Manufacturing New Loyalties in the UAE

“I was looking through my daughter’s religious studies textbook and was reading a passage on the Abbasid empire in the ninth century,” a university instructor from Dubai said. “Right in the middle of the page, there was a box about citizenship principles in the UAE!”

Emiratis are believed to form just 11.5 percent of the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) total population of 9 million, the vast majority of which is made up of migrant workers. With such a large foreign population, the government has recently launched a broad drive to foster national identity among the Emirati population. The interesting piece of this is that the UAE is still a new country, and it was originally conceived as a loose confederation of city-states. The nation with which people identify is being constructed at the same time that people are being pushed to identify with it. These initiatives are leaving some confused, as Emiratis interviewed for a recent CSIS study, Ties that Bind, explained.

The UAE is a confederation of seven emirates, each with its own ruler and government, which were only unified in 1971. There are significant wealth disparities between the different emirates, and the northern (and somewhat poorer) emirates are generally more conservative than wealthy Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Each emirate continues to enjoy a degree of independence, but all have grown closer to the central government in Abu Dhabi in recent years. Local and tribal identities remain salient in many parts of the UAE, but the government has strived to foster a common national identity.

Much of the state’s messaging is aimed at the younger generations of Emiratis. Keen to move away from a culture that many Emiratis see fostering unproductive, entitled citizens, the state is now striving to build citizens’ capacities so that they can contribute to the nation and be prepared for a globalized world. One academic in Dubai said there are “conflicting messages from the leadership” about how to do this and added that it is taking a “psychological toll” on young people.

Part of the government’s drive is to bolster the idea of sacrifice for the nation. In 2014, the UAE introduced a 12-month program of mandatory military service for Emirati men, which was then extended in 2018. The conflict in Yemen was a watershed moment for the Emirati military and the evolving idea of sacrifice. When Emirati soldiers were killed in Yemen, the UAE’s leaders would swiftly make visits to the houses of their relatives to pay their respects. When the grandson of the UAE’s founding father was injured in a helicopter crash in Yemen in 2018, an image of his face was projected on skyscrapers along Abu Dhabi’s corniche. National day is now celebrated each year with much fanfare and military parades, and clothes adorned with army camouflage designs, and Emirati flags fill the windows of shops in local malls. This gradual militarization of Emirati national identity has reinforced notions of sacrifice and loyalty to the nation.

The state has also instilled the idea of Emiratis becoming productive citizens as a way of helping the nation. Young people in one of the UAE’s poorer emirates, Ras al-Khaimah, reported that they planned to serve their nation by studying subjects such as law, political science, and space sciences at university. Each year, the government makes announcements about the academic and professional specializations that the UAE needs most, and these young people viewed academic studies as their primary patriotic duty. Emiratis noted that nationalism is becoming more pervasive in education more broadly. In 2016, the government piloted a program of “moral education,” which includes modules on citizenship. Last year, it became compulsory for all students from grades one to twelve.

The drive to create more productive citizens has also manifested in the workplace. Emiratis of various ages agreed that the tradition of wasta—using connections for personal gain—is under attack. One Emirati researcher pinpointed 2003 as the beginning of this trend and linked it to a state initiative. Then, the ruler of Dubai had begun to “institutionalize meritocracy,” and people who took on powerful positions in Dubai did so without the use of their connections or the backing of their tribe. A senior Arab executive at a multinational corporation in Dubai said that his company now has “processes in place” to fend off requests to use wasta. He described a broad shift in culture, arguing that while before wasta was commonplace and accepted, individuals now lose credibility if they fail to comply with these regulations.

As working hours have grown longer and free time is more constrained, Emiratis spend less time with their extended families and tribes. Although tribes are an important aspect as the Emirates’ “rags to riches narrative,” an academic described them as “very artificial” today. In part, tribes have lost their relevance as mobility has increased and people are living and working further from their relatives. State housing policies have contributed to this trend, as the government no longer provides extended families with land for large compounds, meaning it has become harder for them to live close together. Technology has also played a role, as it facilitates new forms of connection. One Emirati government employee said it is “impossible to understand today’s Gulf without understanding Snapchat,” because people follow those they do not know and feel freer to share their opinions because of the impermanence of their messages.

Yet, the state has inserted itself more forcefully into social life to eradicate certain ideas and ensure its citizens’ loyalty. The UAE’s oil wealth has allowed it to provide generous benefits to its citizens and protect it from widespread public discontent, but the Arab uprisings of 2011 marked a turning point as the threat of violent extremism increased. The state began to exert significant social pressure on families of extremists to publicly renounce their relatives who joined the Islamic State group. The government adopted various approaches to deal with members of the Muslim Brotherhood. At first, officials talked to the families of Muslim Brotherhood members to ensure that they didn’t share the same ideology. But some relatives who spoke to the media were later arrested themselves. An Emirati government employee described the state’s criminalization of sympathy for Qatar as part of a broader pattern of the “gray area” on issues deemed controversial shrinking.

The measures to ensure citizens’ loyalty to the state have had the effect of displacing former loyalties. A recent study by an Emirati think tank showed that the leadership of the country has replaced the family as the top factor driving loyalty for Emirati nationals. Many young people are eagerly absorbing this new hyper-nationalism, and the state’s drive appears to be achieving broad success. But some of the initiatives, such as citizenship principles being crudely placed in a religious studies textbook, come across as clumsy and confusing. Getting citizens to identify with a national identity that is still being constructed is not an easy task.

This commentary is based on research conducted for the report, “Ties that Bind: Family, Tribe, Nation, and the Rise of Arab Individualism.”

Will Todman is an associate fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Will Todman
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Middle East Program