One of the most eye opening events I presented at was during an Abu Dhabi based school’s event titled: “Good Citizen Week”. I was asked to give a lecture to the students on what I believed were the characteristics of what made a good citizen, elements such as national pride, strong work ethics, community development, tolerance, and mutual respect. The group of students from grades four, five, and six were engaged and asked a lot of interesting questions throughout the lecture, I felt pretty positive that a discussion like this would have a strong impact on their lives as students and future leaders of the UAE.

After the lecture I stayed around to host a ‘meet and greet’ with the students, a group of about 15 students aged between 9 and 11 came up to me to say hello, they were all Emirati, come to think about it 90 per cent of the students at the lecture were Emirati. Each said hello with the traditional nose kiss, and they had assigned one student to ask me a series of questions which went like this, “Khalid you’re from the Al Ameri tribe right?”, “Are you from the Al Ain part of the tribe or Abu Dhabi part?”, “Are you a Bedouin?”

I was so taken aback by their questions. After all this was 2015! A time where kids socialize more on their iPhones than they do in real life, an age where the idea of running outside is simply balancing on their hover board, the age where fame and fortune for a young boy or girl is measured by the number of followers they have on Instagram. Yet, here they were asking me about my history, my ancestors, and whether or not I was a Bedouin.

What was even more shocking for me as a young father of two boys is that when I was in school 20 years ago my friends and I were asking each other the same things. We would ask each other our tribe names to access how strong the line our lineage was versus the other. Essentially, the more well known your family name and tribe, the more Emirati you were in the eyes of others. We also believe that being a Bedouin made you more patriotic and proud of your culture. It is obvious now that our definition of a Bedouin was a far cry from the real Bedouins that roamed the empty quarter for weeks on end, engaged in tribal warfare, suffering through the hottest of days and the coldest of nights, where every day was a matter of survival.

Our definition of a Bedouin was pretty much sitting on the floor, visiting the desert, tilting our head scarfs slightly to the side, if we were lucky maybe someone’s father would bring a falcon or take us to the camel farm. It was more the idea of a Bedouin that we were connected to, but to those kids what mattered most when it came to a discussion on national pride, their tribe and their ability to project a Bedouin image to their friends and family was what defined their level of “Emirati-ness”.

It is important that I point out that a culturally and historically aware youth is amazing, the fact that decades after the “days of the Bedouin” our youth still want to be like them is legacy handed down from our late father, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. He said: “He who does not know his past cannot make the best of his present and future, for it is from the past that we learn.” . What stands out most in this quote is “from the past we learn’”, rather than ‘from the past we are.”

I say this because I feel it is more important that our youth start to learn more about the noble attributes of the Bedouin rather than trying to become one. It is important that our children learn from their journeys, stories, hardships, and from their ability to unite, build and create the great country we call home today. The Bedouin our youth associate with has more to do with tribal affiliations, where in the past it ensured survival, and during the formation of the UAE, and in some cases today, confirmed your status and position as a UAE National.

Since the Union of the Emirates in 1971 we have come a long way, 44 years has changed a lot about who we are as individuals, as communities, and as a country. However I feel 2015 played the biggest role to date in changing how Emiratis will be defined going forward. It all started with His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s speech at the UAE Government Summit in February that set the tone for the year with the now infamous quote, “In 50 years, when we might have the last barrel of oil, the question is: when it is shipped abroad, will we be sad?” he asked. “If we are investing today in the right sectors, I can tell you we will celebrate at that moment.”

Sheikh Mohamed’s younger brother His Highness Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Minster of Foreign Affairs, echoed his older brothers message the very next day during his presentation titled ‘We The UAE’, where he is quoted as saying: “Oil represents a third of the GDP of the UAE, and once the country sells its last barrel, the government will celebrate.”

For any country, it’s easy to change laws and policies to create the change you need, but to inspire people and change a mindset takes visionary leadership that is fully invested in its citizens and residents that call the UAE home. Why do I believe this call to celebrate the UAE’s last barrel of oil is a change in mindset? Well, because it means that we will no longer be a country dependent on energy resources but rather on human resources, where people are the top creators of economic value within the country.

