The UAE, Vision 2021, and the Relationship between Domestic Heritage and International Agendas

By Victoria Hightower
Submitted to Session P6060 (Visions of Heritage in (pan?)-Arab contexts, then and now, 2020 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries; Cultural Studies; Folklore/Folklife; Foreign Relations; Gulf Studies; Identity/Representation; Nationalism;
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Although counter to rentier theory, the UAE requires a unified, supportive populace to achieve its domestic and foreign policy agenda—whether that is insulating itself from Iranian or Saudi expansion or pursuing its role in the Yemeni Civil War. Vision 2021 recognizes this and articulates a path to this unity through the idea of heritage. In this way, heritage is foundational to the UAE’s domestic and international agendas.

Vision documents are proliferating in the Arabian/Persian Gulf. The official United Arab Emirate’s federal vision, from which emirate and industry-specific visions emerge, is Vision 2021 which was announced in 2010 with the slogan “United in Ambition and Determination.” This document guided development in the last decade outlining goals for economic, social, and political development in the country. These documents aim to create a stable society, rooted in a diversified economy yet, much of the analysis of these types of documents focuses on their economic goals, rather than the way these documents mobilize heritage (Olver-Ellis 2020).

Museums constructed an aspirational identity for the UAE citizens since federation in 1971, but the expression of heritage in these museums could be mulitplicitous and conflicting (Penziner Hightower 2014). Heritage and history museums opened after Vision 2021’s announcement have an additional burden—to promote unity within, between, and beyond the emirate-level. The recently opened (2017) Ettihad Museum with galleries oriented around the idea of unification, culminating in the UAE—One Nation, One Future and the universality presented in the Sharjah Heritage Museum are great examples of how these ideas have been incorporated into the institutions.

These museums contribute directly to the domestic agenda creating the appearance pf internal unity, and assert the UAE’s place within the regional and global heritage narratives. The first exhibitions in Manarat al Saadiyat celebrated “Treasures of the World” and the “Splendors of Mesopotamia” and recently a 1,400 year old Nestorian Church site was opened to the public, connecting the UAE with global Christian heritage. These exhibits direct connect the UAE to global history and heritage but also reinforce and legitimate the UAE’s increasingly involved foreign policy agenda.

This paper analyzes publicly available statements, newspaper reports, material culture, and other historical sources to argue that heritage is fundamental to the aspirations, both at the emirate and federal level, and the elusive idea of unity of the UAE identity is foundational to not only the UAE’s domestic goals, but their international agenda as well.