Forty years on, the UAE is a country with much to be proud of and equally much to prepare for. Its relative success at improving the quality of life for Emiratis — for example, a 93 per cent literacy rate, a 7/1,000 infant mortality rate and a $230 billion (Dh844 billion) economy, compared to $20 billion in 1971 — has come with a social tax: The Emiratis are a minority in their own country. The expatriate community in Singapore, which the UAE is often compared to, forms just 25 per cent of the population. In the UAE, expatriates form 88.5 per cent of the 8.3 million population, up from 85 per cent in 2006. To many this may sound like waxing lyrical on a tired subject, but it is only so because it is an issue that has been so fashionable to dissect with a spoon that it has lost its resonance; a little like overchewed gum.
How do Emiratis feel about this? Or, perhaps, how should they? On the one hand, the presence of a large expatriate base has allowed the UAE to grow in a way that simply wouldn't have been possible otherwise. It has afforded it monikers such as "the Switzerland of the Middle East" and its commercial capital, Dubai, the Hong Kong/Singapore/Monaco of the region. It has attracted much investment and created business and employment opportunities that have allowed the UAE to boast of a diversified economy that fellow GCC states still strive for.
The quality of its infrastructure is a source of envy in the Arab world and, while globally average, the quality of its service economy is regionally unparalleled.
UAE nationals are aware that their demographic reality affords them disproportionately unique social and economic privileges. To put it bluntly, Emiratis are in limited supply and so they often view themselves, and are treated by others, as a limited-edition product that must be handled with care and esteem. There is also a distinct sense of pride among Emiratis in the UAE's modernity relative to the rest of the Gulf and the rest of the Arab world. After all, the tad romantic perception is that this is the only place where Arabs have attempted to build modern institutions and not failed since Andalusía.
The UAE is also, rather poetically, the only successful pan-Arab project, though it never openly subscribed to the grand ideal. Emiratis often find themselves quietly patting themselves on the back for the quality of their infrastructure, their GCC-relative tolerant culture and the fact that, unlike Japanese and the imperial restoration of their Meiji era, they have done this all without reducing their traditional dress code to one only suitable for national folkloric events. How is it possible not to be proud of taking part in this live experiment that is attempting to reconcile modernity with Arab bedouinism? For the Emirati, the stars have indeed aligned.
On the other hand, the presence of this large expatriate community has exerted insurmountable pressures on the Emirati population. First and foremost, it has alienated their sense of national identity — a sensitive, contentious issue that remains undefined. What should it mean to be Emirati? What does it mean to be a citizen of a construct union of seven emirates with varying geographical, historical and cultural peculiarities?
The UAE is four decades old and has no equivalent of a Manifest Destiny mission; Abu Dhabi and Dubai are no New England and there is no gold rush in Fujairah. In fact, the UAE is probably the only Arab state where you can lead a fairly successful life without ever having to speak its national language. In the early days this was considered an advantage; tradesmen from the southern coasts of Iran and the ports of Bombay (now Mumbai) and Karachi would be spoken to in their native tongues until English became the lingua franca of the UAE. Most Emiratis, those who attended the weak public-education system, are acutely aware of their competitive disadvantages in the job market relative to their expatriate counterparts, both in terms of pay and skill.
Consider the view of such Emiratis during the boom years of 2003-08 — multibillion-dollar government projects with numerous vacancies that won't hire them because they just don't have the same skill sets as expatriates or the minority of Emiratis that have received a Western education. The proud news continues: front-page announcements, press conferences and the local news at 10 all reminding those unfortunates that something great was happening even though they couldn't be part of it. Billions were raised and millions were paid and they told themselves that it would trickle down at some point. But trickle down it didn't and the tales of 100 per cent profit in the real estate boom finally got to them and many of them borrowed money from banks, friends and family, and most of them burned their fingers. One can only imagine how easy it is to blame the expatriates and the local elite for such losses, especially when it leaves those unfortunates faring worse than they already were.
Then there is the issue of cultural morality. The Emiratis are a people who enthusiastically chanted pan-Arabism only to be swept, following its demise, by the Islamic awakening of the late 1970s. The liberalism that replaced the awakening in the mid-1990s required Emiratis to be wary of conservative Muslims for fear of their sympathy for fundamentalism. This required many Emiratis to reverse engineer Islamo-liberalism as a purgatorial bridge. Today Emiratis find themselves residents of that narrow pass, neither conservative nor liberal. They are condemned to be radical medians that outcast liberals and conservatives alike, all while everyone else expands their plans.
Emiratis find themselves today at opposing sides from the majority of expatriates, especially those who've arrived in the UAE in the past 15 years. The venue and choice of each group's recreational activities couldn't be more different. Indeed, the social divide imposed by the near-uniform lifestyle dichotomy of the two groups isn't allowing for much interaction, let alone dialogue. How is it possible not to be apprehensive when your continuous prosperity, even disproportionately, is irrevocably tied to remaining an ever-dwindling minority in your own country?
