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DUBAI: Emiratis put on brave face for National Day despite debt crisis

December 2, 2009 |  9:38 am

The United Arab Emirates celebrated 38 years of unity today with the customary fireworks, cultural competitions, parades, flag waving and even a signature perfume to commemorate the occasion.

But what should have been a joyous celebration of the UAE's meteoric rise as the financial capital of the Middle East was clouded by fear and uncertainty after Dubai's recently disclosed debt crisis and economic downturn.

Picture 3 For some foreign observers, the celebration was a sham. 

But for Emiratis, it was a chance to show their national pride and confidence in the country's resilience. 

A Reuters correspondent described the mood as "defiant," with supporters parading miniature skyscrapers and copies of the Dubai ruler Sheik Mohammed ibn Rashid al Maktum's book through the streets.

Maktum, who is also the prime minister of the emirates, kept his commemorative speech positive, using the occasion to praise the country's perseverance.

"In spite of the weight of the consequences of the global financial crisis, the wheel of progress and achievement in our country did not stop turning," he said.

Another beloved National Day tradition is the annual decorating of the SUVs, an appropriate tribute to a country built on oil, love of luxury and fervent nationalism.

“We, as a people, love our cars and our leaders. This is the way we honor them,” Abdullah Awlaqi, 25, told the National, Abu Dhabi's English-language newspaper. 

His huge white Hummer was covered with more than 100 postcard-sized pictures of sheiks, flags and seven scarlet teddy bears representing the seven emirates.

The occasion of National Day raises questions, however, about the nature of this loose confederation of ruling families, especially in light of a rumored rift between Dubai's energetic leader and the more conservative rulers of the oil-rich but less famous capital, Abu Dhabi.

So far, Abu Dhabi has been reserved in its support for Dubai, announcing that it would assess possible acquisitions and bailouts on a "case by case" basis. The financial service company Oxford Analytica speculates on Forbes' website that Abu Dhabi might be holding out for more political control over Dubai and the other emirates in the form of increased centralization.

Possible demands could include nationalizing customs and visa laws, which are now decided by individual emirates, and deference to Abu Dhabi on foreign policy. Such a power shift would give the capital greater control over Dubai's ties to Iran, which have reportedly been a source of conflict, particularly with the emirates' Western allies.

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Video: The National's Charlie Hamilton celebrates National Day Emirati-style by decorating his car. Credit: The National/YouTube