For me, this was the message I took away from the speeches of their Highnesses, and I believe that the year 2015 will be remembered in history as the year that redefined what it meant to be an Emirati. This year continue to see young Emiratis join the ranks of National service, we have seen many Emirati soldiers continue to bravely risk their lives to defend the region in countries such as Yemen, and we have seen innovators and scientists being given National priority, billions of dollars in funding, and support from the highest levels of leadership in our country.

So, what does it mean to be an Emirati today? Well to start with it is all about actions, it’s about the tangible things you are doing to bring value to your country, whether that is defending it in battle, teaching and nurturing the next generation, leading industries to new heights, or building new and creative ways to solve National challenges, it’s all about your work, it’s all about looking back at your day and being able to identify how you helped your country grow and become better.

We are on the verge of moving past the days where ancestry or tribal association is enough to ensure success. To be honest, I don’t think we have the time or resources to continue to cater to that ideology, because it is an investment that yields zero return. Tribal lineage is important, but not at the cost of economic and social stability, and certainly not more important than ensuring that a foundation is built for future generations to come.

A second point on what it means to be Emirati in 2015 is to be selfless. If you look at many of the initiatives being undertaken by the UAE, the current generation might not necessarily enjoy all the fruits of that labour. Initiatives such the UAE space program, operation “Restoring Hope” in Yemen, or the recent announcement by President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan on the launch of a AED 300 billion post-oil plan for innovation projects are all long term plans for economic and geo-political stability. They are plans to ensure that our children can enjoy the same standards of living that we have been blessed with, to achieve this it takes an Emirati who is selfless, who cares for others as she or he cares for themselves, Emiratis that look beyond the wants they have today, and work for the needs of others tomorrow.

Finally, what defines an Emirati is to exist in a state of constant state improvement. In Japan, they have a word called “Kaizen” which refers to activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all people within an organization or government, from the leader to the person who serves the tea. For the UAE to reach their goals for the future it is going to take citizens and residents who are constantly looking for ways to make things better, and to make personal sacrifices for the overall improvement of our economy.

Another parallel objective of “Kaizen” is to eliminate waste, which is usually a natural outcome of improvement. In the UAE’s terms we saw the removal of the fuel subsidies this year which has made citizens more aware of the costs associated with our natural resources and less likely to waste energy unnecessarily. Furthermore the removal of subsidies frees up billions of dirhams for the UAE government to spend on long-term projects and social infrastructure that improve our lives.

Emiratis must be adaptable in order to keep up with the ever-changing social, political, and economic landscape of the UAE, we need to be seeking ways to continually improve ourselves and each other to be in a position to add absolute value and improvement to our country. The reality is that anyone who does not improve runs the risk of not being able to play an active role in the UAE of tomorrow. In the UAE’s case it is not a matter of a citizen being left behind, it is simply a matter of whether they will be in the game and giving their best, or simply watching from the sidelines and hoping things work out.

The UAE’s approach to development has been very much like the famous saying “a rising tide lifts all boat”, the saying is linked to the ideology that improvements in the general economy will benefit all participants in that economy, and that a government’s economic policy should therefore focus on the general macroeconomic environment first. The UAE goes one step further in ensuring that citizens are given all the tools and training they need to play a crucial role in that economy. I do not envision that changing anytime soon as it is one of the many factors that has continued to build on the strong and loving relationship between the UAE’s leaders and their people. The people, their dignity and way of lives, comes first.

Those school children that I presented to during ‘Good Citizen Week’ are proud of their heritage and their roots, but they too need to understand that as we celebrate our past we must live in the present and build toward the future. They must understand that an Emirati is not defined by their name but by their actions, their work and the value they bring to their country. They must understand that we no longer live as separate tribes, but as one country united under our National Flag. When they do think about Bedouins I want them to use the determination they had to survive as a springboard for them to thrive and reach new heights in their studies and their lives. That is what truly matters.

Returning to the wise words of His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan spoke of at the Government Summit earlier this year – celebrating the UAE’s last barrel of oil in 50 years. I will be 81 when those celebrations take place, and my two sons will be 57 and 53. I imagine they will have children of their own. And by that time my sons and their children will have finished their education, and they will have completed their National Service, they will be involved in the innovation initiatives of their country. They will be thinkers, doers, and citizens of action, they will be the generation of Emiratis defined by 2015.

*This article was originally published in Al Shawati Magazine