The United Arab Emirates is a country of immigrants, yet the issue of “demographic imbalance” rears its head frequently, triggering debate on the effects of the presence of a diverse majority-expatriate population on national culture and identity. The discourse on national identity becomes particularly acute during times of economic austerity. It was by no coincidence, then, that 2008 was branded the “Year of National Identity” in the UAE.
This term remained a buzzword in the following decade, and the attendant campaign to define and solidify a cohesive national identity was able to deliver a post-tribal society in which one’s “Emiratiness” took center-stage, momentarily surpassing tribal affiliation. Today, however, it appears that this version of national identity has surpassed its utility in the post-Arab Spring reconfiguration of state and society.
The Arab Spring and the Tribe
In 2013, the UAE held the first mass trial of 94 citizens accused of sedition for presumably having close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of those sentenced belonged to large and influential tribes in the country, were highly educated, and held key positions in government. Yet, neither their good standing nor their tribal affiliations could intercede to protect them.
The Arab uprisings had put the entire region on high alert. The ensuing paranoia and hyper-securitization of society made it nearly impossible to gauge the threshold of public criticism that would be tolerated by the state. Moreover, the spectacle of a public mass trial was sufficient to stunt society, inducing a spirit of deference intended to express unity in the rejection of an alternative political vision.
The state’s behavior was initially thought to be a knee-jerk reaction, yet a protracted state of emergency became the status quo, and a tension zone emerged between state and society. The state, in incarcerating the agitators, had inadvertently disturbed tribes’ traditional balancing role in power relations. However, the state perceived this outcome as regretful but inevitable, and has since sought to further depose the tribe from its conventional centrality.
As such, in the decade following the mass trial, tribes experienced a subtle but steady decline in standing, destabilizing the state’s freshly honed national identity narrative. As a result, a different iteration of national identity was adopted—one that centered neither the tribe nor birth-right patrilineal citizenship, allowing for a cosmopolitan national identity to emerge. A new class of often, but not always, naturalized citizens, along with citizens belonging to diverse ethnic backgrounds, began to rise in government ranks, forming the new inner circles of the ruling elites.
Entrepreneurial in their outlook, these emergent inner circles consisted of ambitious individuals with an aggressive anti-welfare approach to post-oil transitions. Beyond their in-demand skill sets, these individuals’ non-tribal backgrounds were crucial as the state moved to elevate those whose loyalty was underpinned by a sense of indebtedness, and whose potential but unlikely deviation could be penalized without further destabilizing the already delicate tribal balance.
These appointments are not in themselves perplexing to an overwhelmingly welcoming society. What is unsettling for Emiratis, however, is the speed at which the long-standing social contract is beginning to unravel at the behest of the new class of loyalists.
The Changing Social Contract
The most widely used theory in relation to the Arab Gulf states has been that of rentierism—which describes an arrangement that distributes oil rents among citizens in the form of government welfare, jobs, and tax exemptions. Welfare—or citizen privileges, as they came to be known—encouraged an overarching sense of political acquiescence and a voluntary disinterest in political participation.
With the proliferation of formal education, however, and the increasing number of Emiratis pursuing higher education overseas, a new consciousness developed, and a new language of institutions and bureaucracy began to expand citizens’ political horizons. Moreover, the vibrant civil societies active in neighboring Gulf states resonated within a region interconnected by cross-border tribal relations.
It was only natural, then, for these newly conscious citizens to rehearse novel political possibilities. Perhaps it did not occur to this educated class of citizens that they were disrupting a social contract that hinged on them remaining economically productive yet politically passive.
Furthermore, these attempts to renegotiate the terms of the social contract could not have come at a more turbulent time, as the state was contending with the potential spill over effects of the Arab uprisings against an uneasy backdrop of Gulf-wide post-oil transitions. Even though alarms were raised more than two decades ago on the imminent post-oil future, inconvenience led ruling elites to defer the transition process in order to keep the social contract intact.
Finally realizing that the energy clock is ticking, the UAE has begun to implement unprecedented changes to its socioeconomic model. Changes have been introduced at short intervals, suggesting that the global pandemic perhaps accelerated the announcement of these pipelined plans.
A few months after it had announced that it was normalizing relations with Israel, the UAE decriminalized cohabitation and the consumption of alcohol to purportedly become more appealing to its expatriate population. On social media, many Emiratis expressed that they were glad to learn that the laws will apply to everyone equally, while some others expressed distress over changes that they believe might corrupt gullible youth.
Perhaps the biggest change to occur in the UAE was the opening up of citizenship—a formerly exclusive club—to investors and talented individuals. When the announcement was made in January 2021, Emiratis did not anticipate the number of changes that would soon follow, specifically targeted at noncitizens and new citizens.
After floating the idea to subtly gauge public receptiveness, in December 2021, the UAE officially announced it was changing its weekend to align with weekends in the West. Aligning with the West was precisely how the changes were perceived internally, generating discomfort at the growing number of accommodations made for the benefit of expatriates.
Against this backdrop, however, the most important transformations yet are the subtle changes to the foundations of the social contract. Citizens were mostly willing to overlook the socio-legal changes that were redefining their conservative society, but this apathy was sustained by their possession of secure livelihoods, namely the promise of a public sector job with benefits and a comfortable retirement. These aspirations were recently undercut by one of the new labor law reforms which stipulates that new employment contracts in the UAE will now be fixed-term, renewable contracts, reversing the indefinite, or open, contracts that Emiratis had always enjoyed.
As welfare provisions continue to decline, and at a time when unemployment in the UAE has become a national crisis, fixed-term contracts pose a new challenge to Emiratis who feel crowded out and deliberately excluded from the job market. This dynamic collides with a crumbling sense of national identity and a new state narrative that appears to favor the global over the national. Moreover, with taxation creeping in as an alternative source of state revenue, the remaining axis to the petro-social contract will inevitably face a test of endurance.
Mira Al Hussein is a post-doctoral researcher at Oxford University whose work focuses on the sociology of higher education in the Gulf. Follow her on Twitter: @miraalhussein.