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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

As we pay tribute to the fallen on Commemoration Day, the hurt still runs deep

The number of losses might seem small but in tight-knit communities, the impact is great

Wahat Al Karama memorial for the UAE's heroes, in Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National
Wahat Al Karama memorial for the UAE's heroes, in Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National

This weekend sees perhaps the most important days in the UAE’s national calendar. Tomorrow marks Commemoration Day, which will be followed by the celebration of the 47th National Day on Sunday. The former marks the sacrifices of those who have laid down their lives for the country, from the first to fall in conflict, Salem Suhail Al Dahmani, defending the island of Greater Tunb in 1971, just before the federation was born on December 2, to the latest casualties in the conflict in Yemen.

Salem Suhail Al Dahmani, in a picture held by his niece. Reem Mohammed / The National
Salem Suhail Al Dahmani, in a picture held by his niece. Reem Mohammed / The National

National Day, meanwhile, marks the completion of yet another year in the life of what has proven to be a remarkably successful experiment in political union and the pursuit of wide-ranging social and economic development. For people living in the UAE, the signposts of a nationwide celebration are everywhere. Flags and decorative lights line streets and adorn houses and malls. For the young, special events are being arranged in schools, one of which I attended earlier this week. That’s an important way of promoting both knowledge of – and pride in – the UAE’s progress, among the children of citizens and residents from overseas alike.

For UAE citizens, of course, it’s easier to grasp the magnitude of what is being celebrated. Most families still have members of an older generation, who can recount to younger members of the family how the UAE began and how it evolved over the years. The days of hardship are now distant memories for those old enough to have them but it is still important – perhaps more than ever before – that those memories are shared and passed on, in the hope that a younger generation can comprehend the benefits they have reaped. They should not be taken for granted. Above all, it’s important to ensure that a sense of entitlement does not arise. The progress that has been made is the fruit of much hard work over the years and can best be preserved and built upon through continued effort.

On such a day, there is a particular resonance to the oft-quoted statement of the late Sheikh Zayed: "He who does not know his past cannot make the best of his present and future, for it is from the past that we learn.”

Marketplace in Bur Dubai decorated with UAE national flags for the National Day celebration in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
Marketplace in Bur Dubai decorated with UAE national flags for the National Day celebration in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

Since there is a long holiday weekend for National Day for both the public and private sectors, it is almost impossible, even for new arrivals, to overlook the fact there is a special occasion underway. It is to be hoped that its significance and the achievements that have been made since the formation of the federation will not pass them by. In this Year of Zayed, now drawing to a close, something of that message and of the role played by Sheikh Zayed and the other founding leaders should be clear to all.

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Read more from Peter Hellyer:

History is not just a dusty irrelevance

An older, wiser generation will be making the UAE their adopted home

A man in a hurry: how Baba Zayed's early years as Ruler of Abu Dhabi shaped his vision for the UAE

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It’s more difficult, however, for the real meaning of Commemoration Day to be understood by the UAE’s communities of foreign residents, except for those who have a close relationship with some of the country’s citizens. Until this millennium, less than a dozen Emiratis had died in the service of the state, including six who died in the first Gulf War to ­liberate Kuwait.

I still recall vividly both the sense of shock widely felt when the news of those deaths came through and the burgeoning sense of nationhood and patriotism that has remained with us ever since.

It is a marker of a changing world that those numbers have tragically risen, with conflicts erupting across the region in recent times. While compared to other nations engaged in conflict, the losses might seem relatively few, they represent a heavy toll on the UAE’s one million or so national citizens. In a country such as the UAE, with its tight-knit familial and tribal structure, the impact is greater still.

It’s never easy for a community to become accustomed to such losses; harder still for those more directly affected. Although, rightly, Commemoration Day pays tribute to the sacrifices made by the fallen and offers continuing support to their families, including their parents, widows and children, the hurt still runs deep.

A few weeks ago, on the centennial anniversary of the end of the First World War, I paid tribute to the memory of those who had laid down their lives in that conflict and in other battles that have followed. That was an occasion of global significance, commemorated around the world. This weekend, it is the UAE’s time to recall and to honour its own losses. It’s important that the country’s communities of residents from overseas recognise and understand what this event means to the citizens among whom they live.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture