x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

National Day: 40 reasons to celebrate

The United Arab Emirates celebrates its 40th birthday today, an occasion that will be met with joyous and wildly unselfconscious celebrations throughout the nation - from flag-waving to fly-pasts, from official ceremonies to organised chaos - and rightly so.

Life begins at 40, Walter B Pitkin reminds us in his almost 80-year-old book about ageing. "At 20 years of age, the will reigns, at 30, the wit and at 40, the judgement," Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, once observed. "The first 40 years of life give us the text; the next 30 supply the commentary," said Arthur Schopenhauer, a 19th-century philosopher whose glass was always half-empty.

Forgive me for trotting out a string of quotes and cod-philosophies about the tick-tock of time passing, of life unravelling. You will, of course, understand why.

The United Arab Emirates celebrates its 40th birthday today, an occasion that will be met with joyous and wildly unselfconscious celebrations throughout the nation - from flag-waving to fly-pasts, from official ceremonies to organised chaos - and rightly so.

This newspaper has devoted much time and many column inches to the moment of the nation's foundation and its achievements in the four decades since that union was forged. I make no apology for adding to this coverage. But what, one wonders, could be drawn from each of those quotes from Pitkin, Franklin and Schopenhauer: does this day mark a beginning or an end? What judgements can be made? And who or what will supply the commentary in the years to come?

Undoubtedly, while December 2 is a day to celebrate the achievements of this young country - from that incredible piece of nation-building first envisaged and then realised by Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE, to the certainty and stability of the Emirates of today - life will begin again in earnest tomorrow: new residents will arrive, others will bid these shores farewell for the last time, the constant ebb and flow of life marking simply just another 24 hours in one small corner of the world. Pitkin's text provides a timely reminder in all of this, too: "Living has always been forward," he writes, "what is done is done, for better or for worse. There is no recall. There is no repeating."

And what of Franklin and his judgements? Today of all days, only the churlish would offer an uncharitable verdict. In truth, the story of the Emirates can be written as a tale of near-constant achievement, of an ever-shifting nation that has flourished in the modern era; that has been prudent enough to diversify its oil-rich economy, that has been expansive enough to appear well-placed to ride out the worst of the current global financial crisis; that has transformed itself from rags to riches almost in an instant, progressing from its pearl-diving past to the pocket parks and grand public works of its present. One can but hope that history will judge this as a country that welcomes the world through its entry points and borders, to make their livings, to set up home, to begin new lives and, in many cases, to start new families. Let no one forget that for many, life really does begin here.

That is not to deny that there are challenges ahead, but tell me honestly, if you are, like me, a temporary resident, an outsider, an interloper (call it what you will), you weren't moved in some way by the sheer joy of the first National Day parade you witnessed here, from the elaborate preparations for the big day to the exuberant celebrations on it. That it didn't make you feel this Emirati nation is capable of almost anything it is prepared to set its collective mind to, that the enthusiasm that courses through the streets every December is almost impossibly compelling. Nationalism thrives in the UAE in a wonderfully uncomplicated way and long may that circumstance, that reality, provide the commentary to all our futures here.