I am always thrilled by how different nations commemorate their national anniversaries. As I lived in the US in the 1970s and mid-1980s, I used to find patriotic displays and family events during the 4th of July highly inspirational. Three years ago, I happened to be in France during Bastille Day, formally known as La Fête Nationale, and could not afford to miss the eye-catching infantry and motorised parades, as well as the Patrouille de France air shows.
In the West, national days are generally seen as celebrations of the values of patriotism and nationhood. In the United Arab Emirates, while National Day honours those values, its unique assertion of national identity as the driver of this nation's development has been most conspicuous. During my 18 years living in this country, I have always seen the impact of National Day on Emirati national identity, with its traditional and modern ingredients, as incredibly powerful.
For visitors to the UAE during this year's National Day holiday, it is impossible to miss the colourful face of the landscape, as government buildings and public roads are decorated with flags, patriotic slogans, and pictures of the nation's leaders.
But the real sensational part of the celebration comes from the many functions carried out on this anniversary. Thanks to federal and local government initiatives across the country (especially the Ministry of Culture, Youth & Community Development, which sponsored 75 functions this year), there is always something exciting to do.
The diverse range of functions - folkloric performances, art exhibitions, hospitality events, heritage displays, and traditional sporting activities - echoes the genuine quality of this country's national identity as deeply rooted in historical traditions.
As Sheikh Zayed (may Allah bless his soul) once noted, those with no past have neither a present nor a future. It is here that I see UAE National Day as a reminder of how the cherished past serves as a powerful catalyst for forging this nation's present identity. Scenes of young UAE nationals in traditional costumes at hospitality and henna tents or at folkloric performance grounds immersed in their traditional cultural experiences could never be more compelling.
But UAE National Day is not only about tradition. I have come across exciting celebrations of this occasion that epitomise the visionary achievements of this nation's leaders. Take, for example, the opening of the Zayed Bridge in Abu Dhabi - modern achievement put forth by a progressive leadership. Or take the Kullanna Khalifa event organised by the Dubai Committee for National Day Celebrations yesterday evening, when thousands gathered in front of the Burj Khalifa to mark the occasion. I see these events as encapsulating the very values of national identity as inspired by tradition and modernity. Kullanna Khalifa clearly carries a message of gratitude and loyalty to the nation's leadership. It also suggests that the tallest structure in the world is exemplary not only of how the UAE can top architectural standards, but also of how it can bring its traditional visions to bear on modern development. As I noted in my previous writings about this issue, as much as this nation finds great fulfilment in its cherished traditions and values, it also finds a lot of pride in its modern achievements.
An exciting aspect of how National Day celebrations reinforce the values of identity is visible in the public sphere. The impressive amount of space and time devoted by print and broadcast media to National Day suggests that mass communication can promote national identity. The Arabic press is flooded by media coverage of National Day functions as well as wide-ranging views on the nation's achievements in different fields. The Emirates News Agency WAM in particular has been quite active in providing extensive highlights of UAE development. I have come across similarly abundant attention in the many radio and television shows this week. The main theme shared by all musical and talk shows is that National Day is an opportunity for the UAE federation to express pride in its past traditions and modern feats.
Around the world, national days will always remain powerful reminders of how the past gives rise to the present. In the UAE, National Day is more than a time for remembrance. It is a time to assert how traditions and modern accomplishments converge to generate a sustainable sense of national identity. Once we realise that this sense of identity is the prime driver of development, we can certainly come to appreciate the tremendous contribution that UAE National Day makes in this direction.
Muhammad Ayish is a media consultant in Abu Dhabi