When I was a student in Paris in the mid 1990s and people asked where I was from, I would reply that I was from Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah or any other emirate that the person asking me would recognize. It was never an issue, because I felt secure that ultimately it was the same country.
Sadly, after spending the past decade in the UAE I notice that not all Emiratis feel that way. Many typically reply that we are from one specific emirate, before even mentioning the country. I believe both federal and local governments have inadvertently encouraged these sentiments, which endanger the unity of our federation.
There are two main obstacles to overcoming such sentiments. First, "Place of Issue" in passports, and second, unifying car license plates. The latter may be seen as an intra-emirate matter and unlikely to happen without the vision of someone like the late Sheikh Zayed, but I do dream of the day when my car license plate reads "UAE" rather than a specific emirate. In the meantime, we can tackle the other obstacle.
Here are three examples. Recently a friend being interviewed for a job in a local government agency was asked if he could try to have his passport reissued from the emirate where the job was to make him more desirable as a candidate. Then, a director in a senior government agency once told me: "I'm lucky because my chairman only cares that we hire UAE citizens and has never insisted on us hiring only from our emirate." Finally, one of my former students being interviewed by one emirate's government department told me: "Fortunately, my passport is issued in that emirate so I will not have a problem."
Emirati passports carry much the same information as those of any other country: first name, last name, date of birth, issue and expiry dates. However, one extra piece of information that seems innocent at first glance is "Place of Issue," which basically means which emirate the passport was issued from. The United States, like the UAE a federal country, does not have "State of Issue" on its passports, although the State Department does keep passport holders' address information on file. A similar system should be adopted by the UAE Ministry of Interior. Place Of Issue is already used as a tool to segregate nationals, an issue that must be resolved before it gets even more out of hand.
Other federal countries (Germany, for example) have an issuing authority note on the passport, but citizens who move to another state can obtain a new passport quite easily if they wish. This is not the case in the UAE. Here, moving to another emirate and obtaining a passport issued there is a strain. Unless your tribe's name corresponds with a family name common in the emirate that you move to, it will always be a bone sticking out. Some tribes can migrate easily between emirates because their family name is common across the country. Others, however, are stigmatised even after living in an emirate for decades.
Does any of this matter? The answer is, yes it does. Depending on a passport Place of Issue a UAE citizen can have varying benefits that include land allocation, health insurance and job prospects in that emirate. I have written before about how some emirates discriminate against citizens from other emirates when filling government positions. One way to tackle this is to remove the Place of Issue from passports, which job candidates are required to produce.
My Jordanian friends of Palestinian origin tell me their passports carry a code that allows the government to identify them as migrants. As much as I disapprove of any system that segregates citizens of any country, at least the Jordanian system can be used only by the Ministry of Interior and not by low-level government agencies and private enterprises, which is the case in the UAE.
The UAE's efforts to promote national identity are being compromised by our distribution of national identity documents that blatantly discriminate between citizens. Removing Place of Issue from passports - or standardising it to Abu Dhabi, our federal capital - would be a bold step. What we need now is bold men and women to make it happen.
*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday 11th October 2009