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The multiple roots of Emiratiness: the cosmopolitan history of Emirati society

The UAE, like many other Arabian Gulf States, claims to be home to a homogenous Arab population. In doing so it assimilates rather than acknowledges the region’s slave past.

'The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque's design and construction "unites the world", using artisans and materials from many countries including Italy, Germany, Morocco, Pakistan, Turkey, Malaysia, Iran, China, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Greece and United Arab Emirates. More than 3,000 workers and 38 renowned contracting companies took part in the construction of the mosque.' Andrew Moore/flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

A quick glance at the faces of Emirati citizens as I walked down in a busy shopping mall made me think I could easily be back in London. The only major outward difference was that all the locals were wearing the national dress, or rather what has become the national uniform: abaya and dishdasha. A more important but less obvious difference, however, was that despite Dubai’s creole past and the ethnic, linguistic and racial diversities within the Dubaian Emiratis, Emirati national identity has been officially and popularly racialised as ‘Arab’ since the founding of the United Arab Emirates in 1971.

With the aim of cultivating this presumed collective identity, the region’s and its inhabitants’ links to, and origins from, various parts of the Indian Ocean, Yemen, Baluchistan, Southern Persia, the Arabian Gulf, Zanzibar and other parts of Africa has been elided. Yet for Emirati citizens, there are many ‘clues’ to determine an Emirati’s ethnic, sectarian, cultural, linguistic, and geographical origins. These range from surname, accent, and dexterity in spoken Arabic to physical characteristics, such as skin colour and even “shape of eyebrows”, as I was told. For example, Emiratis associate white skin with Persian origin, and darker skin with those with Baloch or Zanzibari origin, even though there are great phenotypical differences within these groups (i.e. ‘Afro-Iranians’).

However, one particular group, the Dubaians with slave ancestry, is surrounded by silence. Awareness of the region’s involvement in Indian Ocean slave trade is made conspicuous by the absence of acknowledging any links that Emirati citizens may have to Africa and a slave past. Slavery was abolished in 1963 and in 1971 former slaves became Emirati citizens. While the official and popular discourses equate Emirati citizenship to national identity – i.e. all who hold Emirati citizenship are Arab – the limited power of citizenship to absorb ‘race’ and naturalise phenotypical differences becomes salient in informal everyday interactions within citizenry and intimate decisions such as marriage.  

Considering the sensitivity of this topic, I often started the discussions of race and national identity in reference to Western societies. Interestingly, Emiratis claimed that a straightforward equation of citizenship with national identity was based on a faulty premise, as they inherently signified different types of inclusion. For example, they argued, citizenship alone could not turn a black African into a French person or convert someone from India into a Brit. This is because Emiratis typically imagined Frenchness/Britishness as being premised on whiteness. A double standard applied, however, when they reflected on these discussions, in the context of the UAE.

Mohammad, who is from a prominent Bedouin family says:

“We do have darker skin here but we don’t perceive them as anything other than Emirati, they have been here for many years. Originally they are from Central Africa maybe or they don't even know where, you know we had some ... I don't want to say ‘abid (slave), but khadim (servant). There is no racism in our society like the West, because we have this concept – you can’t be Emirati without being Arab. I have a friend from African descent, he is 100% local. Talks with Bedouin accent. I can relate to him more than an Ajami (Emirati with origins in Southern Persia). Maybe we will call him khal (black) to joke, but they don't find it offensive. It is not like ‘n*gga’ in America. We also call Zinjibaris (Zanzibaris) like that”.

Echoing the official discourse, claims to national identity among the people I interviewed were predominantly articulated as having full citizenship rights, having long-standing roots in the region, and being culturally assimilated. These parameters formed the content of ‘Arabness’ as a collective national identity and enabled inclusion of racial differences. Yet, the shortcomings of such ‘inclusion’ became evident when individuals were occasionally identified as ‘real Arabs’ or ‘original Emiratis’ – signifiers of certain types of Arab and Bedouin pedigrees. Moreover, blackness still persists to identify ‘racial others’. Indeed, despite Mohammad suggesting otherwise, black Emiratis I spoke to – regardless of their origins, whether ethnic Arab returnees from Zanzibar or of slave origins – found khal (black) a derogatory term.

