Friday, October 31, 2008

UAE - Defining crucial element of national identity

Back home, the term 'Bangsa Malaysia' has been propagated to be our national identity. So far, 'Bangsa Malaysia' is merely a concept and a dream. what is it?
Diversity shall be our strength as we move forward into new century. However in reality, in all honesty, we are still struggling even to talk about basic things like social contracts. We are still haunted by certain tragedies played by those who want to keep their asses on seats of power. Those who keep equating ketuanan melayu as ketuanan umno and if umno loses power, malays lose eveything.
Malaysia is a great nation and could have been the top if those in powers were really working for the people, not for their own agendas. Then again, with the current transition plan and umno elections, we still have the same moulds of leadership, robbers, thieves with different themes and sadly enough, nothing will change, believe me!

Unlike nationals of other countries, the indigenous people of the UAE are less likely to be referred to by others or refer to themselves by their nationality.
During a public debate convened in mid-September by the UAE Federal National Council on UAE's national identity, Wejdan Al Mutairi, an Emirati student of Zayed University, lamented: "For nine months we have been hearing about the national identity. Nobody has told us what the national identity is".
Al Mutairi was referring to the first ten months after President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan declared 2008 as the Year of National Identity. The seriousness of such a question is that this Emirati adult does not have an answer to it 36 years after the UAE federation was established.
Since the launch of the UAE national identity initiative, I have followed up closely on many of the public campaigns that accompanied it. But I always felt that the crucial element of emphasising UAE's national identity was missing: It is the name of the UAE's indigenous people. I have been living in UAE since 1992 and I am still intrigued by the lack of national attention to how the people of the UAE should properly be referred to.
The unification of the seven emirates in 1972 was a socio-political move led by the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan before the "national" identity of each emirate began to take root. It is probably the names of these emirates that could be one of the reasons for the unlikely development of their respective unique national identities.
The people of every Arab state could be identified by the name of their state: the Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis, Saudis etc, and even the people of the smaller Arab states such as Qataris or Bahrainis.
Most likely such labels could not have been possible for any of the seven individual UAE emirates. Or at least there are no commonly used terms or words to identify the people of Sharjah, Dubai, Fujairah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah or Abu Dhabi. There is no Sharjahian, Ajmani or Fujairi. The Arabic language does not accommodate such identifications; and even if it could, the names cannot be easily pronounced.
The name United Arab Emirates echoes the name of the United States of America. But the people of USA are identified as Americans, which is unique to them, not to people in Canada or South America. In contrast, while the UAE people are Arabs in the broadest pan-Arabist sense, they have not been drilled in a unique label for their national identity.
The United Arab Emirates is the only Arab state that has adopted a name that does not have a uniqueness per se, other than that it is a group of emirates. In Arabic and only as a short cut it is referred to as "Dawlat Al Emarat" (the State of Emirates). Another short cut is Al Emarat, which is the plural of emirate. As such the UAE did not adopt a name that is unique to its own identity. But Al Emarat appears to be a hesitant, shy name not many are embracing with zeal.
The term "Emiratis" is seldom used. This term could be problematic partly because of its political baggage as it refers to a type of the political system adopted by the state - like kingdom, republic or, sultanate, just as it is an emirate.
But regardless of the name's political implications, it is perhaps high time that UAE invest in its unique label Al Emarat for the sake of its national identity in the minds of its own people, its expatriate residents as well as the rest of the world.
Arabic and English media in the UAE, UAE Nationals and expatriates alike use a number of terms for identifying the people of the UAE. If not locals, it is nationals or "muwatineen". There is hardly any usage of the term Emirati. The term "locals", which is often used in the UAE English language media and is also heavily used by the non-Arab expatriates, has seeped into the Arabic media as well.
As is the case in the UAE, Arabic media, taken out of its geographic context, muwateen could apply to any GCC state as the term muwatineen (citizen) is commonly used across all GCC states when referring to their respective indigenous populations.
Perhaps the UAE English language media fares better only in the case of referring to "Emiratisation" of jobs in the private sector, whereas the Arabic media calls it "tawteen" (from watan, the Arabic translation of homeland).
And this perhaps stems from the peculiarity of the Arabic language, which does not accommodate the term "amrata" similar to "sa'wada" of jobs in Saudi Arabia. But we need not blame the media for this confusion in identifying the people of the UAE. The media is just riding the wave and any label goes.
This confusion about the identity of the people of the UAE persists at the cross-roads in its history. The UAE is a unique country in its population mix and the unstoppable influx of expatriates has indeed become vital to its well being. But precisely because of this, establishing and promoting a unique national identity of the people of the UAE is called for more than before.
The UAE government, the civil society and the Arabic and English media should unite in creating and promoting a national campaign for putting an end to the multiple names by which the people of the UAE are referred to. One name ought to be used and that is Emirati.
From a political, social and cultural research perspective, Al Mutairi's frustration "nobody has told us what is the [UAE] national identity" points to a serious national issue, not just limited to the way the people of the UAE refer to themselves.

Jihad N. Fakhreddine is an expert on public opinion polling.

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