Progress. Development. Growth. The UAE is experiencing all three at an exceptionally rapid pace. The country is 36 years old. In those 36 years it has transformed itself remarkably from desert land into a country of prosperity and progress.

What does this speedy growth mean in terms of the country's people, their culture and national identity?

Leading Emirati figures convened at the National Identity Conference recently to promote national identity, culture, history and heritage among UAE nationals, especially its younger citizens.

With less than 20 per cent of the country's population consisting of Emiratis, and the remaining 80 per cent being expatriates, officials said that the UAE's cultural identity is on the brink of many challenges.

The challenges

The biggest among them are the consequences of the continuous immigration of foreigners into the UAE. On the lookout for a better life, they bring with them their languages, values, traditions and culture, which merge with those of the indigenous one.

However, what happens when they meet?

"Language and religion are the two most important elements of a civilisation and a society. In fact, they are the vessels in which civilisations evolve," said Mohammad Ahmad Al Bawardi, Undersecretary for the Court of the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Secretary General of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council.

Al Bawardi emphasised that it's these elements, in addition to others such as tradition, values and heritage, which give a culture its national identity.

However, officials stressed the positive outcomes of the constant inward flow of human resources, ideas and innovations, referred to as globalisation.

"We must not close our doors and build iron fences and give our backs to the world," said Al Bawardi. "We should be open and willing to benefit from all the advantages the world has to offer."

However the challenge, as Al Bawardi noted, is to create a balance between the progress of society and the "preservation of our identity as UAE nationals".

Under the umbrella of globalisation are the challenges of developing national human resources and the globalisation of culture through the import of cultural products with divergent values.

"The training and development of UAE nationals is one of the most important priorities on the government agenda," Al Bawardi said. "Nationals should be ready to compete and commit in the workplace."

What do students think?

If there's anyone who can truly describe the experience of being a UAE national in our rapidly-progressing society, it's today's youth. Previous generations have been raised to closely identify with the UAE's heritage and culture.

However, change has certainly not been gradual and today's youth are immersed in a society of multiple cultures. So what do students have to say about it and what does being an Emirati mean to them?

Most students said the proportion of UAE nationals to expatriates poses no threat to Emirati culture as the country already provides a supporting infrastructure for the growth and development of young nationals.

"I don't think that we should worry so much about the number of non-UAE nationals in the country," said Ali Abdullah, foundation student at Dubai Men's College (DMC).

"The government has already given us the rights we need, especially with new procedures such as Emiratisation. Maybe some control on the number of incoming foreigners would help, but it doesn't need to be a major concern."

A change from within

Most students agreed that under new legislation set up by the country's leaders today's UAE nationals need not worry about their opportunities and ambitions.

However, students asserted that while the opportunities are available, it is their responsibility to take advantage of them.

"If you look at many companies and businesses, you will see that most of the employees are from abroad," said Khalid Mohammad, foundation student at DMC.

"UAE nationals should work to reach the same and even higher level than non-locals to stop the need for importing professionals. They should strive for not just a higher diploma, but for a bachelor's degree, master's or even a PhD."

Mohammad was certainly not alone in his views. Many students understand that it is their duty as citizens to make the country grow and prosper, as they will be its future leaders.

"If we don't work hard and are lazy, other people will keep taking our opportunities," said DMC business student Saud Abdul Aziz. "The government can continue to offer opportunities, but you can't force information on someone if they don't want to learn it. Only if we strive for success can we be ahead to lead and guide our country."

How can youth preserve their UAE national identity?

‘Education is the basic element and facet of development,
progress and achievement.'

What role does education play?

The answer is quite simple. If the major challenge lies in an expatriate-dominated labour force, then the solution would be to develop competent UAE nationals for various professional fields.

"Education is the basic element and facet of development, progress and achievement," said Dr Hanif Hassan, Minister of Education. "The Ministry of Education reviewed the traditional teaching techniques and established a new transition education system that coincides with the latest advancements and progress."

Al Bawardi and Hassan said they have noticed a resurgence of traditional teaching methods, which are no longer effective in today's academic era.

Officials explained that many schools continue to use teaching methods that require students to memorise and dictate information without grasping its true meaning.

Hassan said the ministry has adopted new methods to implement a modern education system to address issues.

