Illustration by Lauren You

First-Generation Half-Emiratis

Emirati students explore the implications of their mixed identities.

Oct 14, 2017

Shaikha Al Neaimi, Class of 2019, was called a foreigner for the first time in her own country when she returned to the UAE after growing up in Lebanon and the U.S.
“I would get bullied a lot in school in Abu Dhabi; they would call me, in Arabic, ajnabi, which means foreigner,” she said.
With an Emirati father and a Lebanese mother, Al Neaimi grew up always questioning her identity and trying to understand where she fit in. She remembers having to take Arabic classes to catch up with her peers and receiving frequent criticism from her teachers and other students. Her greatest difficulty was not having her Emirati father around while growing up, which made it hard for her to integrate into the Emirati culture.
“I look Emirati and I have an Emirati name, but I do not speak the Emirati dialect. I find it difficult to speak in Arabic in general and I don’t know much about the UAE and its history — where my family came from. A lot of Emiratis are proud of that, they know where their family originated but I don’t,” she said.
Al Neaimi’s story finds echo in that of Nawal Aljaeedi, Class of 2021, who was born in the Philippines but grew up in Abu Dhabi. Every year or so, she would go back to the Philippines to visit her mother’s family, but she had no interactions with her father’s side of the family.
“I think it was because of the nature of my father that we didn’t keep in touch with his family much,” Aljaeedi reflected.
For Nawal, the defining moment of coming to terms with her identity was transitioning from a private to a public school for high school. It was in high school where she had to wear the abaya and sheila in public, and constantly speak in Arabic.
“People assume that you know Arabic if you are a local so it was hard to navigate that and make friends with girls who could speak in Arabic. Most of the jokes and conversations would happen in Arabic and I’d be left out of most of them,” she said.
Al Neaimi recounted an instance from her second year at NYUAD that made her reflect on how she identified herself on campus.
She remembers that it was UAE National Day and students on campus were celebrating the occasion. Shaikha was in the lounge with a group of Emirati and non-Emirati students. She had a Physical Education class at the same time so she’d informed them that she would ask her instructor for permission to go to the celebration but one of them said, “Well, you are not technically Emirati.”
“I wasn’t offended by it but it was weird hearing someone say that. It surprised me. I questioned her, what do you mean by that. She said, Well you don’t speak the Emirati dialect, you don’t dress like one — you don’t wear the sheila. From what I can tell, you don’t really identify as an Emirati,” Al Neaimi said.
Now that she is aware of this sentiment, she is actively trying to learn more about her culture from both sides of the family.
Omar Al-Marzouqi, Class of 2019, identifies as Emirati even though his childhood was decidedly influenced by his U.S. American mother.
For him, reading English books was a habit he picked up from his mother. In fact, every summer he would go back to Nebraska to meet his grandparents where he would go to summer camp or make s’mores with his family in the woods. That, however, did not preclude him from being Emirati.
“I didn’t feel having [a U.S.] American mother affected me culture-wise, because my mom converted to Islam and many of the cultural values in the UAE are tied to religion,” said Al-Marzouqi.
There were indeed benefits to growing up with mixed parentage for Al-Marzouqi. Namely, he enjoyed having both U.S. American and Emirati cuisine on the dining table. He was able to have pancakes for breakfast and machboos for lunch. Upon reflection, it was one way his mother and grandmother bonded in his childhood — their love for food united them.
Nevertheless, Al-Marzouqi always refrains from stating his U.S. American parentage when he introduces himself to people, because he is afraid of being labeled as something other than traditionally Emirati.
“When people know that I am half-[U.S.] American, they begin to say, Oh, because you are half-Emirati, you are open-minded, or, Your English is so good, that is why you are tolerant. But I don’t agree with this,” he said.
Government-led Initiatives
Although there are no official statistics on the percentage of mixed marriages or children who are half-Emirati, the issue is widely discussed in local media and during meetings of the Federal National Court.
In 2016, the Federal National Council formed a special committee to look into mixed marriages; given that more than a quarter of all marriages in 2014 were mixed. One of the FNC members was quoted as saying that “[mixed marriage] affects the national identity.”
The state promotes its agenda of increasing Emirati-Emirati marriages though explicit advertisements and offering family services to the Emirati population.
The UAE government website on marriage laws states: “The UAE Government aims to build and maintain a stable and consolidated Emirati family and to fortify the Emirati social and demographic structure, by encouraging Emirati men to marry Emirati women.”
In 1992, Sheikh Zayed initiated a Marriage Fund under Federal Law No. 47 of 1992, through which Emirati men who choose to marry Emirati women can receive up to 70,000 AED to cover marriage costs.
For Emirati women who choose to marry expatriate men, the case is different. In order to get married in the UAE, the woman has to obtain consent from her parents and a permit from her employers if she is working in the armed forces. Not only is the marriage fund not available to her, but she is also restricted from passing citizenship rights to her children or husband.
Dialogue in the media
There is also a lack of representation of half-Emiratis in mainstream media. A short narrative film Arasian, directed by Ahmed Al Tunaji, Class of 2017, challenges this lack of representation by investigating the stigma on being half-Emirati that exists amongst locals in the UAE.
The film features a half-Emirati schoolboy, who is torn between friendship with a Filipina cleaner and the need to belong to an Emirati clique.
When asked about his motivation to make the film, Tunaji wrote to The Gazelle: “My intention with this short film is to open a platform for my audience to discuss amongst themselves why such stigma exists in our world today. On a micro scale, I want my audience to see how every Emirati is an Emirati whether his bloodline is not pure or his mother is Filipino.”
Tunaji’s film also subtly points to discrimination against Filipinos, who are often viewed by local Emiratis as belonging to the working class.
Another film, which was the first to garner attention to the subject, was Half-Emirati, made by Amal Al-Agroobi, an Emirati-American. The five subjects in the documentary recount personal narratives of societal expectations for children with mixed parentage in the UAE.
Social media also plays an important role in creating spaces for dialogue among Emiratis who define themselves as half-Emirati. A Facebook group named Half-Emirati Group (Official Page) has approximately 300 members. Whatsapp groups for self-identified half-Emiratis also exist – Tunaji received inspiration for his thesis film title from a Whatsapp group named Arasian.
Although children of mixed parentage are a minority in the UAE, many members of the local community have begun to engage in dialogue about the issue. This engagement is led not only by publications such as The National but also by members of the new generation in the UAE.
Karma Dolma Gurung is Editor-at-Large. Email her at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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