Yes, it may have been the UAE’s 44th National Day celebration, but it was my 4th one in the country. For whatever reason, it is the event of National Day that makes reality hit me right in the face. Another year has gone by.
My first National Day here (2012) was spent trapped in Abu Dhabi, resulting in THREE blog posts about my adventure. My second National day weekend (2013) was spent in Dubai but safely back home before the festivities began. Then for my 3rd and 4th National Day, I just stayed home.
Maybe it was just me, but festivities seemed a bit subdued this year. It just didn’t feel like National Day. There were far fewer cars decked out in National Day decor, and there weren’t as many lights in the roundabouts or running down the streets. Or maybe I have just been recluse lately and haven’t noticed as much this year.
I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that this year National Day was combined with a somber occasion of the UAE’s first Martyrs’ Day/Commemoration Day. Basically the equivalent of Veterans Day in the US. The official name seems to be still in flux. For a few months it was being called Martyrs’ Day, which I hated the sound of. It just feels like a really awkward usage of martyr. But jut when I started adjusting to the name Martyr’s Day and reminding myself it doesn’t really matter how I feel about their usage of martyr, the newspapers started calling it Commemoration Day. This may be its official name now. Commemoration Day to honor the martyrs, especially members of the armed service who lost their lives defending the country.
In August 2014, a new mandate started that all Emirati men between the ages of 18-30 must complete 9 months of military service. The service is to begin upon graduating from high school. Non graduates serve for 2 years. Service is optional for women (with a father or spouse’s consent). With the implementation of this mandate, cohorts of men between the ages of 19-29 proudly signed up for duty so they could meet their obligation of service before turning 30.
What did this mean? It meant that a huge number of young men left their families and put their education or careers on hold in order to honorably serve their country. As I have mentioned before, the UAE is a country of immense national pride, but if I am being completely honest, I didn’t really think the service mandate would work the way it was supposed to. Originally I thought that many of the young men would find a way to get out of serving. That perhaps they would use their wasta (basically meaning using family connections to get what you want) to avoid service. There were even rumors and speculation that men would buy their way out of service or supply doctor notes allowing them to be exempt from service. However, from what I have seen in the past year, this hasn’t occurred. Or if it has, not on a grand scale. Even the Vice President’s son, Sheikh Mansoor, is serving in Yemen. Emiratis appear quite proud of fulfilling their duty to protect their country.
In September 2014, the evidence that recent high school graduates were actively doing their service was abundantly clear. The number of male students entering the University Foundation Program at the UAEU was basically non existent. There has always been a significantly higher percentage of female students than males students (75%/25%) but with the new mandate, the men’s campus became a ghost town.
All of my female students speak with pride when they talk about their brothers, cousins, uncles, and fathers in the military. None of my students spoke as if it was something they “had to do” but rather something they “got to do” – an honor. When I asked students to make a list of desirable careers in the UAE, being in the military ranked at the top along with jobs like doctor, lawyer and mechanical engineer.
Then things started to get real. In March 2015, the UAE became a part of a Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen; Operation Restoring Hope. I am not going to pretend like I understand the complexities of why they are fighting in Yemen. The basics, as I understand them, is for the coalition to liberate the cities of Aden, Sanaa and Marib and the Marib dam from Al Houthi rebels.
In September 2015, the harsh reality of the UAE’s involvement became apparent when 52 Emirati soldiers were killed by a rocket attack against their barracks in Yemen. Brigade 107. These deaths were felt by everyone.
The United Arab Emirates is a small country. For comparisons, it is only 1/3 the size of the state of Oregon. Its population of Emirati citizens is about 1.4 million – again as a comparison, the Portland metropolitan area (not including Portland’s biggest suburb of Vancouver) has a population of about 1.8 million. Now imagine if in one day, 52 young men lost their lives all from Portland. It would shake the city to the core. Everyone would know someone impacted by the tragedy. A brother, a cousin, a husband, a father, an uncle, a friend.
The people of the UAE have found comfort in knowing that the losses suffered were done to protect the country. A great honor, but sad nonetheless.
Happy 44th National Day, UAE. May the next year bring peace.