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Deconstructing Emirati national identity combines modernity with traditional themes

Kristian Alexander

Leonardo Jacopo Maria Mazzucco

Published: Updated:

In light of the 50th national day anniversary today, the UAE will celebrate another milestone in the country’s history.

Frequently, national identity is portrayed as a given, as something that is commonly understood and self-evident, but the notion of Emirati national identity is complicated by a whole range of factors, including cultural, societal, and religious aspects.

One is led to believe that there is one essential core identity shaped in a coherent fashion that characterizes all Emiratis, but there are in fact many nuances.

National identity is a social construction that is formed and shaped by multiple factors such as the state discourse, the creation of a nation's history and mythology, individual socialization and subjective interpretations. That means that national identity is not fixed, but a constantly evolving phenomenon.

This process in-the-making recognizes how multiple identities can coexist and contribute to different understandings of national identity. Depending on the context and circumstance, Emiratis will possibly prioritize one respective identity over another.

According to Courtney Freer, author of a new book on Tribalism and Political Power in the Gulf, “family and tribal affiliation are primary markers of national identity… In recent years, religion, and particularly the notion of moderate Islam, has also been promoted as part of Emirati identity.”

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Since the UAE is made up of seven individual emirates, each one of them displays local and geographic particularities. As Freer points out “Emirati identity has distinguished itself by emphasis on trade and cosmopolitanism in Dubai, as well as a focus on falconry particularly in Abu Dhabi. The UAE has also distinguished itself by having distinct identities across different emirates.”

The search for identity represents an ongoing quest, with many young Emiratis who consider themsleves nationals but ultimately struggle to recognize an idealized Bedouin past.

This third generation of Emiratis has grown up living in the rapid change of a cosmopolitan country, educated at Western-style universities, and exposed to the virtual world. For them the search is one to find an identity that reconciles the personal experience of globalization with their peoples’ history.

This picture taken on June 3, 2021 shows an Emirati flag fluttering above Dubai's marina with the Burj Al Arab landmark hotel (C) in the background. (AFP)
This picture taken on June 3, 2021 shows an Emirati flag fluttering above Dubai's marina with the Burj Al Arab landmark hotel (C) in the background. (AFP)

The youth’s impact on the national identity is far from superficial, and it is expected to have profound ramifications on the country’s social fabric. With more than 32,000 newborn nationals joining the Emirati population every year since 2010, the UAE demographic make-up is gradually shifting in favour of the youth and making the need to answer its identity quest more urgent.

In addition, the UAE government is encouraging a shift in the conceptualization of citizenship, which is no longer understood as mere entitlement to state-sponsored benefits, but as requiring a more active engagement by its population.

A perfectly calibrated blend between the enhancement of tolerance and promotion of entrepreneurship is the pivot, as well as the goal, on which is built the Projects of the 50 scheme. This is the roadmap guiding the country’s development over the next decades.

The new plan, announced in September 2021, includes a number of policies tailored to shore up the attractiveness of the UAE as a competitive and business-friendly environment while, at the same time, implementing measures aimed at encouraging Emirati citizens to become protagonists in the private sector’s development.

In essence, the traditional Emirati identity has become a more accessible and consumable good for both nationals and foreigners, and is the focus of several cultural, educational, sport, and gastronomy projects.

The public discourse on national identity speaks to the traversing of both modernity and tradition, a coexistence and compatibility between polar opposites. Specific symbols, such as camels, horses, falcons, dhows and coffee pots suggest a notion of a romanticized past, while juxtaposed with high-rise buildings, high-tech universities, Starbucks and other western franchises.

The persona of the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the charismatic founding-father and driving force behind the formation of the UAE is what many Emiratis see as exemplary. His virtues and behavioral traits have become the benchmark and ideal for what it means to be a model citizen of the UAE. The enduring legacy and leadership of Shaikh Zayed are far from cosmetic as they are deeply embedded in the cultural historiography of the country.

In the recent decade, the images of Emirati women have primarily contributed to reshaping the national identity by becoming the public face of progress in the UAE.

As a result, women have emerged as symbolic representations of an advancing society and a marker of all that is modern while simultaneously relying on the foundations of an ever-present traditional society. Far from being protagonists of a mere cosmetic transformation, female empowerment is another example of the compatibility of modernity and tradition.

“What makes the UAE unique and a vibrant community is this diversity. Their stories, histories, and existence is what enriches the national culture. As the Emirates is opening up to longer-term residencies and citizenship, the future conceptions of what it means to be an Emirati will also inevitably reshape, not only on legal terms but also culturally,” said Idil Akinci, a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh.

Leaving the idea of a uniform Emirati national identity aside, there is more than meets the eye in cultural and societal shifts experienced by the UAE. During the last few decades, the Emirati national identity experienced significant transformations that unleashed the creative potential of its citizens and better prepared them to tame a daunting array of ever-present challenges.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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