x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Emiratis urged to keep grip on tradition as modernity beckons

Traditional Emirati culture must be safeguarded as the country is transformed by lightning economic growth, one of the world's leading anthropologists says.

SIR BANI YAS // Traditional Emirati culture must be safeguarded as the country is transformed by lightning economic growth, one of the world's leading anthropologists says. Wade Davis said he was in awe of the pace of development and wealth in the UAE, but warned that other indigenous cultures have had difficulties coping with quick growth.

"Where there is such a high level of growth, so there is a concern about how to make this transition into modernity while still maintaining a culture's traditions," he said. "It's remarkable how quickly the bonds of tradition break if no one thinks to honour them." Dr Davis held up the development of Sir Bani Yas, off Jebel Dhanna, as an example of cultural preservation, noting that it is national significance had been preserved even while it was turned into an international tourism destination.

He was visiting the island to attend the launch of the National Geographic Abu Dhabi television channel. Abu Dhabi Media Company, which publishes The National, is a partner in the channel. Sir Bani Yas, formerly a private wildlife park for Sheikh Zayed, the late founder of the nation, was opened to the public in 2008 after being closed for more than two decades. It is home to more than 1,000 animals, including Arabian Oryx, giraffes and cheetahs, and remains true to Sheikh Zayed's vision of a haven for rare and national species.

Cultures that abandoned their past would become extinct and indistinct, said Dr Davis. This was a problem facing many of cultures, including the Emiratis, who had built a thriving society in the harsh desert climate, but were losing touch with their traditions, and even their language, he said. "Here, it's the sheer abundance of the wealth - the capacity to hire out all your labour," said Dr Davis.

"But when you make a transition from a certain subsistence base to another, it can be very difficult to maintain any continuity." The societies that kept their identity were the ones that took steps to preserve their heritage, he said. "Cultures are driven out of existence by identifiable forces. This is actually an optimistic view because it shows that if humans are the creators of cultural upheaval, we can also be the agents of their preservation."

The Harvard-educated anthropologist, ethnobotanist and biologist has written almost a dozen books about lesser-known cultures and spiritual practices. He sees different cultures as a reflection of the many different ways humans can live their lives. "Many of the problems of the world have happened because people suffering from cultural myopia believe theirs is the only way," said Dr Davis. Despite this, many cultures were struggling to maintain a sense of identity when adopting western technology led to increased lifespan, a higher quality of life and greater opportunity.

"In the future, we would like all people to have the fruits of modernity without giving up their ethnicity," he said. "In many places of the world, the promise of modernity hasn't been realised, so it's provoked hostility and disaffection." Dr Davis, a Canadian, has produced several programmes for National Geographic. His work has inspired episodes of the television programme The X Files. jgerson@thenational.ae