x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Cultural diversity of Emiratis reinforces national character

The UAE's heritage of naturalised Arab families and tribes has been integrated within the Emirati cultural landscape. That history must be accepted and honoured.

The UAE is known for hosting hundreds of nationalities within its borders, and it is no longer uncommon to hear stories of how this rich blend of cultures has encouraged the rapid development of the country. An estimated eight million people now call the UAE home, including about one million nationals.

Yet there remains an untold story about the citizens of the UAE, and the blend of different origins that has contributed greatly to the creation and progress of the country.

In 1971, before the union of the seven emirates, the county's total population was approximately 279,000. On December 2, 1971, the country's new rulers declared that legal citizens of the separate emirates would each obtain federal citizenship.

Four years after that, the government then wisely took the decision to increase the number of citizens in the country by extending offers of citizenship to "the Arab tribes" - which included people from Oman, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere. The goal was to bring more experience and skilled labour, education, health care, law, media and other fields. The doors of immigration were open.

Men, women and children who hailed from these three countries began to forge a new national identity, citizens of a new nation under the leadership of Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the country.

Integration into society was not a major issue at the time. All three Gulf countries shared customs and traditions similar to those of tribes found in the seven emirates. In fact, many had relatives already living in the UAE, as the semi-nomadic lifestyle of numerous tribes encouraged frequent travel across the Gulf.

With no borders to constrain them, Arabs travelled freely between states and lands, choosing where they wished to call home. The driving force of trade has brought people of the Gulf into close contact for centuries.

Newly naturalised Emiratis brought invaluable skills to the young UAE, and increased the number of citizens. In turn, their arrival helped the economy grow and the nation develop.

Over time, however, a minority of naturalised Emiratis began to feel secluded from the rest. Nationals moved forward together, but there was nonetheless a sense of division felt by some who were naturalised, sentiment that would later prove to have repercussions that continue to affect many nationals today.

Some naturalised Emiratis experienced insecurities and feelings of unworthiness that led many to either self-impose social exclusion or to struggle to be included into society by adopting every tradition and custom of other tribes, to the point of completely wiping out their own history.

Families changed the names of their tribes. Some parents went as far as to hide their background from their children, convincing them that their ancestors were "originally" from the UAE and were not linked to any other country. Obviously, these children grew up and later discovered the truth for themselves, leading to uncertainty and tensions that continue to cause social anxiety for many Emirati men and women today.

The situation has improved somewhat, yet many people are still embarrassed about their origins. Later generations will look back at these sensitivities and wonder how Arabs from the Gulf could conceal their roots simply to be socially accepted by peers.

It is time for these feelings of inadequacy to be banished once and for all. To continue forward, Emiratis must come to appreciate and value what their families and tribes have brought to the country, whatever their origins.

Over the years, the rich heritage of each naturalised Arab family and tribe has been integrated within the Emirati cultural landscape. Rather than keep one's roots hidden, then, this blend of customs and traditions should be communicated, shared and embraced, proudly passed on to generations to come.

How can this change of mindset occur? Forums could be organised for nationals to share the history of their tribes and details of the remarkable journeys that brought their parents, grandfathers or great-grandfathers to the UAE. We can all learn from each other.

As we near the 40th anniversary of our nation, it is more important than ever for us to stand as one with all of our differences and be appreciated by ourselves and those around us. Although subtle in comparison with many other nations, Emirati diversity can help enrich our society and lead to an economic, social and cultural development.

Our rich history must be accepted and our tribes honoured - to embrace our differences and be proud of them while celebrating the nation's collective unity.


Taryam Al Subaihi is an Emirati social commentator who specialises in corporate communications