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Unity in Diversity: My UAE Identity Journey

I was born and raised in Dubai as a second-generation Indian expatriate. As a child, much of my understanding of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) came from the Indian curriculum school I was enrolled in. Though the school I studied was comprised predominantly of Indian students and teachers and followed a curriculum framed in New Delhi, I was exposed to the UAE’s history, society, and culture through school curriculum, activities, and practices.

For instance, school events and morning assemblies always started with reciting verses from the Holy Qur’an and singing Ishy Bilady, the UAE national anthem. The school celebrated the UAE National Day and organized festivals, exhibitions, and tours that helped expatriate children like me to engage with the UAE’s rich cultural heritage. It was also mandatory to learn the Arabic language, Islamic education (only for Muslim students), and UAE social studies, along with the Indian curriculum subjects — these ‘bridge courses’ synchronized the Indian curriculum with the national identity and values of the host country.

I returned to India after completing my schooling to pursue my higher education. After receiving my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, I enrolled at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, for their PhD program in Middle Eastern Studies. Though the Middle Eastern region has more than 20 countries, it was not difficult for me to determine the area of my research interest because of my personal connection with the UAE. After multiple rounds of discussion with my doctoral advisor, I decided to examine the national identity debates in the UAE and their implications for school education for my doctoral research.

I initially considered confining my research to how the UAE national identity has been taught to the UAE nationals, as much of the scholarly consensus is that nationalism is the exclusive domain of nationals. However, I came across Natale Koch’s paper, which poses the question: Is nationalism just for nationals? The paper looks at how the non-national population in Qatar and the UAE are brought into the national identity discourses through national day celebrations in their respective countries. This paper and my living experience in the UAE motivated me to extend the scope of my research to the expatriate population.

Fieldwork was a crucial component of my research. Thanks to the support from the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, I spent six months in Ras Al Khaimah and the UAE between October 2023 and April 2024 for my field research. During this period, I traveled across the UAE, participated in events and festivities, visited schools, research institutions, museums, memorials, and heritage sites, and interacted with experts and education stakeholders, including school leaders, teachers, and students.

I felt nostalgic when I visited schools to understand how they promote the UAE’s national identity in their environments. I recalled my school days, from wearing the traditional kandoora for the national day celebrations to learning about the country in the UAE social studies classes. Though I noticed a continuity in how schools promoted the UAE’s national identity from my school days, I also came across new strategies and approaches adopted by the schools in compliance with the guidelines from the education regulatory authorities.

Schools have adopted mechanisms to integrate elements of the UAE national identity into the everyday school environment and link national identity into every aspect of the curriculum. New subjects such as UAE moral education have been introduced to further inculcate the UAE’s traditional and modern values among all students, both nationals and non-nationals. However, one persistent challenge schools face is ensuring their non-native students learn the Arabic language. I have also experienced this as a student, as there was no conducive environment for learning the language effectively.

In my policy paper, I discuss in detail the data gathered from this study, which primarily focuses on inculcating the UAE’s national identity at Indian curriculum schools, implementation strategies, and challenges experienced by the school leaders. Particularly those at schools with a significant number of non-national students. I have suggested four policy recommendations to assist with improving the teaching and learning of Arabic in Indian curriculum schools.

To learn more about the policy recommendations and the role of schools in promoting the UAE’s national identity, please read my paper entitled Teaching National Identity to Non-Nationals: Indian Curriculum Schools in the UAE.