Under relentless globalisation and an influx of expats, Emiratis warn they are at a cultural, social and religious crossroads and desperately need a stronger "national identity" to guide them through the next stage of a young country’s evolution.
National identity – or lack of it – is the newly-emerging touchstone for Emiratis who spoke out over two days in the capital against the growing expatriate population, waning interest in the Arabic language, and the daily assault by modern trends upon long-held Islamic Arabic religious beliefs and traditions.
Low-level trepidation was palpable at the National Identity Conference hosted by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community Development which wrapped up late yesterday.
Hundreds of delegates, draped in a sea of white and black national dress, poured into a dimly-lit theatre at The Emirates Palace Hotel in the nation’s capital to hear more than 30 prominent officials lament the mounting losses in the face of a new electronic and economic age.
Impassioned nationalist sentiment was bolstered by a display of the nationally recognised symbol of the falcon splashed across theatre walls and on conference materials.
Head and shoulders above all identity concerns appeared to be the apparent invisibility of Emiratis in a growing tidal wave of foreign workers. Expats from an estimated 150 nations live in a country that was once dominated by more than 80 per cent UAE nationals who now, by unofficial count, make up roughly 20 per cent of the population.
Delegates heard that the Arabic language appears to be going out of fashion with younger Emiratis who believe speaking English mirrors fast-paced economic development in the country.
Religious leaders said they are nervous that Islamic teachings are being hijacked by electronic influences upon youth that flood the UAE daily over the television, radio and internet despite efforts by authorities to block so-called offensive content.
Dubai Police Chief Lieutenant General Dahi Khalfan Tamim said he fears that world-record economic progress in the UAE may be a Pyrrhic exercise that needs to be reined in.
"I’m afraid we’re building bridges but we’re losing the Emirates," said panellist Lt Gen Dahi, to thunderous applause, adding that "Emiratis should have a national strategy for increasing the birth rate. So, please marry and give birth."
Too many others
Lt Gen Dahi said it’s been difficult to see the "immigration of a large number of Asians to our streets and squares" and suggested that the country "must remedy or diagnose the disease or the phenomenon".
He lambasted recent labour actions in Dubai noting "that’s where security challenges are very fearful", pointing to some demonstrations for higher pay in which buses, cars and property were torched by labourers.
Not just expatriates with outside views about work and individual rights are threatening the UAE, said Islamic scholar Shaikh Dr Ahmad Al Qubaisi. Western ideas, satellite transmissions and the internet are threatening the Islamic Arab way of life. Islam is "being strangled by so many bad ideas", Al Qubaisi said.
Strike a balance
Foreign Minister Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan clearly differed with calls for tightened immigration policies noting that the UAE "can’t live in isolation on an island".
Shaikh Abdullah said the UAE needs to "stick to our historical background and establish our national identity" but that the country needs to strike a balance to maintain an open and tolerant society.
To build a national identity that accepts other cultures yet respects its own, the UAE citizens must be taught from an early age the merits of preserving Arabic and its literary traditions, said Fatima Al Merri, CEO of the Schools Agency at the Knowledge and Human Development Authority.
"Education officials need to focus on Arabic language as the mother tongue," she said.
Early education in formative years within the home, said Al Merri, should be complemented by efforts at school to hire Emirati teachers who should impart values drawn from a national curriculum for all schools.
Minister of Education Dr Hanif Hassan said that the ministry is focusing on language and tenets of Islam to reinforce national identity. "We are focusing very much on these subjects," he said. "We are focusing on our Islamic belonging."
He played down criticisms that without a nationally standardised educational curriculum, national identity will be hard to implant as compared to an American-styled sense of patriotism. Encouraging the Emirati youth to learn professions needed within the UAE may reduce the high degree of importing external expertise from abroad, Dr Hassan said.
Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, Speaker of the Federal National Council, said, "We agree that without a national identity, we can’t be a success."
The formation of the FNC in 1972 has helped create "national identity and loyalty", he said.
He added that the elections in December 2006 saw 50 per cent of the representatives elected by the people and that increasingly, the government is asking for its citizens’ comments to better the country.
Minister of State for FNC Affairs Dr Anwar Mohammad Gargash said the federal role will only increase as more people participate in a society that is evolving.
Role of sports
Delegates, meanwhile, listened intently as one of the UAE’s most well-regarded national sports personalities encouraged Emiratis to embrace modern change while maintaining the cultural traditions that have shaped the UAE.
Rally driver Mohammad Ben Sulayem said that sport is an extremely powerful tool that can build national identity, especially among youth. He told XPRESS that several international victories in rally driving at the Gulf Cup and at the Olympics raised national pride.
Ebrahim Al Abed, Director General of the National Media Council, noted that "media is a key player in creating an identity and, therefore, maintaining it".
He said more needs to be done to attract UAE nationals into the media to "bring the spirit of the country" to reporting in all mediums. The media is needed in the UAE now more than ever, said Al Abed, to gauge a "new country and society that is being exposed to dramatic economic and social change that will affect our identity".
Preserving historical architecture is another plank in building national identity, said Rashad Bukhash, Director of General Projects Department at Dubai Municipality. Bukhash noted that historical buildings are "characteristic of our identity" because they are "part of national and international heritage".
Nearly 90 per cent of workforce in the UAE is foreign (Report from Conference of Asian Labour Ministers held in Abu Dhabi on January 21-22 this year).
Foreign workforce in other GCC States:
Qatar – 83 per cent
Kuwait – 82 per cent
Saudi Arabia – 72 per cent
Bahrain – 55 per cent
Oman – 54 per cent