Here in the UAE national identity is all the rage. A debate has been sanctioned from the top, a conference in April saw some strident, almost nationalist, posturing on the part of some, and a series of cultural and educational initiatives are underway to deepen national fealty. At present this national project is being conducted as an assertion of essentially conservative attributes - promoting Arabic, teaching Emirati history more aggressively in schools, pushing bedu symbolism – whilst railing against those outsiders who apparently threaten national cohesiveness. Relative liberals want to extend nationality, or at least a halfway house of long term residency, to those outside of the Sunni, Arab, tribal construct that especially prevails in Abu Dhabi, but who have nowhere other than the UAE, or at least a specific emirate, to call home. Nationalists, as some are being called locally, led by the de facto leader of HH’s loyal “opposition” here in Dubai, police chief Lt Gen Dhahi Khalfan al-Tamim, are warning that the transition to the sons of the current crop of UAE crown princes could be challenged by someone with a Hindu name. Exaggerated? Yes. Impossible? Probably. An authentic voice of Emirati existential angst? Undoubtedly.
The trouble with nationalism of course is that it posits a subjective and usually non-inclusive notion of the nation to the detriment of many long time residents of a given country. While Emirati nationalism lacks European-style national chauvinism – no one honestly thinks that the UAE is the greatest nation in the Middle East much less the world – it shares many of the same myths, the “imagined community”, the subjective notion of belonging that often excludes many of those who are in fact inextricably part of that same nation. Educated Emiratis will tell you that national cracks are being covered by this focus on the “other”. They will stress the difficulty of belonging when you are an Emirati ajami (a so-called non-Arabic speaking “Persian”), especially if you are a Shia; or if you are a Baluch. They will tell you that the rebirth of localism, of individual emirate identification, threatens to rent asunder the federal project that was awkwardly settled in the constitutional compromises of 30 years ago. No one doubts that the UAE will necessarily have to recycle at least some of the national mythology that all countries feel the need to trumpet, but there is a dilemma in the obviously different versions of the national project that is playing out in Dubai contrasted with Sharjah, for example. Superficially they are all one Emirati family, but there are strong criticisms being aired between and within emirates of some of the visions at work on the ground. And for unity to therefore be forged at the altar of national exclusivity, even in an emirate like Dubai whose history is so bound up in economic and cultural inclusion, at least at the merchant level, seems sad and, more importantly, short sighted. It is perhaps an understandable national project for a national minority, but how can nations existing in a sea of international communication and mobility talk only of a demographic challenge?
Dhahi Khalfan argued that the UAE has to slash back population inflows to tackle the imbalance – a measure that would destroy the economic diversification that Dubai in particular has championed and other emirates and neighbouring countries are emulating. He also argued that a different federalist project – to create a Gulf Arab nation with common citizenship would tackle the demographic disaster sapping at the UAE’s national spirit. Here perhaps he had a point. Sixteen million Saudi subjects (whoever heard of monarchial citizenship?) would be one hell of a useful asset, at least in the numbers game (the GCC’s total population is about 37m). This should make the UAE and Qatar in particular hard-line federalists in the way 1980s UK Conservatives used to think of the French and the Germans. Trouble is very few Gulf Arab subjects think the GCC’s “federalist” projects mean much. The common currency was postponed in May, though few noticed, as 2010 became the target date for a powerless monetary committee instead of the launch data for the GCC “dinar”. National sovereignty is a construct still very much in vogue among jealously competitive ruling houses, not least after the events of 1990-91. It may be a “myth”, especially when arguably the common currency is and will remain the greenback, but it is one many buy into. In the UAE, however, establishing consensus on the attributes of the national myth is a very awkward exercise. Easier therefore to fear the foreigner.