Illya Harik, noted political science expert, remarked once that a paradox inhibits the sovereignty of Arab countries; while there are 22 of them, he suggests that the majority are pushed and pulled by larger transnational forces that smother sovereignty. As such there is very little that distinguishes between Arab countries by way of national, linguistic or religious narrative.
The way the basic uniformity of Arab discourse cuts across the region and the fact that the ‘grand’ causes of the Arabs are almost identical result in a unifying collective identity that exists not merely within but also, and more importantly, among Arab states. The popularity of former Egyptian president Jamal Abdul Nasser decades after the spectacular collapse of his Arab nationalism is a testament to this very Arab notion of being; a nostalgic yearning for the long-gone Arab Umma (nation). This is to say that predicating the identity of an Arab state on Islam and Arabism in no way contributes to the project of sovereignty at least in a cultural sense. It doesn’t distinguish one country so identified from the larger whole. I acknowledge that there may be various good reasons for why countries shouldn’t be separated from the whole, as there are perhaps reasons for why the Arab whole doesn’t actually exist, but this is not my concern.
The UAE like the rest of the Arab world identifies with the Arab cultural construct of a unified monolithic bloc. Therein, however, lies the problem. Arab identity and the associated mythology is so immense that its weight denies any mythology or even identity of comparative relevance from emerging indigenously in the independent states. We are left with a construct that stands in for ‘national’ identity; once interrogated seriously the construct disintegrates revealing nothing of significant departure from the ‘national’ identity of many other Arab countries.
This phenomena — or at least a subconscious recognition of it — has not been lost on many inside the UAE. Nor, it is important to note, has it been lost on the citizens of other Arab countries. A popular Egyptian columnist complained during the revelations of the Palestine Papers (which coincided with the Egyptian revolution) that the Arab/Israeli conflict was ‘selfish’. What she failed to understand was that it was not that the issue was selfish, but that historically it has assumed the position of the constitutive tragedy for Arab identity. In response to this absence of an indigenous historical narrative comparative to say Iraq’s or Egypt’s or Syria’s, a group of individuals in the UAE have taken upon themselves the task of not only sketching the contours of the Emirati narrative but also delineating the borders of ‘our’ identity. The catalyst for this process was the perception, popular among these individuals, of a threatened UAE. In their reaction they placed identity in opposition to something and attempted to capriciously demarcate between who belongs and who doesn’t, inevitably resulting in a rather small pool of worthy Emiratis.
While disagreeable, what this group attempted to do had an ironic predictability to it, in trying to distinguish the UAE from an overbearing whole — the definition they adopted was reactionary, in many ways they had no choice in creating this definition. Furthermore, what they did was also understandable. In the absence of a clearly articulated or even widely accepted foundational narrative, they constructed it the only way they knew of. And this is very important, for while this country is young and still lacks the grand historical foundations that other countries in the region possess, it is a country that is essentially an entrepreneurial project. And just like any project it has founding principles or a framework of doing things.
It is my belief that the founding princinples upon which Shaikh Zayed built the UAE were fourfold: they were unity, compassion, tolerance and pragmatism. Contest them — please do — but consider the following two caveats, while founding values must of course reflect realities on the ground, they must also be aspirational. That is they ought to reflect the reality of the country itself but also point to the promised land, to the destination to which the country should aspire. Countries are projects, they exist in a continuum, they can progress or regress but they are never stationary. The second caveat is that we operate in a space of relativity in which binaries and absolutism should be discarded, not unlike the field to which Rumi invited us “beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing.”
Now, I identified those four principles as foundational because it is my belief that any reading of UAE policy over the last 40 years would reveal that they largely guided the country’s leadership. Unity is probably the most important one of the group. It denotes the political organisation of the country, and consequently the seven Emirates have ceded much of their authority to the federal government. Compassion allowed for a relatively strong and arguably effective social security net, but also built up immense international goodwill. Tolerance was both for diversity and change. The UAE would not have grown the way it has had it not opened up its doors to people from around the world, but also had it not been open to different ways of doing things — different modalities of growth. Inevitably, some new ways of working in the UAE may have faltered but, the point is that they were attempted nonetheless. Finally, pragmatism, a principle which I think has been critical for the UAE to remain stable and pursue its own strategy for growth. In a region riddled with conflict, getting bogged down in hotspots and power politics usually distracts from the developmental project (examples in the region abound).
The greater point I wish to impress is that identity should be based on timeless inclusive values liberated from the stubborn oppression of exclusive social constructs. The recent and extremely exclusionary rhetoric (mostly on social networking mediums) could only emerge and luxuriate in an attentive audience in the absence of an alternative argument, and at 40, the UAE must present one.
Muath Al Wari is an Emirati graduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences. You can follow him at www.twitter.com/MuathAlWari