In recent years, the display of military symbols, through parades, public speeches and clothing, has become a salient feature of National Day celebrations in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This dimension of national holidays tells much about social and cultural transformations in these countries: through these displays, rulers are promoting some sort of militarized nationalism among citizens to enhance social cohesion, thus intertwining military strength with shared identity and patriotism.
However, the emphasis on military symbols in nation-building, as in the case of other top-down initiatives (for instance, the introduction of compulsory military service in Qatar and the UAE in 2013 and 2014, and its re-introduction in Kuwait in 2017), can’t be generalized for all the Gulf monarchies. As a matter of fact, it does not pertain to Kuwait, the most institutionally-structured state in the Peninsula, while Oman followed a vanguard, although different, path: the military feature is here a direct attribute of Sultan Qaboos’ image, thus indirectly turning into a national identity component.
In this perspective, analysing the display of military symbols in National Day celebrations highlights the rise of militarized nationalism in Qatar and the UAE, allowing us to frame different trajectories for contemporary nation-building in the Gulf monarchies.
The blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE on Qatar has sparkled nationalist feelings in the tiny emirate. Qatar’s 2018 National Day celebrations (December 18) featured a huge military parade, longer and three times larger than in 2017, with images of Tamim Al-Majd (Tamim the glorious in Arabic), as the Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani was first portrayed by the Qatari artist Ahmed Al-Maadheed, decorating buildings and cars. In Doha, Qatari soldiers marched along the Corniche chanting patriotic songs and the slogan “As long as it was proven by our deeds, Qatar will remain free”. The first part is taken from a poem by the state founder Shaykh Jassim bin Mohammed bin Thani, the second is a line from the national anthem: together, they send a clear message of internal unity, national consciousness and strength to neighbouring countries.
In the UAE, the National Day (December 2) is locally celebrated by all seven of the federation’s emirates: this is also the case of Ras Al-Khaimah (RAK), the most northern emirate, inhabited by nationals and a quite defiant one that joined the UAE only in 1972; in RAK, the Corniche Al-Qawasim (from the name of the ruling dynasty) is crowded with decorated cars, national flags and portraits of leaders during National Day. What’s interesting, here as in Abu Dhabi, is that Emirati boys dress in combat uniforms attending military parades and state-sponsored concerts, mixing a sense of belonging, duty, in-group recognition by peers and fashion.
Military garments, also for children, are at the top of the Emirati “wish list” for National Day, as well as for Commemoration Day, established in 2015 to honour soldiers who died serving the nation in Yemen: uniforms for males are mandatory at some UAE schools during these celebrations and several schools directly place mass orders from uniform tailoring companies. By wearing military garments at school, although for specific celebrations, uniforms – and the messages they convey – become the new normal in UAE society, shaping youth’s beliefs and aspirations in the long term.
As reported by The National, the Emirate’s leading newspaper, the military topic was at the centre of the Ras Al-Khaimah 2017 National Concert: telling the story of a boy willing to defend his country, one of the performances featured this fictional dialogue of a mother to his son: “With your blood you should protect the nation and when it calls upon you, you must answer with your soul before your body”.
On Oman’s National Day, military symbols are directly connected to Sultan Qaboos, viewed by most Omanis simply as ´the Nation in himself`. As a result, the military dimension in nation-building is not something new in Muscat (as it is in Qatar and now the UAE), but rather an original, personalized trajectory begun in the 1970s with his ascendance to power. December 18 commemorates Oman’s independence from Portugal in 1650 and December 19 is the birthday of Qaboos: therefore, National Day is a two-day celebration combining, in collective memory, state formation and Qaboos’ leadership.
Units of the Royal Army, Navy, Air Force, Royal Guard, Sultan’s Special Forces, Police and Royal Court Affairs take part in the National Day military parade presided over by the sultan, as Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces: for the parade, Qaboos personally chooses a different geographical venue each year, thus sending a message of unity throughout the country. During the parade, troops chant the military anthem, pledge allegiance to the sultan and send him traditional good wishes. Every five years a military exhibition drill is scheduled.
