x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Young Emiratis must find themselves in a new society

There has not been a wholesale abandonment of tradition or Emirati culture, but many younger people embrace western culture more than their parents have.

Anxiety, depression, anorexia nervosa and many other disorders all strike twice a week - as topics in psychology class at Zayed University. Almost unconsciously, most students begin to apply these concepts to ourselves, self-diagnosing and trying to determine, for example, if we have "daddy issues". Are we thinkers, feelers - or psychopaths, perhaps?

Psychology in Arabic can be translated as ilm an nafs, or the study of self. As 20-somethings, most students feel we know ourselves pretty well already, but occasionally our studies remind us that we are in fact only starting to put the pieces together. For young Emiratis, we are fine-tuning our identities in an environment where we can be increasingly individualistic.

Before rapid growth and economic development, before the oil, Emiratis defined our identities collectively according to tribal culture. Today, many young Emiratis are moving away from this tribal collectivity and beginning to value individualism. Many find no problem in defining ourselves as individuals and putting some distance between ourselves and the collective identification, whether tribal or national.

Among gatherings of elders, gasps can be heard at the shock of the alien hopes and aspirations of the young. "She wants to play football? God take her to account."

There has not been a wholesale abandonment of tradition or Emirati culture, but many younger people embrace western culture more than their parents have. What resonates with many Emiratis is the emphasis on self-identification, self-reliance and, importantly, individual rights.

Thirty to 40 years ago, a young boy would have attended the majlis and learnt what it took to be a "man". His father, for instance, would order the boy to bring a plate of dates closer to his grandfather and glowered at him if he refused. The boy would be encouraged, by humour or a pat on the back, if he showed signs that he wanted to "protect" his sisters.

These were mild forms of conditioning, and as the boy grew up these lessons would be learnt and re-learnt in the home, at school and among his peers. He would be encouraged to be loyal to his tribe and emotionally detached from his personal thoughts, feelings and aspirations.

A girl might face similar pressures, encouraged to "join her mother in the kitchen" and not waste her time dreaming about a career or an education because "duty" to family came first.

The individualism that has become an appealing alternative for the younger generation has perhaps been fueled by global trends: the rise of social networking websites, mobile computing devices and personal computers. But the more obvious driver is the UAE's introduction of international education, with western ideas (and western teachers) introducing ideas about self-esteem, the respect of personal space, the value of personal achievements and the realisation of personal goals.

These ideas are introduced to children, but there is a "trickle-up" effect and parents are affected as well. Like it or not, these individualistic ideas have gained currency.

You can, of course, be too individualistic, but even the elder generation is starting to appreciate the personal drive. More families are beginning to accommodate individualism within or alongside their more traditional collective values. Parents are accepting and encouraging individual achievements. Youngsters are allowed or even encouraged to pursue goals that may, in the past, have been dismissed as selfish and "un-Emirati".

A good example is the Emirati aviator Salma al Baloushi, recently featured in an M Magazine article entitled Women to Watch. Ms al Baloushi achieved her personal goals, but not without some struggle. While she eventually won family support, the article tells us that her mother found out about her application to become a pilot by accident. At first, Ms al Baloushi embarked on her individual goals without telling her parents.

My view is that Emiratis should embrace individualism without the guilt that society attaches to a person pursuing their own goals. Personal achievements should never be thought of as automatically selfish; "tribal" goals are not the only ones that are worthwhile.

Emiratis striving towards their own achievements with confidence and determination will make our society a better place. A little individualism is essential for Emiratisation because, in the end, society is made up of individual achievers.

Asma al Ketbi is an international studies student at Zayed University