As the UAE celebrates its 47th birthday, it is time to reflect on the values of tolerance and togetherness espoused by the Founding Father
National Day is a reminder of humanity's common bonds and the importance of sharing
I was born in 1978, seven years after the emirates united under Sheikh Zayed to form the UAE. Back in the early days of celebrating National Day, in the 1980s, we looked to Sheikh Zayed for inspiration, rather than the flag of the UAE. There was no Flag Day or Commemoration Day back then; they came much later. Sheikh Zayed was a father figure who took care of us, a patriotic symbol and the force that held us all together. I felt I was part of an Emirati family, but I didn’t comprehend back when I was a child that I was part of an independent nation.
My son’s generation is different. When I take him to kindergarten, I see many nationalities. They were there when I was growing up too, but now the level of engagement is deeper. There has been a profound change. People from other countries, not just Emiratis, feel a sense of belonging in the UAE. It has given me a richer sense of what it means to be Emirati. It doesn’t mean I belong just to the Emirati family − it means I belong to a country that includes everyone and is willing to share the fruits of growth and progress.
I had my own experience of what it feels like to be an outsider and to be welcomed into another culture when I moved to the US for university. I celebrated Independence Day and Thanksgiving and learned the significance of those occasions from my new friends. When you engage with a culture like that, you feel a greater sense of belonging.
When I was in the US, between 1997 and 2000, I studied world religions at Seattle University, focusing on what brings us together as human beings, rather than what differentiates us. We might have different perspectives but we are all the same. We are all human. That should unify individuals in the same way the seven emirates came together to form the UAE. We are all members of the same family.
This sense of belonging, of coming together to form a whole that is greater than its individual parts, comes directly from Sheikh Zayed’s vision of a unified nation. There is an ethical dimension. There weren’t many resources and most of our people were poor villagers working in date orchards or as fishermen. Then there was the oil boom. When an individual strikes it lucky and becomes very wealthy, it is tempting to keep that wealth to oneself, to be selfish. That is human nature. To ensure people are able to overcome this temptation, you have to foster a belief in parity, a sense of community and a willingness to share. This is a moral way of doing things, and if you instil it in one generation, it will be inherited, passed down and future generations will flourish. It is the role of the flower to pollinate. If it loses its sense of purpose and stops, in time it will wither. This lesson of co-operation is an example to the whole Arab world. If everyone works together, it will create more prosperity than if we go it alone.
There is also a religious dimension. The country, as the national anthem Ishy Bilady makes clear, is founded on the principles of the Islamic faith. But whether that principle of sharing and community exists in the context of religion, or in the context of national identity, it is still the same moral.
As an artist, all of this seeps into my work. Everyone carries with them part of their culture, part of their experiences, part of their roots. They might not always realise it, but it will find its way into whatever art form they are creating, whether it is poetry or music or visual art.
This year I participated in Abu Dhabi Art with the support of the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation with a piece titled Unity, a reflection of my understanding of world religions and the commonalities between different world faiths. The piece was unveiled at the fair in the foundation’s pavilion.
When it comes to celebrating National Day tomorrow, my family and I will think about how our ancestors struggled and, thanks to Sheikh Zayed and the unification of the emirates, how they finally prospered. We will think about the incredible progress the nation has made in the last 40 or 50 years. We will think about what it means to be Emirati.
My son will help us hang decorations in the windows, he will wear a new kandura and he will proudly wave the UAE flag, along with his friends from around the world, at one of the parades in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. I myself will look around at all the different nationalities celebrating this nation, think back to my time in the US and how I was embraced into its culture, and feel a sense of contentment. When a country celebrates itself, it is always a very happy occasion, because it is a family of people rejoicing in the one thing they all have in common – their humanity.
Dr Ahmed Al Faresi is an Emirati mixed-media artist and an assistant professor in information technology at United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain