Emirati children go on the march to report for National Day duty
On Sunday, Saood Al Riyami will don fatigues and a matching cap, lace up his boots and report for National Day.
Saood is one of thousands of children who will commemorate the formation of the country by wearing a military uniform.
Children’s uniforms have become an integral part of National Day since the introduction of Commemoration Day in 2015, a day that honours soldiers who died serving their country, led to a new appreciation of the armed forces.
“It was my idea to wear the uniform,” said Saood, 11, a year six pupil in Dubai.
“It makes me proud of the soldiers who went to risk their lives for the war to protect their country. They sacrifice their life to defend their country and if no one went then then the war would spread to different countries.”
Six years ago, fatigues were worn exclusively by servicemen. But public and civilian displays of support for the military took off after the Arab coalition intervened in the conflict in Yemen in 2015 to restore the internationally recognised government of president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi.
Boys’ uniforms are now mandatory at some schools for National Day celebrations and this has proved lucrative for tailoring companies.
The month before National Day is the busiest time of year for Technical Scissors, Abu Dhabi’s largest uniform tailoring company. Its 400 tailors began sewing children’s uniforms in September.
The family business expects to sell 4,000 children’s uniforms this November and a uniform for a three-year old can run up to Dh430.
“Before it was optional,” says Rezk Salem, the company’s sales representative. “Now schools insist.”
Some schools place mass orders directly from the company.
“It’s because of schools that this business has grown,” said Reema Owaimer, the company’s schools section head.
“The government curriculum has guided them in this direction, so that children believe now that uniforms are important. When the child wears this suit, he feels respected.”
Ms Owaimer is the daughter of the company’s Palestinian founder, Mohammed, who arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1968 as a refugee from Palestine.
When she was a child, National Day celebrations were little more than a flag raising at school.
Today, they can last days and parents are encouraged to dress children for the occasion.
Children’s uniforms are identical to adult uniform in every detail, from customised badges for name and rank to tactical boots made in Vietnam.
“Some parents buy the whole uniform and go the whole way because they love the army,” says Mr Salem. “In some countries, children want to be doctors or engineers. Here, they want to be in the military.”
Advertising is geared to children. One video released by Technical Scissors features a boy on a shopping spree, trying on helmets and lacing up boots.
Few girls uniforms are sold.
They prefer fluffy party dresses.
Military symbols have become a prominent part of National Day celebrations.
At parades and state-sponsored concerts featuring Emirati poets and pop-stars, boys dress in fatigues. Last year’s Ras Al Khaimah concert featured a story about a boy who pledges to defend his country. His mother tells him: “With your blood you should protect the nation and when it calls upon you, you must answer with your soul before your body.”
Recent celebrations promote civic qualities like self-sacrifice, obedience and pride.
All year-round, children in small towns and villages are surrounded by physical tributes to the military. Mosques, roads, community buildings and footfall fields in the Northern Emirates have been renamed for those who have died in service.
Ready-made garment businesses have also tried to capitalised on the popular military culture by offering a range of Commemoration Day T-shirts and scarves.
At Ras Al Khaimah’s Kuwaiti Street market, garment shops sell switch stock a month before National Day from colourful party dresses to child uniforms and girls’ dresses in camouflage motifs.
“The demand comes from schools, they request all this” said Mohammed Taj, a partner at Al Maroof Ready-Made Garments who was unpacking a last-minute order of fatigues requests by customers. “Maybe it will be different next year. Every year, styles change. Here in the UAE, they always want what’s new.”
Down the road, mother Maryam Youssef did last minute National Day shopping for her daughter from the comfort of her 4x4. A garment shop clerk held up different dresses to her car window as she and her daughter looked on.
Shopping for her sons was easier. She simply bought them fatigues. This, explained Ms Youssef, prepares them for National Service, which boys can begin from age 16.
“Family here teaches them how to love the country and that’s important for the protection of the country,” she said.
“When they grow up, they’ll like the country more and respect its defence.”