x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The day that life in the UAE changed forever

Emiratis recall feelings of happiness and pride when the UAE first came into existence in 1971

Sheikh Zayed signs the Federation Agreement on December 2, 1971, creating the UAE. On his left is Sheikh Rashid, then Ruler of Dubai. Behind them are Mehdi Al Tajir, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid and Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid.
Sheikh Zayed signs the Federation Agreement on December 2, 1971, creating the UAE. On his left is Sheikh Rashid, then Ruler of Dubai. Behind them are Mehdi Al Tajir, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid and Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid.

In a radio broadcast on December 3, 1971, the late Sheikh Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, addressed a nation barely 24 hours old. "Our vision has coincided with the will of the people of the emirates to declare the establishment of the United Arab Emirates, an independent sovereign state that aims to do its best to provide a decent life and stability to its people," he said. For tens of thousands of new Emiratis, life had changed forever. These are the reactions of some of them:

"I remember going home and my father telling me we are now Emiratis, and that we will be finally getting electricity in our house," said Ali al Matroushi, a historian from Ajman. He was nine years old when the federation was created. "We were a relatively poor emirate, and my family and I, like the majority of families in the Northern Emirates, didn't have much," he said.

When Ajman became part of the UAE, the family's standard of living improved, with greater access to health care, better schooling, modern housing and a new television. "Benefits we now take for granted were non-existent then for the majority of us," he said. "But the union changed all that, and all our lives and our children's lives changed forever for the better." One of the first times Mr al Matroushi carried a UAE flag was when a convoy of official vehicles, led by Sheikh Zayed, the late founder of the nation, passed through his neighbourhood soon after unification. He and other boys ran after the convey waving flags and calling out, "Sheikh Zayed!". "Even though I didn't fully understand then what it all meant, I felt such great happiness to be running behind and so close to the father of our nation," Mr al Matroushi said.

At the same time, another nine-year-old boy was finding out about National Day and what it meant when he went to school in Al Ain two days after the union. "You are now Emirati," Sultan al Neyadi was told by his Egyptian geography teacher, who pointed to the UAE on a world map and then to the new red, green, white and black Emirati flag.

"I just felt so proud to be part of this new nation, and to be witness to the changes and developments that followed," said Mr al Neyadi, a television and theatre personality who founded the Al Ain Theatre. He is writing a television series on the days that followed unification and the developments in the UAE since its formation. "People need to be reminded just how far we have come in such a short time," he said.

"The UAE is the only successful union in the Arab world, and part of that success is that the country is taking care of its people and making sure they are all living a decent life as promised on that great historic National Day." One benefit of becoming Emirati, Mr al Neyadi recalled, was when he would come home with Dh150 each month for attending lessons. "We were being paid to go to school isn't that great?" he said. "I would collect that money, which increased each year as long as I kept going to school, and I would give it to my parents to help them out, who in return would buy me a gift."

For younger Emiratis such as Maitha al Khayat, 30, a writer and mother of four, the sense of national pride is no less than that of older generations. "I am so proud to be from a country that is so full of energy, where anything and everything can happen," said Mrs al Khayat, who was born in Ras al Khaimah almost a decade after the creation of the UAE. "Each emirate has its own flavour, and each adds a different weight to the final product of one remarkable country," she said.

"We are but a tiny spot on the world map, but if you zoom in, you see great buildings and institutions, and people who are making a name for themselves in all kinds of fields on the international scene. "I am so lucky to be an Emirati woman, because it means all my rights are protected by the Constitution of the UAE, a system that protects and nurtures me and my family." Her father, Dr Abdulwahab Hussain al Khayat, 56, said his adoption of a new nationality happened in a memorable way.

Ras al Khaimah had not yet joined the union when Dr al Khayat travelled to Qatar in early February 1972 as captain of the RAK scout team. When Dr al Khayat and his friends returned to the Abu Dhabi airport and presented their Ras al Khaimah passports, they were informed their documents were invalid and they would be issued UAE passports. RAK had joined the union two days prior to their return. "You are UAE citizens now," the passport control officer told the young men, who jumped with joy.

"After the UAE united without Ras al Khaimah, everyone in Ras al Khaimah was disappointed as they all wished to join with the other emirates," Dr al Khayat said. "I experienced two joys: the joy of homecoming and the joy of reunion." rghazal@thenational.ae