Remembering Versus Imagining: The UAE Reshapes Relations Between State and Citizens
March 16, 2018
War memorials in the United States take different forms, but they are almost always built at the same time: When the veterans feel like their generation is fading away. Such memorials are, almost by definition, backward looking. They are about shaping the relationship between the past and the present.
The recently built war memorial in Abu Dhabi is mostly about the present and the future. While nominally about memorializing those who gave their lives for the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the memorial—and the attached visitors’ center—is an elaborate attempt by the country’s young leadership to shape citizens’ relationship to the nation. The Wahat al-Karama complex—“The Oasis of Dignity” in English—is more about teaching than remembering, and it fits into a broader UAE project to reshape the relationship between people and their government.
From a distance, the memorial itself is of universal appeal. Thirty-one large aluminum-clad panels stand in two lines along a narrow channel of water. The tallest panel is monumental, standing 75 feet high. The shortest is about 10 feet off the ground, and it leans heavily on a long narrow ramp on which the allegiance pledge of the UAE armed forces is inscribed. While the tall end panels are erect, all of the other panels lean on each other, symbolizing interdependence. From the tall end, the tops of the panels descend to form a gentle slope, and from the side they echo the strong triangular shape of the Iwo Jima memorial in Arlington, Virginia.
A closer view of the panels reveals their particularism. They are inscribed with poems and quotations from four preeminent thought leaders in the UAE: the country’s founder, Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan; the current UAE president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan; the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum; and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The memorial serves to reinforce the rulers’ authority and legitimacy.
Inside the visitors’ center, the exhibit becomes even more didactic. Dark stone pillars outline the seven values that the Emirates seeks to foster: giving, dedication, bravery, sacrifice, tolerance, chivalry, and loyalty. Each pillar has, in Arabic and English, a quotation from one of the country’s leaders, a description of the value that the pillar represents, and some sort of relic exemplifying the value. Each description ends with a direct question about the value described: “What do you most value and what would you sacrifice for it?” or “What inspires loyalty in you and how do you show it?”
Wahat al-Karama opened to the public just over a year ago, and it is part of a broader UAE effort to change citizens’ relationship to the state. In the 46 years since the UAE was founded, citizens have most often been the state’s beneficiaries. As in many rentier states—that is, states that derive much of their income through economic “rents” such as mineral deposits, rather than agriculture or industry—taxation has been low or nonexistent, government jobs have been nearly guaranteed for those who want them, utilities and fuel have been heavily subsidized, and services such as education and medical care have been free. The state has asked for little other than loyalty in return.
In the last five years, the equation has been changing. In part, the so-called Arab Spring was a sign that loyalty was no longer a given among young people. An ongoing war in Yemen has put Emirati soldiers in the line of fire, and about 100 are estimated to have died. But even more important than what has happened is a sense of what will happen: that the boom times of the previous years will come to a definitive end. Oil markets have shifted, populations have grown, and the cost of meeting rising expectations is expanding far faster than government revenues. Something has to give.
The UAE has been quicker than most to grasp this. Beginning in 2014, it instituted a conscription program targeted at every male citizen between 18 and 30. By law (and so far in practice), only narrow windows for exemptions exist, often based on a severe lack of fitness. The program does much more than teach self-defense and weapons handling. It emphasizes physical fitness, teaches loyalty and commitment, and forces young men to wake at dawn, march in formation, make their beds, and clean toilets. The program is the focus of a new CSIS report, drawing on original research, available here.
What is striking about the UAE program is just how ambitious it is. Building the armed forces is a benefit to be sure, but it seems even more focused on inculcating the rising generation with a new set of attitudes. In part, it is about building a sense of patriotism to overlay regional, tribal, and family identities, as well as deepening a sense of responsibility. A large part, too, is about creating the kind of self-discipline that many Emiratis complain is all too absent in young men and which is necessary for success in a more competitive job market. Running through the program is an effort to instill conservative values, respect for authority, and gratitude to the country’s leadership.
Through Wahat al-Karama, conscription, and a host of other efforts, the UAE is trying to reshape the state’s relationship to its citizens. The state is not trying to open a dialogue with the public, but it is trying to lead. The early effects have been mixed. Judging from public comments, the conscription effort seems to have won wide acceptance, not least because family members appreciate the greater maturity of former conscripts.
Wahat al-Karama seems more of a mixed bag. The site was practically abandoned when I visited it one afternoon in February. None of the Emiratis I spoke with on that recent visit had seen it up close, and reciting the themes of the visitors’ center exhibit—giving, dedication, bravery, sacrifice, tolerance, chivalry, and loyalty—elicited something between disinterest and eye rolling.
The UAE’s ambitions for its citizenry are clear. The citizenry’s ambitions for the UAE are less clear. The stakes are high, but the destination remains uncertain.
(This commentary originally appeared in the March issue of Middle East Notes and Comment, a newsletter of the CSIS Middle East Program.)
Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of 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).
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