x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Returning home to the Emirates is a celebration

An Emirati comes home and pledges to absorb his culture and heritage.

For many, the New Year brings the prospect of a fresh start. A time when someone can transform the changing of a single digit of the Gregorian year into a psychologically motivating and inspiring push to change or advance themselves for the better. Personally, I am making it my mission in 2012 to better understand and connect with the Emirates - something I have yet to attain, despite being a citizen.

My desire to plant my Emirati roots heightened not at the turn of the year, but a month before on December 2. On this auspicious National Day, I enjoyed the privilege of attending the official ceremony celebrating the UAE's 40th birthday at Abu Dhabi Zayed Sports City. This unique event displayed the country's progress and sensationally summarised its dynamic history.

Yet, out of the tens of thousands of jubilant Emiratis attending the proceedings, I was witnessing the show through foreign eyes. Blending into the sea of white kanduras, my traditional dress masked the truth: I am a stranger in my own land.

Having lived the majority of my life and a great deal of my childhood in the West, my primary language and culture are now neither Arabic nor Emirati. In the pursuit of education, my family first journeyed to the US when I was of the tender age of three. English quickly became my dominant language not only outside the house, but also at home, since my parents were practising their English. My culture was also shaped outside the borders of the UAE. Spending formative years abroad meant my ideas of the world were influenced by western friends, schools and society in general. Although I was part of an Emirati family, the more time I spent abroad, the more non-Emirati I became.

During my youth, I returned to the Emirates for only brief periods. But even in those years, I did not grasp the Arabic language or the Emirati culture, as I attended private English schools and hardly engaged with local citizens. This continued and contributed to my alienation from the local language and culture.

When it was time to pursue my own higher education, I followed in the footsteps of my parents and headed back to the US, the foreign land of my youth. Although my official immigration status was "foreign student", everything about the country felt familiar. I had a strong connection to the culture, language and people from my childhood - experiences that allowed me to blend in quickly and with ease. As the years passed, my connection with the country solidified and I began to root myself to the US. However, being so far from family, my American foundation had no chance of setting and the calling to reconnect continued to grow louder until it could not be ignored.

After my extended oversees hiatus, I returned, not knowing what to expect of the UAE. What I found was a country transformed. Abu Dhabi's and Dubai's new skylines and infrastructure had converted them into cities I hardly recognised and frequently lost my way in. The country's residents had become more diverse while the Emirates provided the expatriate majority a comfortable home away from home. Government services had been significantly streamlined from when I had last used them. The nation had opened up to the global business and tourism communities, promoting itself as a world-class hub for business and travel. Career and business opportunities, for citizens and expatriates alike, were in much greater supply than the lands I had returned from. The country had taken leaps and bounds in the decade from when I had last seen it.

Since my return, reconnecting with my family has given me a sense of belonging I could not have attained without them. Seeking a better understanding of the history, culture and landscape of the UAE through a "self-Emiratisation" process could only further this feeling of being a part of something greater. I know full well this process will not be a simple one because, as many expatriates can attest, the barriers of a different language, different culture and working your way into the tight-knit minority groups of citizens are hard to overcome. But I intend to take full advantage of my citizenship in establishing a link back to my home country.

As this new year progresses, I hope my comprehension of Emirati identity will also develop throughout 2012. Through my travels and associations throughout the Emirates I hope to build a stronger comprehension of the country and its people and as a result, cement my place within the UAE foundation.


  • Thamer Subaihi is a returning Emirati who grew up largely in the US

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