Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 14 October 2019

Emirati women benefit from a strong sense of national identity, study finds

Research concludes those who embrace Arabic and UAE identity are happier and healthier

Emirati women at the City Walk district in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. AP Photo / Kamran Jebreili
Emirati women at the City Walk district in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. AP Photo / Kamran Jebreili

Emirati women who embrace their national identity tend to live happier, healthier lives, new research has suggested.

In a landmark study, women who spoke good Arabic and identified positively with UAE symbols of identity reported greater levels of well-being than those who aligned themselves more strongly with Western culture.

The results of the research back a growing body of evidence indicating those who feel part of strong social networks and have a secure sense of their own group identity are likely to feel the benefit.

On UN Arabic Language Day, academics have said the findings highlighted the importance of preserving Emirati culture — specifically high levels of fluency in Arabic — in the face of social and demographic change in the country.

“Our identities — whether it’s as a member of the male group, the Muslim group, the Emirati group — if they are positive, we value them and we feel a sense of belonging,” said Justin Thomas, a professor at Zayed University’s college of natural and health sciences in Abu Dhabi, which carried out the research.

“That connection to other people is really important. It really does help us stay well.”


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The UAE study involved 210 women aged between 19 and 42 who are enrolled in various health science courses at colleges within the Emirates.

Respondents were asked to report their own fluency in both Arabic and English, as well taking a test to gauge their emotional reaction to images of both Emirati and North American ‘icons’, such as flags, well-known brands and landmarks.

Data showed that more than one in 10 people, or 13.5 per cent, reported being more or equally proficient in English compared to Arabic.

Researchers also found that 113 respondents were found to have a preference for the American images, compared with 94 showing a preference for prompts associated with the UAE.

Professor Justin Thomas
Professor Justin Thomas

Groups who had higher proficiency in Arabic, and those who had a preference for the Emirati icons, reported higher levels of well-being in a psychological test, approved by the World Health Organisation.

“Emiratis are a minority population,” said Prof Thomas, who also writes a weekly column for The National. “Often, you find that in other places minorities will become assimilated into other groups, and lose their sense of identity, and that can sometimes be associated with problems.

“It is a very different situation here, as the minority group is well protected from that and have a high social-economic status.

“But it does show the importance of having a positive image and evaluation of the group you belong to.”

The research findings may help inform policies around the prevention and treatment of mental illness, Prof Thomas said.

Additionally, the results could be of interest to those forming education policy, with declining levels of Arabic fluency among younger generations of Emirati nationals already a concern.

Researchers also noted that the all-women study, while representative of the UAE's female population given high levels of college enrollment in the country, meant the results should not be used to generalise about Emirati men, who were not part of the survey.

“Part of Emirati identity is speaking Arabic,” Prof Thomas said. “But our data shows there are some Emiratis — because of their educational experiences — their Arabic is pretty close to non-existent.

“That was quite rare, about six per cent of the sample. But they certainly do seem to be lower down on the well-being scale.

“If someone’s talking and you don’t understand what they’re saying, you start to feel that sense of ‘I don’t belong’ and people maybe treat you differently.”

Ian Grey, an associate professor at the university and co-author of the paper, said the findings were in line with existing research which suggested social identity was a powerful force for well-being.

“A strong identification with, and feeling positive about, Emirati identity is associated with improved well-being,” he said.

“Strengthening a sense of belonging is protective and it promotes well-being. Not just at the national level but initiatives that foster any type of group identity can promote resilience and well-being. That could be something as simple as a book club or netball team.”

The UAE has embarked on a series of initiatives to preserve a strong sense of Emirati culture and heritage in the face of high levels of immigration.

However, concern has been raised over a lack of focus on Arabic in schools.

In the Indian school curriculum, just 21 per cent of schools were rated as ‘good’ or ‘better’ for Arabic as an additional language by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, the education regulator, earlier this year.

That rose to 42 and 52 per cent for UK and US curriculums respectively, where many Emiratis are taught.

Comparatively, 73 per cent for Ministry of Education curriculum schools were rated as good or better for teaching Arabic.

Updated: December 18, 2018 02:29 PM