Resident Expert: What Drives National Identity?

Busy highways like this one in Abu Dhabi are relatively new in the UAE. Construction of the country's first paved road started in the late 1960s.

Humanities Research Assistant Matthew MacLean studies the spatial transformation of the UAE and Trucial States in the second half of the 20th century, in particular how the development of the UAE's infrastructure — housing, roads, and ports — made possible the emergence of Emirati national identity.

What is the history of road building in the UAE? When — and where — were the first modern roads built? Who built them?

The first modern (paved, asphalted) road was built in Habshan, in the western region of Abu Dhabi Emirate, by the oil company for its own purposes before Sheikh Zayed came to power. The local people used it too once it was built. But at that time, most "roads" were just tracks over the sand, and drivers would follow the tracks left behind by the other cars, of which there weren't many. From Dubai to Ras al-Khaimah the easiest way was to drive on the beach because that's where the sand was most firm. I've read and heard conflicting reports of whether people had to wait for the tide to go out in some places on that route. But one place you definitely had to wait for the low tide was where Maqta Bridge stands now, connecting Abu Dhabi to the mainland. It is said that Edward Henderson, the oil company representative and then British diplomat, read Shakespeare while waiting for the tide to recede multiple times. In the British National Archives there's a 1955 map prepared by the British military which shows the unpaved tracks across what was then called the Trucial States, and it also is displayed in the Mahatta Museum in Sharjah. Remarkably, many of today's highways are built along the same routes that people took back then.

The first paved road built with the intent of people using it — other than city streets in Dubai itself — was between Dubai and Ras al-Khaimah, and construction started in 1966-67. This road was a political project to create greater unity among the Trucial States. The British had to show they supported development projects, but it was Saudi Arabia that had the money and built the road. Ironically, many of the diplomats engaged in the road project felt it wouldn't be used much. After all, in the late 1960s, there were less than 100 cars in all of Ras al-Khaimah emirate — the British kept track of these things. But of course, this became one of the main arteries of travel along the coast for decades and remains part of today's E11 highway.

How have roads changed life in the Emirates over the past 40 years? Have they changed where people live? Where they work?

Older neighborhoods — the likes of which can still be found in parts of Bur Dubai and Deira, the old city of Ras al-Khaimah, the abandoned town of al-Jazeera al-Hamra, and some parts of Dibba — were built to be walkable. Homes were small and close to each other. A street or alley was called a sikka — probably the best-known example of this today is Sikkat al-Khail, near the Gold Souq in Dubai. These were narrow and helped maintain privacy, but it was impossible to maintain the level of privacy one finds today. Many but not all people worked not far from where they lived. Many families migrated seasonally, usually on foot, between different sources of livelihood. The old neighborhoods were called the freej, and in Ras Al-Khaimah today you can see some stores and small businesses which still carry the names of older neighborhoods, names which are no longer on maps. Starting in the 1960s and 1970s, with the introduction of modern urban planning, neighborhoods became centered around the car and were no longer walkable. So roads greatly changed the social fabric of Emirati society and of how people interacted with each other. Of course many are nostalgic for the days when one met one's neighbors and visited each other on foot.

There's constant construction of new roads, walkways and buildings in Abu Dhabi.

The original national road network was vastly expanded over the last decade, and now the UAE is more interconnected than ever.

Matthew MacLean

How do roads — something that seems to be so fundamental and necessary — contribute to the formation of national identity?

One of the main results of the national road network built from 1966 through the late 1970s was that citizens could travel between emirates very quickly. So with the establishment of the federal government in Abu Dhabi, many people came from the northern UAE to work in the capital during the week, and they would return home on the weekend. By the same token, the establishment of UAE University in Al Ain brought students from all over the UAE to that city. They too returned home on the weekends. The original national road network was vastly expanded over the last decade, and now the UAE is more interconnected than ever. Some people live in RAK or Masafi and work in Dubai. As UAE nationals interacted with each other in government offices, university classrooms, and other spaces, people realized that they have some things in common. That's how a national identity develops — not only as a direct result of a state project but also from the grass roots, through everyday interactions of ordinary people.

In Abu Dhabi, roads, and even neighborhoods, have multiple names. Zayed the First is known more commonly as Electra Street and according to the numbering system it's 7th Street. Numbered addresses are also now being added to buildings in the city. Why is there a push to rename streets and neighborhoods? Will the new names stick?

I'm not sure why there is a periodic push to rename places, but it's certainly not unique to Abu Dhabi. In some cases, like Tourist Club, which is now al-Zahiya, I read that there was a concerted effort to make place names more Arabic. But nobody I know calls it anything but Tourist Club, and the same is true of Electra Street. It will be interesting to see if the new names stick, or if the old geography, an older mental map of Abu Dhabi, will hold out. There are still many older road signs surviving, like a sign on the Corniche pointing to the Cultural Foundation, which is a landmark that has been closed for several years now.

In your talk at the 2015 NYU Research Conference you mentioned that you are interested in when Emiratis started to call themselves Emiratis. From your research, when did that start and why is it important?

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the word "Emirati" became common, but anecdotally I'd say the evidence points to the late 1980s or 1990s. It's certainly more common than when I last lived here in 2006-2007. It's a unique word that would be like calling Americans "Staties," as Zayed University Professor Jane Bristol-Rhys has pointed out in her book. The earliest mention of it in writing that I've found thus far is from a PhD dissertation written in English in 1992, which criticizes UAE citizens for identifying themselves by tribal names or locality rather than as "Emirati." But that's in English, and I'm still looking for early mentions of the word in Arabic. "Sha'ab al-Emarat" ("the people of the Emirates") appears as early as 1973 in al-Ittihad newspaper. But at that time the most commonly-used term was "muwatin" or citizen, to distinguish from foreigners. Muwatin is a legal-political term whereas Emirati has cultural overtones. I think the spread of the word Emirati is significant because it connotes a national cultural heritage and identity in a way that "citizen" does not.

You also mentioned that air travel infrastructure is the next phase of development. Why have the Emirates invested so much into their major airports?

I'm not sure it's the next phase so much as it's already here and happening. In part, it's a case of diversification away from oil, and investments in airports and seaports are also a classic case of the UAE's geographic advantages — the UAE is located in the middle of Europe, Africa, and Asia, and is a perfectly positioned transit point for people and goods. Although the Middle East is a turbulent region, it's also the case that the airports of the UAE connect it to many of the world's fastest-growing economies and expanding flows of goods and people. Dubai itself plays a critical role in the China-to-Africa trade. This is especially true of Dubai International, which is now the world's busiest international airport. But it will perhaps eventually be eclipsed by Al-Maktoum Airport. All of this is a real threat to European and North American carriers who were really caught flat-footed by the emergence of Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways. They can cry foul and so on, but there's really no reason why someone flying from Buenos Aires to Dubai should have to fly through Europe.