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The UAE: Balancing Tolerance, Inclusion and National Identity

The UAE: Balancing Tolerance, Inclusion and National Identity

The United Arab Emirates is an Islamic country in the Islamic Arabian Peninsula and neighbor to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the very birthplace of Islam. However, it has a polyglot, multi-faith population of 200 nationalities.

Try going to Yas Island, the adventure and leisure park in the UAE’s capital city of Abu Dhabi, and you’ll see Bangladeshis, Indians, Nepalese, and British people, among others, peacefully working together. Yas Waterworld Abu Dhabi, Yas Island’s water park, even has a kabayan deals promo, a testament to the considerable number of Filipinos (people from the Philippines) working at the park or thereabouts. More importantly, it is proof of the theme park’s acknowledgment of the buying power of the Filipino demographic in the UAE and the park’s willingness to engage this significant segment of the UAE population.

Expatriates: The Bulk of the UAE Population

It is not surprising that businesses big and small in the UAE are not only acknowledging but also actively marketing to the country’s foreign expatriates. After all, foreign expats including the bulk of the UAE population.

In 2005, the UAE population numbered only 4.1 million. Because of the country’s economic development, that number has grown to 8.3 million. The fascinating thing about that growth is that it was driven mainly by foreign expatriates. In 2010, out of the 8.3 million people in the UAE, only 947,947 were UAE citizens.

According to Global Media Insights, the total population of the UAE today stands at 10.08 million. Out of this number, 88.52% or 8.92 million are expatriates. There is, therefore, an obvious imbalance between the expatriates and the Emirati people.

Tolerance and Coexistence

Gathering millions of people of different nationalities — each one freely allowed to practice his faith — in a relatively small Islamic country could be potentially volatile. However, in the UAE, the formula works and has worked for a long time.

A large part of this is due to the UAE government’s emphasis on dialogue, coexistence and tolerance, as evicted by the federal government’s tolerance initiatives. For instance, on 15 December 2018, HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed declared that 2019 is the Year of Tolerance.

The declaration was intended to show the UAE government’s commitment to establishing the UAE as a global capital of tolerance. As such, the UAE is a place where people of different cultures can communicate freely, respectfully and safely in an environment that spurns extremism in favor of acceptance.

During the Year of Tolerance, the UAE focused on implementing cultural programs, building tolerant communities and educating the youth on the value of tolerance. The following are the other tolerance initiatives by the UAE government:

  • Naming the pedestrian bridge over Dubai Canal the Tolerance Bridge
  • Renaming the Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Mosque in Al Mushrif to Mariam Umm Eisa Mosque, which translates to Mary, the mother of Jesus
  • The creation of the Minister of Tolerance in the Cabinet
  • Tolerance Week, the UAE Tolerance Center and other component initiatives of the UAE National Tolerance Program

Ladies’ Night and Inclusivity for Women

The country’s tolerance and acceptance initiatives do not apply only to people of different nationalities and faiths. When it comes to women inclusion, the UAE is ranked first in the Middle East North Africa region and 24th in the world in Georgetown University’s 2021 Women, Peace and Security Index.

The country has a law on equal wages, approved in 2018, that provides equal wages for men and women performing the same work. There are also moves to incorporate policies that will improve gender balance in the workplace and representation in parliament.

Finally, according to the same data from Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, women feel safer in the UAE than in any other country.

The UAE’s push for women inclusion goes beyond lip service. In the UAE, there is a time-honoured tradition known as ladies’ night. During ladies’ nightwomen can avail of discounted rates on drinks, food, tickets, and services.

On the surface, ladies’ night might appear as nothing more than a clever gimmick to attract the ladies and open their wallets. While it is pretty successful at doing that, you can see from its implementation in certain establishments that ladies’ nights offer more than that.

As a case in point, ladies’ day or ladies’ night Abu Dhabi in Yas Island parks like Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, Yas Waterworld Abu Dhabi, and Clymb Abu Dhabi go beyond promotional rates. Ladies’ day or ladies’ night means women-only admission and an all-female staff in these places. This assures women of their privacy and allows them to enjoy themselves freely in an environment away from prying eyes, especially the male variety.

This is particularly important for Muslim women who must maintain their modesty at all times but will naturally find it difficult to go water sliding or indoor skydiving in an abaya. Tea ladies’ day and ladies’ night promo of UAE theme parks, among other such establishments, ensures women will experience the same amenities that men freely enjoy.

Strengthening the National Identity

Even if the UAE welcomes people of diverse cultures and faiths, like other nations, it must keep its identity clear, strong and steadfast. This is especially paramount in the face of the extreme imbalance between Emiratis and foreign expatriates in the UAE.

Thus, a decade before the declaration of the Year of Tolerance, the UAE government, under HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, dedicated 2008 as the year of national identity. The goal was to promote and preserve the national identity of the UAE and spearhead activities and initiatives that would help the country maintain its identity amidst globalization.

Some of the initiatives introduced towards this end include:

  • The Federal Demographic Council working on rebalancing the demographic mix of expatriates and Emiratis
  • The Ministry of Culture and Youth spreading cultural awareness by establishing libraries, cultural centers and initiating community and cultural services that would help consolidate a sense of national identity
  • The National Cultural Encyclopaedia that compiles data on intellectuals and creatives as well as their works and achievements
  • The Al Bayt Mitwahid or Our Home is United campaign
  • The Emirates ID card
  • Mandatory military service through the UAE National Service Law

It’s a Balancing Act

The UAE is a land of contrasts. It is an Islamic country that puts a premium on following the tenets of Islam. However, more than 80% of its population are foreign expatriates, free to practice their faith, even if it’s not Islam. It is also quite progressive in its efforts to provide women comparable rights to men, from wages to governance and even through ladies’ days and ladies’ nights.

All these relatively progressive policies can pose a risk to the country’s sense of national identity. Thus, even as the UAE promotes tolerance, coexistence and acceptance, it is careful to initiate programs and campaigns that strengthen its national identity and its citizens’ affinity and loyalty to the country.

Also published on Medium.

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