x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The changing face of UAE National Day

Wigs, garlands, face masks and cowboy hats are among the memorabilia flying off shop shelves as the UAE begins to celebrate its 41st National Day, but some wonder if the party atmosphere is straying too far from the traditional ways.

National Day gear at the Antique Museum market in Dubai on November 19, 2012. Christopher Pike / The National
National Day gear at the Antique Museum market in Dubai on November 19, 2012. Christopher Pike / The National

When National Day revellers take to the streets on December 2, parading in cars decked out in red, white, black and green, they will not only be waving flags and banners.

They will also celebrate the nation's heritage and national identity by wearing wigs, garlands, face masks, sunglasses, watches and cowboy hats all bearing the colours of the national flag.

Hanging out of sunroofs and car windows they will wave pompoms, spray onlookers with foam and silly string and repeatedly sound car horns guaranteeing no one misses their elaborately decorated car with even its wing mirrors covered with a UAE-flag bearing sleeve.

Step into any memorabilia shop or your local supermarket and it will be hard to miss the National Day merchandise display catering to the carnival atmosphere that now accompanies the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Federation in 1971.

At Union Co-op in Al Barsha, an area of Dubai where every other villa already has a giant flag hanging from its balcony, the National Day display is easy to find.

Lights and paper decorations hang from the ceiling and the aisle is a sea of colour and glitter.

There shoppers can choose from a catalogue of tribute souvenirs, from traditional tiepins and flags - a 20 metre by 3.3m silk UAE flag will set you back Dh899 - to a full range of carnival-style party wear.

There are furry canes for Dh35, an electric "lightsabre" flag for Dh5.50, a girl's fancy dress outfit for Dh17, a Mohican wig for Dh22, a watch and wallet combination for Dh39.90, a woollen Rasta hat for Dh20 and even a set of DJ headphones for Dh150.

Suppliers say the demand for carnival-style mementoes is a trend that has only developed in the last few years.

"The fun stuff is a new thing; it's the younger generation that want the headbands, the canes and the party wear," says Bob Thayyil, the international project development officer for Fakih Group of Companies, a retailer with 35 outlets across the UAE.

At the group's Antique Museum in Al Quoz, the prominent National Day display features traditional rosettes, tie pins, flags, scarves and Omani ties alongside cowboy hats, sweatbands and feathered canes.

"Until two or three years ago we never stocked this type of merchandise, but it's very popular now among teenage boys aged 15 and upwards," Mr Thayyil says. "They want to dress up and wear the cowboy hat, the UAE shawl and the cane - it's for fun to put them in a happy mood. We even have fake tattoos for the face.

"It used to only be days like Valentine's Day where we'd sell a lot of fun gifts, but now National Day is the same."

At the Super Sonic Fashion warehouse in Dubai's Deira, business is brisk - indeed, the company says it is the largest importer of National Day promotional products. The managing director, Zakkara Ziaudeen, says suppliers have already purchased 60 per cent of his stock, which includes National Day costumes, laptop stickers, fishing caps, thumb stickers, car sunshades and finger cuffs.

"When I first started stocking National Day items 10 years ago, I only bought in six products. This year we have 133. Suppliers say they want more party items so we constantly change what we bring in to meet demand.

"Last year, Abu Dhabi police ordered Dh700,000 of National Day merchandise to distribute to their staff."

Even Mustang Trading, a company that supplies corporate gifts to companies, has had to move away from more traditional products in favour of ladies' hair clips, earrings and jewelled rings.

"There's definitely more demand for funky stuff. Previously it was a little bit sober, but now it is more flashy and colourful," says partner in the company, Lenny Ferreira.

The sudden interest in carnival-style mementoes is a reflection of how the celebration of National Day has changed, says Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh, an Emirati who is cultural adviser to the Ministry of Presidential Affairs and former deputy chairman of the Abu Dhabi Culture and Heritage Authority.

"The establishment of the federation was a major milestone in the life of every Emirati in the 1970s, so celebrations happened every year but they were more of a state celebration with a military parade and a presidential address."

However, with the military parades stopping in the 1980s, celebrations moved into the home, with families choosing to celebrate in their own way.

"I've lived here for 25 years and in the early days there was nowhere near as much demand for merchandise and only a few places, such as government buildings, displaying UAE flags. Now every community celebrates. Whether you go to Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman or Dubai, everywhere is colourful," says Mr Thayyil.

But Mr Nusseibeh says the real shift in the way the occasion is marked came last year. "The 40th anniversary was a major break from the traditional celebrations," he says. "For the first time we had celebrations across the emirates; it became much more of a popular occasion.

"In the past we never had all this memorabilia, but this is the way it has become. The first generation has passed away and the second generation wants to celebrate this occasion as its own.

"It's no longer the state that needs to parade what it has achieved. It has become a popular event celebrated by people in any way they like.

"That is why we see young people buying different things and doing things in the same way other nations might celebrate, such as Americans celebrating the 4th of July."

While Mr Nusseibeh says this more western style of celebration favoured by the young is legitimate, there's no doubt it has opened the floodgate for retailers keen to promote their memorabilia. Competition is fierce and the drive to get the merchandise on the shelves on time starts in March, when the government releases the usage guidelines for the official logo.

Companies then commission their graphics departments to design the products, before placing orders with suppliers predominantly in China but also in South Korea, India and Thailand, to make the goods.

"We place orders with suppliers in China six months in advance," says Mr Ferreira. "Different factories make different items, so for flags we use a particular textile supplier whereas for pins we use a metalwork factory. We order up to 50,000 pieces for each of the 30 items we stock."

However despite the demand for party wear, the traders all agree that traditional tiepins and scarves are still their biggest sellers.

"We order 50,000 tie pins every year because each school will place an order for 1,500, so they go very fast," says Mr Thayyil.

Mr Nusseibeh adds: "Yes, traders are now trying to cash in on the celebration, but if they try to exploit this day, eventually there will be no demand for the products. People will not buy if the merchandise becomes outrageous. The market will decide."