Any effort to discuss politics in public forums in the UAE is often tinged with uncertainty. There has been sparse socio-political discourse to date. While economically and socially the UAE has developed quite significantly — currently it is the second-largest Arab economy — it is important to reflect upon the underlying motivations that are key to understanding these developments.
When it comes to the question of what drives states and defines societies, understanding the role of culture and identity consciousness is crucial. The UAE has not had much time to tackle these questions in its short history, and is currently facing new challenges, both externally and internally.
It is time to reflect upon the UAE’s identity as a nation.
Before the Burj Al Arab, and before Shaikh Zayed Road, there was Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and a country yet to exist. The UAE is by all accounts a new nation, but what it has achieved is a testament to the possibilities of development in the Arab world. The dream of a United Arab Emirates is synonymous with Shaikh Zayed. It is difficult to define this nation-state’s identity without referring to its founding father.
During Shaikh Zayed’s era, the identity of the nation can best be seen as a manifestation of his character. He played a significant role in the establishment of a federal government, and foreign policy remained under his direct control. Shaikh Zayed projected an image of unity to the world, coming to the aid of Arab and Muslim communities across the globe and reflecting the Arab narrative.
In the early stages of the UAE’s development, questions of social and political identity were sparse. A domestic political scene or civil society did not develop organically because political and social issues were resolved on an informal and ad hoc basis. Politics continued to be a social activity, being predominantly performed in an informal majlis setting.
The majlis culture was a primary aspect of the socio-political identity of the UAE during the Zayed era. With rapid economic growth and the accompanying socio-cultural changes, the issues relating to social narratives and identity consciousness in the UAE have become increasingly pressing.
The old tribal-based polity that was the UAE is in stark contrast to the largely cosmopolitan economic powerhouse it is today. The current political tensions regarding the Muslim Brotherhood confirm that the UAE is developing new social and political challenges, demonstrating the need for a functioning civil society to reflect upon these issues.
The dynamics of a nation are directly related to the dynamics of its constituent society or societies; therefore culture both affects and is affected.
A nation’s political identity cannot be defined without reference to its culture, and culture cannot be defined without reference to the social narrative. The identity of the UAE is tied to Shaikh Zayed, but as realities change, it is crucial to reflect on identity in a socio-political sense. This is not done in the office of a ministry or the Rulers’ Courts; it is done by society, in art galleries, malls and in papers and on screen.
The legacy of Shaikh Zayed can be called what you like, but the identity of a nation is organic and is the result of a dynamic social interaction. The identity of the UAE as a nation is rooted in a traditional social culture. This culture is rooted in Arabic and Islamic values that were embodied by the late founding father.
The identity of the nation is more a reflection on the dynamics of its society and the politics of identity in any society are bound by cultural norms. Norms and traditions, whether social or political, carry significance because they go to define the identity of that entity.
Social narratives and civil society are crucial to defining national identities. The role of the media is made increasingly pronounced with the advent of globalisation.
Recently, social narratives and the nature of civil society have become distorted with the use of online social networks such as Twitter. However, the role of online social networks is still not discussed by states with the same urgency or significance as other more tangible security threats, such as an unstable nuclear neighbour, for example.
Yet it is undeniable that the shifting forms and functions of social interaction are having palpable effects on identities, societies and states. Culture and identity are often viewed as static or detached from the present, but they are crucial to how societies actively define themselves as collectives. Engaging with issues of culture and identity is critical for a more self aware and empowered UAE.
As the UAE prepares to celebrates its 41st National Day, we look back at a sound track record and look forward to what will define the UAE. In order to capitalise on current economic achievements and continue to develop sustainably, it is important to nurture an active civil society where issues surrounding culture and the national identity can be engaged with dynamically.
Gaith Abdulla is a Dubai-based writer focusing on socio-political issues. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gaith_ab