This is the story of a country by the sea. A country where, for many generations, people looked around and saw faces and heard voices like theirs. Then new people started to arrive, people with African names and Indian clothes and Slavic features, so that, as the 21st century opened, in many parts of the country people saw around them cultures unknown just a few decades before.
That country is Britain, though the description could equally apply to the UAE, which has undergone a far greater post-war demographic transformation and consequently, as it enters its 38th year, has begun to assess what makes it uniquely Emirati. If any country in the world defines the globalised age, it must be the Emirates, where just 20 per cent of the population are citizens. If Britain - where the percentage of new arrivals and their descendants has never passed 15 per cent - is struggling to define its identity post-Empire, then what are the challenges for a nation where the majority trace their heritage elsewhere? Where do you find the glue to hold them all together?
Start at the end, with an answer. As the Beijing Olympics closed, London, as the city that would host the Games in 2012, gave a short preview, built around Leona Lewis, a pop star, and the footballer David Beckham, surrounded by a host of British children of all ethnicities. Absent were any references to Shakespeare, the royal family or the faded empire, all things that many still associate with Britain. The image of this new Britain as diverse, innovative and fashionable was aimed not at the 60 million Brits but at the watching world: this, it suggested, is a country anyone can be part of, a place where anyone can belong. The lesson from Britain is that, in a globalised world, the best way to preserve identity is not to try to define it more narrowly, but to define it more broadly, so that everyone can have a share in it.
Identity has taken a hit recently in Britain. The prevailing orthodoxy since at least the 1960s has been tolerance and diversity: that as long as different ethnic groups coexist peacefully, everyone is free to pursue their own cultural identity. But increased immigration, the fragmentation of social ties, even home-grown terrorism have all shaken belief in this laissez-faire model of social cohesion and led people, particularly politicians, towards the view that identity can and ought to be prescribed.
At the heart of that view lies an error: the idea that there is a list of qualities that every Brit has to tick. In the past, those qualities may have included religion or language, even race, but those days are long past. Instead, quantifying identity begins to look like a board game, one where you either need to keep a certain number of similarly coloured pieces on the board, or where you have to make sure that every piece is represented.
In truth, neither works. Prescribing an identity leads only to the past. National identity is not an artefact under glass in a museum, to be studied and admired. It is more like a language, to be interpreted and used daily. A self-confident nation should be happy to absorb ideas from everywhere, safe in the knowledge that - to paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi - ideas will blow freely around the country, but the country will not be blown off its feet by any.
Britain may be losing its nerve, but the Emirates should not. The UAE has become a Middle Eastern powerhouse by creating an open, tolerant environment and marrying its values with the expertise and ideas of a globalised world. Both are essential. Because values, far more than language or religion, perhaps more than even culture, characterise the identity of modern nations. Even those countries with a clear sense of their national character do not have a prescriptive identity. They have an identity rooted in values. Whether those are French values of liberty, equality and fraternity, or American notions of freedom, what binds those nations is not a list of attributes. Values are formed in the crucible of a society, not imposed by committee - Arab hospitality, for example, grew out of a particular lifestyle.
So when Emiratis wonder who they are, the answer is all around them. As Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE, noted in his National Day address, identity is a framework that "shapes our attitude towards our surroundings and defines the direction". The character of the UAE is rooted in its Arab history, its Islamic culture, its institutions, its geography. These things give the country a distinctive identity - but one that is impossible to define precisely.
That does not mean taking a casual approach to forging common bonds. A shared language and understanding of the country's history are all essential for a strong society. If anything, Britain's leaders have been too reluctant to say that. The second challenge for Emiratis is to reclaim their history and culture, teach it to citizens and new arrivals alike, but also crucially to allow those newcomers a stake in reinterpreting what it means to be Emirati. Those Arabs, Indians and Europeans who have settled and raised families in the UAE in the past decades are among the country's great success stories. They are part of a burgeoning middle class and are rooted in the Emirates. The challenge of a self-confident Emirati identity is to allow them to reinterpret the national identity for modern times.
The way to do that relies on a distinction between values, the ideas that underpin a society, and rituals, the ways of acting that express those values. Britain has done just this - albeit imperfectly and hesitantly - but it has allowed the values to trump the rituals. By embracing diversity, Britain allowed newer arrivals to meld their own traditions into British culture, thereby enriching it. (It is noteworthy that the country's most popular dish is now an Indian curry.)
Take the ritual of Glyndebourne, an annual opera festival that has been part of the English social calendar since the 1930s. These days Glyndebourne is struggling for an audience, but the same values that underlie it - fellowship, love of music - are alive and well at other summer festivals, such as Glastonbury, a popular rock festival. The rituals have changed, but the values remain. That happened organically, without government intervention. The challenge for Emiratis is to maintain their openness and allow their traditional values to be reinterpreted in new ways. What will emerge will be something different, definitely not to everyone's liking, but authentically Emirati.
And the reward is this: that in time, perhaps in another 37 years, when Emiratis look around they may still see faces that do not look like theirs - but they will all be tied into a dynamic, diverse country that is unmistakably the Emirates. Faisal al Yafai is an award-winning journalist and commentator. He lives in London.