Emiratis continue to face difficulties in resolving their views on this issue. They are at once aware that the price of revoking this trend would be unimaginably taxing on their lifestyle and melancholy for the loss of their identity; or perhaps more accurately, disheartened by their incapacity to incubate a contemporary interpretation of their own identity under the avalanche of transient migration into their cities.
Nothing captures this more than the duality by which Emiratis are proud of being the Gulf country of choice for white-collar expatriates (a sign of regional triumph in the battle for modernity?), yet still envious of the higher density and ratio of nationals in fellow GCC states.
Emiratis are aware that their experience of dealing with each other on opposing sides of a commercial transaction will be limited to executive affairs. They are aware that the level of density required to build a broad level of vocational capacity will never be. And so they will never have locally run bakeries, nor will they develop cultural productions as vivid as the ones Kuwaitis did in the 1970s, and nor will they be able to sustain national YouTube socio-comedic performers that are all the rage now in Saudi Arabia.
The Emiratis of this generation are the ones most torn. The baby-boomers have clear views on who they are and are mostly nostalgic of what Emiratis once were and critical of what they have become. Those in their teens now accept this strange state of overwhelming minority as both a source of unique privilege and occasional insecurity. But it is those born within the first two decades of the UAE's formation that endure most of the angst.
Who am I? "Yes, I am all these things that I belong to, but how should it make me feel?" It is not a sad story, but it isn't an uplifting one either. It's an unprecedented story of a people who have been driven so fast that they can't help but look back, plotting points in hope of connecting them to find some form, some semblance of this quest for progress, prominence and singularity. These bi-decadal generations eventually either veer to their nostalgic parents and aunts or their euphoro-denialistic children and nephews.
Complicating matters further, the parallel education systems have created an unfathomable situation: Most Emiratis today are either proficient in Arabic or English. In essence, the Emiratis, 11.5 per cent of the UAE's population, have splintered into two sub-groups; one that prefers to communicate mainly in Arabic unless required to in English, and another that prefers the complete opposite. Needless to say, both groups are critical of the state of the other and derogatorily refer to each other as "Western" and "backward".
Can anything be done? I suppose it depends on what exactly is diagnosed as the issue and what within that is identified as addressable.
The UAE, in the most expansive sense of the word, is learning to deal with the by-products of the various aspirations it has pursued since its founding, and even a little before that. The government has primarily focused on development in the narrow sense of the term, and the intelligentsia (if we can call it that) has largely failed to frame the reality in new lights. Of course, the education system remains the ultimate culprit in the increasingly common state of anxiety, xenophobia and general dissatisfaction with the social state. But an educated people do not reproduce faster or more often; this demographic reality was set in motion a long time ago. Revisionists may have their day on how exactly we got here, but here we are indeed. Bold choices will have to be made.
The future is a Noah's Ark, and that boat can only take so much. This doesn't mean that Emiratis must make random choices with respect to what to keep and what to drop, but rather rethink identity in a global context. Suffice to say that there is no short supply of extreme views.
On one end of the spectrum, there are those who want the ratio to be fixed by managing an exodus of expatriates. Their rationale is that the country has now been largely developed and it doesn't need that many foreigners to power the economy. They also argue that Emiratis don't need that many shops and groceries. Of course, this group ignores major trends in economic diversification, the ratio of oil contribution to the economy and social trends among Emiratis. On the other end, there are those who don't believe this is a problem at all and that the destiny of all identities is to mould into one. Like the former, this group's views are not representative of all Emiratis.
I have argued before that Dubai, and the UAE by extension, is not a melting pot but rather a tossed salad where various identities remain as they are; it is the dressing that brings it all together. The Emiratis' greatest social challenge isn't their ratio but rather their capacity to reconcile their journey with their baggage, neither of which, one must note, they have had much choice in determining. Only then would they be able to plot their destination themselves.
This includes redefining or, perhaps, more appropriately, reinterpreting what it means to be an Emirati 40 years on. How much does the appeal of heritage apply in defining an Emirati? How do largely urban Emiratis relate to the UAE's cultural identity beyond hunting and fishing? Every people have a moment in their history when they move on from literally defining themselves by folkloric tradition to a contemporary adaptation of their historical narrative. Failure to evolve to relevance has often proved detrimental to an identity's existence over a long term. For the UAE, this moment has arrived for some time now.
The Emiratis are few enough not to drastically fear the prospects of their welfare over the next few decades, but unless rethought, their identity and the divergent sub-groups may have to fend for themselves in what looks like a Darwinian sunset.
Mishaal Al Gergawi is an Emirati current affairs commentator. You can follow him at www.twitter.com/algergawi