Despite having a national anthem that citizens sing with pride, the UAE has never officially approved the lyrics.But now that it is to be sung in schools, the author is finally getting recognition. Marten Youssef and Haneen Dajani meet Dr Aref al Shaikh When, in 1986, the Minister of Education gave Dr Aref al Shaikh three days to come up with unofficial lyrics to the national anthem, the poet was initially reluctant.
"I am a poet, not a songwriter," Dr al Shaikh said this week. "I have never been asked to do such a thing. It's usually the other way around - first you write the words, and then you put music to it.
"But when the minister asks you to do something, you do your best," added the poet, who was working as a lead examiner for the Ministry of Education at the time but is now a marriage cleric at the Dubai Courts.
For three hours he sat in his room listening to a cassette recording of the anthem's music. Over those days, he says, he must have played the tune at least 60 times.
"I started to think of key words the anthem should address: the country, the religion, the history, the values, the devotion to our land and the people.
"That is what makes us unique."
With these words in mind, he began to write: May you live for a people, Whose religion is Islam, and whose guide is the Quran, May I strengthen you in the name of God, O homeland, My country, My country, My country, My country.
"Such simple words," he said, "but their power is in their simplicity." He sang the words to his wife to see how she would respond; she loved them. The next day he sang the words to the minister.
"He also loved how simple and powerful the words were. That same week it was broadcast and the words were distributed to schools."
Although the anthem is still usually performed without lyrics, when words are sung, they are Dr al Shaikh's. Official or not, the lyrics have been widely accepted and sung as the UAE flag is waved at sporting events. "I would not change a single word of it," said Dr al Shaikh. "They are the words we grew up with. We have memorised it and lived it.
"Yes, there is no official stamp, but the fact that the Ministry of Education this week declared it ought to be sung in schools is another recognition. History has stamped it official."
The debate on the lyrics reached the Federal National Council last July, when Sultan Saqr al Suwaidi, a member of the FNC, questioned the Minister of Culture on the anthem's status.
"What I am asking for is that they either approve the current lyrics to go with the official anthem or change them," Mr al Suwaidi said in an interview ahead of an FNC session. Yesterday, however, Mr al Suwaidi said: "The lyrics are the official lyrics simply because we don't have anything else.
"All I am asking for is that it get the stamp of the Government or we create another one. Until then, this is the official anthem." "Many schools adopted the practice of singing the anthem, but others neglected it," said Mr al Suwaidi. "This step by the Ministry of Education is a positive step for our country as a whole. Many people don't know these are not the official words; we have simply taken them on as the official words."
For many of those who were born and raised here, Dr al Shaikh's anthem lyrics are the only ones they know. Dr Fatima al Sayegh, professor of Gulf history at UAE University, said that unless someone came forward with other lyrics, Dr al Shaikh's words were the official lyrics.
"The whole country has embraced the simple yet powerful words," she said. "We don't need to be discussing if it's official or not. As far as many people are concerned, these are the lyrics."
Although the words of the anthem have never been challenged, Dr al Sayegh said there was more to the anthem than words. "The flag was also designed in a very simple way," she said.
"It's not the colours of the flag or the lyrics of the anthem that matter. It's the feeling of patriotism behind them." Rashed al Baloushi, a 46-year-old retired military officer, started singing the national anthem soon after the lyrics were written and knows the words by heart.
"I feel it. 'Live my country' has a sense of patriotism; it gives children a sense of belonging. Wherever they go, when the national anthem is played, they start singing along," he said.
"The national anthem stays with each generation forever. It is small words which have a big meaning. "When I listen to the national anthem, immediately I start singing along; even if I don't do it with my lips, my heart sings along." Saeed, a 45-year-old member of the military who preferred not to mention his rank and last name, agreed.
"When the children sing the national anthem and watch the flag being raised, this will give them a sense of national identity," he said. "Our country provided everything for us; we owe it to our country to at least develop our love for it. So, the new rule is a good step, especially when our national sports teams play abroad.
"When the national anthem is played, some of the players don't sing along because they don't know the words, whereas the teams of other countries all know their national anthems by heart."
Abdullah al Sadi, a supervisor at the Military High School in Al Ain, also welcomed the move. "I'm a patriot, and the feeling of patriotism is always with me," he said. "The lyrics of the national anthem illustrate what the feelings of nationalism are all about."