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Illustration by Alyazia Alremeithi

Questions of National Identity in the UAE

The UAE aims to foster a strong national identity among its population through new policy initiatives.

Nov 10, 2018

Nationalism, when tempered, can be a valuable asset for a country. When unchecked, however, it can be a dangerous vice — often, the line between the two is difficult to judge. The nationalism that covers much of the world today is predominately rooted in countries whose national spirit spans multiple historical eras, the cumulative result of a long and iterative historical state-building process. In the UAE, applying historical experience to the creation of a strong national identity is not as straightforward. Because of the UAE’s relatively recent date of unification in 1972, efforts at establishing a national identity may be the result of a more conscious and deliberate process.
The UAE’s steps to create a strong national identity are many, possibly due to a lack of organic conduciveness in the style of the rest of the world. In addition to National Day celebrations that happen every year on Dec. 2, the UAE in recent years has established holidays celebrating other aspects of the UAE national identity. UAE Flag Day was announced in 2013, while UAE Commemoration Day, also known as Martyr’s Day, was made a national holiday in 2015 to commemorate the sacrifices made toward the creation and protection of the UAE.
Public holidays like these that celebrate various aspects of nationhood can be useful for creating a national identity by celebrating and fostering pride, especially for UAE citizens. However, because the UAE must take deliberate steps to establish these types of traditions, not all public reactions to attempts at nation-building may share the same level of enthusiasm.
Even though NYU Abu Dhabi is composed largely of expatriates in terms of both students and staff, ceremonies are held on campus to celebrate these holidays in an effort to strengthen students’ connection to the UAE. The presence of national identity efforts is not only targeted at Emiratis as the UAE would be better served by all its residents believing in a collective identity, especially expats.
The UAE has established extensive programs to attract skilled people to contribute to its economy — with a strong feeling of national identity, even expats initially brought in to work on a temporary basis would be more likely to contribute to the UAE’s long-term economy and goals. Such commitment could, in turn, reduce the impact of historically-high employee turnover and increase existing residents’ desire to stay in the UAE.
In 2016, the Abu Dhabi Education Council announced a program specifically designed to foster national identity in Abu Dhabi schools. Educational environments are where the most significant impacts can be made on the next generation of residents, especially in formative years. Establishing pride in a UAE-based identity can be especially valuable for children of expat workers, as those highly-skilled workers could be more likely to stay in the UAE if their children feel the UAE as their home.
The nature of the UAE’s economy also makes it unique in terms of deciding how to develop a national identity. The UAE’s economy is based on trade, but evidence has been mixed as to the effect of increased trade and globalization on national identities. A related and possibly detrimental phenomenon is economic nationalism, where international trade is perceived as unfair to domestic producers who should receive more preference. In the UAE, however, the scope of this phenomenon may be limited, as exports account for more than 100 percent of GDP.
While the benefits of a successful program in establishing national identity are high, the UAE’s project does not guarantee success. If undertaken too heavy-handedly, policymakers run the risk of rubbing some the wrong way by misconstruing nation-building as fostering nationalism. An interesting question is also raised as to whether it is more important to prioritize certain approaches that may be most effective toward specific segments of the population: would a program compelling for Emiratis be less effective for expats? Such differences would imply that employing multiple strategies might be the most effective may to communicate a singular message to different groups. But would different tactics for different groups be antithetical to the very idea of promoting a unified message?
For the UAE, the hope is that more citizens and residents will feel a connection to the country strong enough to elicit the benefits of national identity, especially for future generations. How that goal will be accomplished will require walking the delicate line between appropriate and excessive, but would be a great asset for the UAE if done successfully.
Herbert Crowther is Features Editor. Email him at
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