Could it be the teachers?

Perhaps the most crucial factor when modifying the educational infrastructure is the teachers.

Fatima Al Merri, CEO of the Dubai Schools Agency at the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, made some interesting remarks about the status of Emirati teachers.

She said that while foreign teachers can teach a language or skill, other important factors such as values and customs can only be effectively taught by the inheritors of that culture.

"Many UAE nationals have abandoned teaching as a profession or look to it as a last resort," Al Merri said.

"Students can't find a role model who is a UAE national in their schools. A student can't be convinced of this message [of cultural identity] unless the citizens are the messengers of this message."

One factor for this, according to Al Merri, is the lack of motivation and incentive.

"Teachers worldwide are getting the best salaries," she said. "Salaries here for teachers from public schools are the lowest in the country. Teachers are also provided with no health insurance.

I believe that teachers should be the first category to be considered for health insurance because of the amount of physical, psychological and emotional energy they exert."
Education and national identity Officials said that national identity is something that should exist at the core of the educational system.

According to Hassan the national spirit can be instilled in students from an early age by teaching courses on Arabic language, religion and national education."The curriculum should be linked to identity," Al Merri said. "The Arabic language is one of our top priorities.

Of course we accept other languages, but we must focus on and develop our mothertongue first. Children often go to English because it's presented in a more simple and attractive manner. We must present Arabic in the same way."

What the youth think?

Students agreed with the views of experts and officials. They believe that universities and schools play an integral role in the formation of identity, whether it's national, social or otherwise.

"Schools should begin from an early age to teach students about the country, its history, heritage, traditions and values," said Faisal Mohammad from DMC.

Students, however, said that this kind of education should not be limited to a certain age group. Rather it should continue right through high school and into college.

"In seventh grade we used to have a course called National Education which went on for the whole year," said DMC business student Saud Abdul Aziz. "This course taught us about our country, the way it runs, its history and heritage. I think courses like this should be taught every year."

Abdul Aziz also added that courses such as these aren't given much importance and form an exceptionally small percentage of a student's average grades.

"Academic institutes should give more importance to such topics so that students take them more seriously," he said.

It starts in the home

Officials also asserted that families play an important role in fostering national identity. Al Merri said that most values, behaviour and ethics are instilled in individuals in their early years; however, the family structure in the UAE has changed in such a way that it does not nurture the preservation of national identity.

"Previously children used to live with their extended families, their grandparents who would share their experiences and cultural wisdom," she said. "Now we have children being raised by Indonesian and Filipino housemaids.

Our most important challenge is to focus on this phase and identify our responsibilities in this age category."
Al Merri used language as a prime example of how early learning has the greatest impact in the long run.

"Research proves that children can learn more than one language very quickly," she said. "We should start to focus on Arabic as the main language from an early age. Of course, we can teach them other languages, but we must focus on the mothertongue."

Students said that instilling cultural awareness is one of the most important responsibilities of a parent when raising children.

"We must maintain our traditions and values and pass them on to our children," said Rashid Mohammad, foundation student from DMC. "And then they'll pass it down to our children's children, and the cycle will continue."

Sports and national identity

UAE rallying legend Mohammad Bin Sulayem, President of the Automobile and Tourism Club of the UAE, said that sports could play an integral role in helping to preserve the national identity of UAE nationals. Speaking at the National Identity Conference, he said that sports build national pride and urged a major team effort to create more UAE champions and involve more young UAE nationals in athletics.

"When a UAE driver wins a rally; when our football team wins the Gulf Cup; when an Emirati wins a gold medal for shooting at the Olympics, we inspire our young," said Sulayem. "We make them proud to be Emiratis, proud of their national identity, eager to embrace it, to aim for success in sports themselves and to become tomorrow's champions."

"Language and religion are the vessels in which civilisations evolve."
- Mohammad Ahmad Al Bawardi, Undersecretary of the Court of the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Secretary General of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council

Current issues facing the status of education systems in the UAE
- Complicated regulations and low productivity
- Low standards of school buildings and facilities
- 90 per cent of educational institutes rely on traditional teaching methods
- Low information technology infrastructure
- The percentage of male drop-outs continues to increase.
- All information is provided by Dr Hanif Hassan, Minister of Education