Back in 1904, John Gordon Lorimer, an official in the Government of British India, was dispatched along with a group of researchers to the territory that today comprises the UAE in order to study the tribal make-up of the land. Lorimer and his team, whose findings were later compiled into a single encyclopedia publication called The Gazetteer of the Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia detailed up to 44 tribes in the emirates comprising 80,000 people. Lorimer even noted “the country is tribally one of the most composite and perplexing”.
At the turn of the 19th century, after Tehran levied significant taxes on the Iranian trading port of Lengeh, a large number of merchants moved to the free trading port of Dubai. Over the next few decades as word spread a substantial migration took place from southern Iran, East Africa and Balochistan as well as many parts of the Arab world to pre-independence UAE. Many of these immigrants assimilated and enriched UAE society having become citizens of the newly created state. As their numbers grew so did the make-up of the UAE’s demographic diversity. Mixed marriages and a more globalised migration ensued, further diversifying the population.
In the early days of the federation in the 1970s some of the students who left the UAE to countries such as Egypt didn’t identify themselves so readily as Emirati, a term that had only just been coined. This was in contrast to Kuwaiti, Qatari and Bahraini students for instance whose countries hadn’t been formed as a result of a federation. However, over the past four decades being Emirati started to denote far more than a citizenship but also a way of life, a set of beliefs as well as a sense of common destiny, essential elements in the make-up of a tribe. Somehow between the regional overseas immigrants, the coastal people of the UAE and the Bedouins of the interior desert a common thread formed that resulted in the Emirati national identity we are now familiar with. Had Lorimer visited the UAE today he would have found an astonishing portrait. Despite the dozen fold increase in the population of UAE citizens our sense of identity has never been more unified.
Enriched by diversity
Certainly the UAE isn’t the only country where a single tribe can span various ethnic groups, sects and even religions and where a tribal affiliation isn’t merely the result of a blood connection. The Santhals of India, the country’s largest tribal community, includes members who are both Christian and Hindu. Similarly the Sukuma tribe in Tanzania includes up to 10 per cent Christians amongst a number of African beliefs. In the Arab world some of Iraq’s largest tribes include members who are Shiite and Sunni and sometimes Kurds including the Bani Tamim and Shammar tribes. However, while these multi-ethnic tribes took centuries to form, the UAE achieved this feat in a number of decades.
While many families who immigrated to the UAE over the past century maintain their ancestral traits and customs, and no doubt the country is enriched by this diversity, these families have largely assimilated to form the modern definition of an Emirati. Numerous government initiatives, urbanisation and media have played a role in the formation of this single UAE identity. Additionally, perhaps the mass migration to post independence UAE has prompted us at a subconscious level to band together even more.
At a recent event I attended, an accomplished Emirati told me of an incident where his father scolded him for naming the emirate he came from during a visit to the US rather than the country. His elderly father said, “You are from the UAE, you just happen to be living in that emirate.” My late father, who grew up in what was then Bombay at the time of India’s independence, often told me how Indians identify themselves by their individual states when in India, but when they travel abroad they always identify themselves as Indian.
The UAE’s ethnic make-up includes natives whose ancestors can be traced back here for centuries as well as people who immigrated to the country from across the region. Today, the cultures of these immigrants and natives have amalgamated into what has become the Emirati identity. The country is no longer simply made up of 44 tribes as Lorimer had noted, it is far more diverse and “perplexing” now, having included various ethnicities and tribes under the umbrella of a newly emerging Emirati identity. As a wise man I once met in Abu Dhabi a few years ago told me, “In this country the only tribe is the Emirati.”
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a UAE-based writer. You can follow him at www.twitter.com/SultanAlQassemi.