indian cultures can be identified in the current Emirati heritage, they are not recognized as an integral part of the country’s past and are labelled as “inauthentic.” However, “there are complex, multiple as well as contradicting ways of belonging that are beyond citizenship, as well as non-belonging that can occur despite holding citizenship,” Idil Akinci asserts. This purposeful marginalization represents a sensitive issue, especially for the offspring of mixed marriages as well as second- and third-generation migrant families, who despite being born and raised in the UAE, do not have either Emirati citizenship or a sense of belonging to their family’s country of origin. “Yet, regardless of the time of their, and their ancestors’, arrival, they are still referred to as temporary migrants,” maintains Idil Akinci. “They constitute an important, yet often neglected, part of the national community and very much consider the UAE their home, if not their only home. They inevitably have affected, and been affected by, dominant conceptions of Emirati national identity and belonging.”
The search for identity also represents an ongoing quest for some young Emiratis who struggle to recognize an idealized Bedouin past of which they have no direct memory or personal affinity. This third generation of Emiratis, which has grown up in a cosmopolitan country, studied at Western-style universities, and been immersed in the digital world, is seeking an identity that reconciles their personal experiences with more than “simplified and romanticized Orientalist depictions of a desert life.” With more than 32,000 newborn nationals joining the Emirati population every year since 2010, the UAE’s demographics are gradually shifting to a younger population, making this quest for identity more urgent.
In the meantime, bottom-up attempts at renegotiating what “Emirati-ness” means are blossoming in informal settings, especially shopping malls. In these “glitzy spaces” of globalization, Emiratis can establish social relations and experience life while defining and performing new expressions of authenticity. Malls might seem like “superficial, ostentatious, consumerist and ‘inauthentic’ places with no ‘soul’ proffered in abundance,” but they have also become a place where young locals feel safe to question aspects of their national identity and discover alternatives. The impact of these commercial complexes should not be minimized but rather deconstructed in order to better grasp the deep social functions they have in allowing identities to be defined, consumed, and renegotiated. When we consider identity outside the “Orientalist stereotypes” currently used in the official state narrative, what emerges is a country in transition where there is no homogeneous Emirati national identity but a variety of manifestations of belonging. Ultimately, “what makes the UAE special and a vibrant community is this diversity,” concludes Idil Akinci.
The importance of pomp: Nation-building through spectacle
Recognizing the inherent diversity within the UAE social fabric, however, does not mean neglecting the role of genuine expressions of love for the country. Indeed, official national holidays such as Flag Day, Commemoration Day, and National Day are occasions when Emirati citizens collectively convey their sense of belonging through public celebrations and events. Manifestations of national pride have become increasingly popular among the Arab Gulf monarchies as the mounting urgency to move away from oil revenues has raised the stakes of competition in the region. With Gulf Cooperation Council countries adopting similar diversification strategies in areas such as luxury real estate, mass entertainment events, artificial intelligence, and high tech, the need to stand out from one other becomes an imperative.
Strengthening national identity through cutting-edge mega-plans has been dubbed the “project-ization of identities,” a strategy that is meant to remedy the “lack of shared historical mythology and memory” afflicting the Arab Gulf monarchies. The spectacular celebrations of flagship state initiatives, such as Expo 2020, power “a second-generation heritage narrative” that speaks to Emirati youth.
The model has great external appeal, especially in the Middle East and North Africa region, though it is important to note that “the success of soft power abroad is a function of local support.” According to the 2021 Arab Youth Survey, the UAE finished for the 10th year in a row ahead of the United States, Canada, France, and Germany as the country where the majority of Arab youth would like to live. For the time being, the Emirati development strategy continues to pay dividends by winning the hearts and minds of people looking at the country as a place where they are able to enjoy a fulfilling lifestyle.
Whether the UAE can strike a balance between indigenous calls for alternative identity narratives and the government’s quest for a monopoly over the definition of nationhood is still to be seen. In past decades, the Emirati leadership successfully promoted, domestically and externally, the image of a country more in tune with international norms and the demands of a globalized society. However, the long-term viability of this state-led project ultimately comes down to whether Emirati citizens are willing to embrace such a vision and whether the UAE leadership is willing to accept the alternative visions of the country’s younger residents.
Dr. Kristian Alexander is a Senior Fellow at TRENDS Research & Advisory in Abu Dhabi, where he is the Director of the International Security & Terrorism Program. He is also an adviser at Gulf State Analytics (GSA), a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy.
Leonardo Jacopo Maria Mazzucco is visiting researcher at Trends Research & Advisory (Abu Dhabi) and a Research Assistant at GSA. He has an MA degree in Comparative and International Relations from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and is completing a second MA degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the Graduate School of Economics and International Relations (ASERI) from the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, Italy. The views expressed in this piece are their own.
Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images
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