Football helps process of state-building in UAE.

The National football team of the United Arab Emirates have won this year’s Gulf Cup. An elated nation cheered their team on to victory. In this op-ed Dennis Sammut discusses why football is helping the process of state building in the United Arab Emirates.

The success of the National Football team of the United Arab Emirates in this year’s Gulf Cup has helped the process of nation building in the young Gulf state. The UAE 2-1 victory against Iraq in Bahrain on Friday evening (18 January) crowned the success and made the team regional football champions.

What was as spectacular as the victory on the football pitch was the enthusiasm that the team had aroused amongst the mainly young population of the Gulf state, which has been independent only since 1971.

The UAE is a federation of seven separate emirates, with each guarding its rights and autonomy very jealously. It is true that the largesse of the biggest of the seven, Abu Dhabi, has helped ease the process of integration and state-building over the years, and wise leadership have kept the seven emirates in a working relationship with each other even when problems arose. But forging a nation is more than about building institutions. It requires the ownership by the mass of the population. In a society that is very hierarchical, and where politics is often frowned upon, most people got on with their lives and left nationalism to the rulers.

Slowly but surely this has been changing for some time. An Emirati identity has been appearing, in many aspects of life. Some of it was part of the state-inspired national narrative, which sought to make Emiratis proud of their heritage and traditions, as well as of the success of their country, which has been considerable. Part of it is more grass roots, facilitated by the fact that the young generation moves at ease for work, rest and play between the different emirates.

Every now and then this new sense of identity plays itself out in public. Every 2nd December, the UAE National day marking the time when Britain relinquished its hold on the region, is celebrated by an outpour of national symbolism, with flags on cars, and more exotic ways such as young people painting their faces in national colours. But football has been recently one of the most important ways in which Emiratis show a sense of unity and national pride. Nothing succeeds like success and the victories in the Gulf Cup over the last days have seen unprecedented scenes of national elation. Thousands of Emirati supporters made the short trip to Bahrain to watch the final; local leaders and business companies put on free flights for supporters to travel, and security conscious Bahrain even gave a special permission for two tons of Chines pyrotechnics to be imported for the celebrations. Those who did not make it to Bahrain huddled around television sets in Cafe’s and other public places throughout the Emirates.

The more serious sides of state building are obviously more challenging. The UAE government is committed to a policy of Emiratization, – a process that should see Emiratis replace foreigners in key jobs in government and the private sector. The process proceeds at a slow pace since many institutions prefer to buy experienced foreign labour off the shelf then experiment with raw local recruits, even if they are equally qualified. The UAE also has yet to find the right model to mix and balance the vast wealth of Abu Dhabi, the glitz and business acumen of Dubai and the human resources but also economic difficulties of the five smaller emirates: Sharjah, Ajman, Ras al Kahimah, Umm al Quwain and Fujeirah.

Politics is also not too far below the surface. The UAE has recently nipped in the bud an attempt by the Egyptian based Muslim Brotherhood to establish cells within the UAE. Religious fanaticism is generally frowned upon. Tolerance within limits has been the hallmark of the UAE so far. Striking the right balance between social freedoms and traditional religious conservatism is just one of the thin lines the UAE leadership has to walk through in its state-building endeavours.

But this is for leaders and politicians. Young Emiratis this weekend were much more interested in the success of their football squad. Their celebrations however have helped consolidate the UAE’s statehood.

Dennis Sammut is based in Oxford and is a frequent visitor to the Gulf. He may be contacted at dennis.sammut@spc.ox.ac.uk