The UAE is a model for other nations in the region, whether in terms of social tolerance, economic development or political stability. But it has also gone through experiences that are lessons for others on things to avoid. The most prominent among these learning experiences has been the demographic imbalance. The repercussions of the current demographic reality have yet to be fully digested but one of the symptoms we now see clearl are the issues surrounding Emirati identity.
The concern with “preserving Emirati identity” is a social phen-omenon that I believe is tied to re-imagining what it means to be a national of the UAE. In the past such issues weren’t even considered, purely because there was no real value attached to national identity. But today being Emirati comes with privileges, thereby creating a big difference between a national and an expatriate.
Being Emirati carries certain benefits, but also dangerous drawbacks. Accounting for just 2 per cent of the workforce in the private sector of their own national economy is a prime example of the precarious position Emiratis find themselves in.
And Emiratisation campaigns cannot fix this astronomical imbalance in any shape or form. So it is understandable that UAE nationals have suddenly become concerned with understanding what it actually means to be Emirati, hence the debates surrounding Emirati identity and the need to “preserve” it. This issue has emerged as a reaction or a backlash from the indigenous population of the UAE to a social reality that seems to be beyond their control and/or comprehension.
What Emirati identity might mean in this context is “wait a second, the social setting might have changed, but we’re still the same” or “we are the ones who know what it means to be Emirati, we are the ones who set the rules of the game”. What it also might mean is “although the realities of the social and economic development of our country have escaped our comprehension, we still have a say”. This view comes in the form of a dissenting voice asserting, “but what really matters is us, and we have incurred intangible costs”. And Emirati identity has become the mechanism for the expression of these intangible costs.
At this point, I must make it clear that many of these concerns are valid, and to a certain extent the culture and traditions of the UAE might have been adversely affected by the rapid socio-economic development that the country has witnessed in the past two to three decades. But although they are an essential component, culture and traditions are just one part of what shapes identity — and not what identity is. Emirati identity means a million things, as at the heart of it, it is just another layer of the multitude of identities that go to form an individual, with the expressions and meanings varying from one person to the next.
But the fact that Emirati identity has become such a focal point means it has evolved into something greater. The mere discussion about it is the means and ends of a movement that is helping quell some of the symptoms Emirati nationals display in the face of the social and economic changes.
Basically, “Emirati identity” as a contemporary phenomenon is just another way for Emiratis to differentiate themselves; it’s another rock for them to cling on to in the face of so much change.
A multiculturalism of trial and error is the only way forward for the UAE. I think Emiratis need to change their perceptions towards nationalism and ethnicity. Emirati society is already visibly diverse. Consider, for instance, the numerous half-Emiratis who now bring cultural influences from across the globe to a society that looks nothing like it did only a generation or two ago.
The UAE is commonly, and perhaps wrongly, described as a melting-pot of cultures. But on the ground, communities often form along cultural, ethnic or national lines with little interaction between different groups. These ethnic or national identities in many cases can create social and economic barriers for individuals and constitute a complicated web that limits, not strengthens, social integration across cultures.
The UAE is a fascinating case-study of globalisation and modernisation and the effects these processes have on societies and cultures.
Socio-cultural changes witnessed in the UAE, which might have occurred over generations, have instead transpired in a fraction of the time due to the rapid pace of economic development and exposure to global capital markets.
Such phenomena are likely to be replicated in other parts of the global south as societies and economies modernise and become increasingly exposed to the effects of globalisation. Emiratis need to be less concerned with “preserving Emirati identity” and become more concerned with truly understanding the unique changes and challenges they are living through, as they might realise they have valuable experiences to share with the world.
Gaith Abdulla is a PhD candidate at Durham University researching Khaleeji identity. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gaith_ab