Inspired by Qaboos’ role as military commander, loyalty marches are also local performances held during Omani National Day. Officially organized, loyalty marches are popular performances where Omanis all over the sultanate parade with portraits of the sultan, chanting folk songs and anthems for him “to continue the modern Omani Renaissance march”, with the intent of “marching behind his [Qaboos’] wise leadership.”
The scene is different in Kuwait: the National Day celebration has evolved through the decades and it currently does not leave much space for military symbols. On the contrary, the emirate has gradually distanced itself from huge military displays and rhetoric. But this was not the case in the 1960s: after independence (1961), local newspapers reported on hundreds of soldiers and policemen marching to celebrate National Day. This spectacle of proud sovereignty and modernization included demonstrations of armed men jumping through flaming hoops on motorcycles and the participation of school children. In the 1980s, the Kuwait National Day lost this martial aspect, instead taking on a culturally-centred connotation based on heritage (also Bedouin), aiming to tighten the country’s fabric to better cope with local indications of the Islamic awakening spreading in the Arab world.
The shock of the invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990 completely changed the way Kuwaitis live their National Day (February 25) and the following Liberation Day (February 26): but differently from what one might image, this did not result in a “militarization” of the public holiday. As a matter of fact, silent parades were organized in post-1991 Kuwait to express mourning for victims and their families; the first national concert was organized only in 1994 and in 2001, ten years after liberation, cultural identity festivals and international guests among those who helped the country to regain its sovereignty (like the former US president George W. Bush senior) took the stage, with no military parades occurring. In recent years, the celebration is mostly related to fun, with fireworks and young people playing with water guns, balloons and spraying foam on each other.
Comparing Arab Gulf’s National Days experiences, why have Qatar and the UAE now started to recurrently evoke military symbols, also in public holidays, thus entering a cultural nationalism phase of “propagandist proclamation”?
Surely, both Doha and Abu Dhabi aim to boost national feelings and consciousness among nationals, for demographic, social and geopolitical reasons. First of all, they have tiny native communities: Qataris and Emiratis are minorities in their own countries, fearing identity dilution because of globalization effects and a growing number of expatriates (especially in Abu Dhabi). Secondly, recent cuts on spending and welfare due to the blockade (Qatar) and low oil prices (UAE) need cultural counter-measures to strengthen domestic cohesion.
Thirdly, both countries’ leaderships are devoted to the construction of “strong states”. Their military backgrounds also play a role: the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, graduated from the UK’s Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst (respectively in 1998 and 1979) and held military positions, as did Sultan Qaboos, unlike the current Emir of Kuwait, Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah.
For Doha, the purpose of militarized nationalism is to cope better with the sense of regional encirclement provoked by the Saudi and Emirati-led boycott, thus betting on pride and self-reliance; for Abu Dhabi, such a stance supports a regional policy driven by projection and ambitious engagement abroad. In this context, the military and its symbols can be an effective vector of nation-building and nationalism for young but savvy states like Qatar and the UAE.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)
 See E. Ardemagni, Gulf Monarchies’ Militarized Nationalism, Carnegie Sada, February 28, 2019.
 See Martin Ledstrup, Emirati Identity and Social Interaction in the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, Policy Paper No.17, July 2016.
 Kuwait’s Day of Independence is June 19, but since 1963 celebrations were held on February 25, the anniversary of coronation of Emir Abdullah Al-Salim Al-Sabah.
 For details on Kuwait National Day, see Nibal K. Bourisly and Maher N. Al-hajji, “Kuwait’s National Day: Four Decades of Transformed Celebrations”, in National Days/National Ways: Historical, Political and Religious Celebrations around the World, edited by Linda K. Fuller, Westport CT, Praeger Publishers, 2004, pp. 125-44.
 See Fred H. Lawson and Hasan M. al-Naboodah, “Heritage and Cultural Nationalism in the United Arab Emirates”, in Popular Culture and Political Identity in the Arab Gulf States, edited by Alanoud Alsharekh and Robert Springborg, Saqi books-SOAS Middle East Series, 2012, chapter 1.
 As Frauke Heard-Bey writes referring to the UAE. See Frauke Heard-Bey, “The United Arab Emirates: Statehood and Nation-Building in a Traditional Society”, in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates and the Gulf Region. Fifty Years of Transformation, Berlin, Gerlach Press, 2017, p. 286.