Having said that, in comparison to other communities, ‘Afro-Emiratis’ is argued to have not developed as a racial minority. This aligns in some ways with Mohammad’s suggestion that he has a closer alliance with ‘Afro-Emiratis’ than Ajams. The former group’s centuries-old dislocation from their ancestral homeland and their cultural assimilation into the families they served means that today they do not carry many residual expressions of a separate cultural identity (two exceptions would be Nubian dance and Zar). This is different from Ajami Emiratis, whose Persian roots can at times prove ‘problematic’, especially when tensions rise with Iran. Thus, ‘being Ajam’ is potentially more of a salient social boundary within the citizenry than being black, even though the former’s phenotypical difference is, as many Emiratis have implied, not as visible as that of the latter.

Indigenous by association

Emiratis with slave ancestry typically saw themselves not only as Arabs, but some also suggested that they were the ‘original’ inhabitants of the Emirates. This self-perception is in part due to the way slavery was practiced, and abolished, in this region of the world. Slaves were considered as members of the tribes and the families to which they were enslaved. After the abolishment of slavery, freed slaves were given the option to adopt the surname of the tribes they served. Many did, and this ‘opportunity’ to culturally and historically affiliate themselves with the Emirates and Bedouin identity has inevitably shaped their collective sense of selfhood and belonging. The way Moza, a black Emirati, identifies herself as a Bedouin illustrates this point.

“My friends cannot understand me because I speak Bedouin, the original dialect of Emiratis. When you are original, you are different from others, more special. The fact that we have been here for ages. But Ajam, Baloch come from different places and then became Emirati. We were born as Emiratis; we grow up as such.”

It is important to mention that, like Moza, none of my interlocutors identified themselves as ‘Afro-Emirati’, or black. They instead occasionally used samra/sammariyya (dark skinned/tanned) to refer to themselves. Even though the question of ‘roots’ is a sensitive subject to be discussed obliquely, a few informants openly shared their experiences of discrimination based on their physical appearance. Jamila, for example, carries a surname of one of the most prominent tribes in the UAE. Yet, growing up, she was, she said, often told by peers that “she was too dark to be Emirati” or asked why she carried this surname. She often sought the answers within her family, who were reluctant to talk about the matter.

“I was called Sudanese [a colloquial term to refer to dark skinned people] for being dark. One of my friends once told me: ‘You are so cool but why are you too dark?’ She was a white Emirati. So that made me think that Emirati look was not what I had, but obviously at this age I no longer think so. My family identifies themselves as Arab Emirati. They are secretive about where we come from, but finally I was told that we have a mixture of Arab and Baloch origins. Ah and some ambiguous ethnicities that they won’t disclose to me for some reason (laughs). They told me not to tell anyone”.

Seen from Jamila’s experiences, colour, even though often claimed to be immaterial, can affect claims to national identity, whilst also informing citizens of ‘what an Emirati should look like’. Racial differences – like other forms of ethnic, cultural or linguistic diversity – within Emiratis blur and are downplayed, especially when contrasted with ‘greater’ diversities such as the migrant population that outnumbers Emiratis. Phenotype is used as a marker and can be used to suggest cultural incompatibilities or even to reject claims to citizenship. Being a black Emirati herself, Moza’s choice to use ‘Sudanese’ to illustrate ‘otherness’, is particularly interesting:  

“Let’s say even if a Sudanese gets an Emirati passport and says he is Emirati; his face will still tell he is Sudanese. Even if they were born in this place, everyone has a tradition from their own region that their face will show. It’s complicated to explain but we can see this”.

Taken as a whole, it is safe to say that citizenship, historical links to and presence in the UAE, and cultural assimilation form the boundaries of the nation and naturalise phenotypical differences amongst the citizenry – but only to a certain extent. The limits of ‘Arabness’ as the collective identity of Emiratis become apparent in many contexts, such as when intimate decisions are made concerning marriage. The reluctance, if not objection, to intermarry is not only evident across different ‘racial’ lines, but also between ethnic, tribal, sectarian and cultural groups. Intermarriages are on the rise in the UAE but the issue of colour persists, perhaps due to the (erroneous) conflation of blackness with slavery, even though not all black Emiratis are of slave origins.

This Guest Week week presents the results of research carried out by the team of ERC GRANT, ‘Shadows of Slavery in West Africa and Beyond (SWAB): a Historical Anthropology’ (Grant Agreement: 313737). The team has researched in Tunisia, Chad, Ghana, Madagascar, Morocco, Pakistan and Italy under the leadership of Alice Bellagamba. The team has invited Giupeppe Maimone, Luca Nevola, and an anonymous contributor to participate in the discussion.

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