Fireworks will be a familiar sight for UAE residents celebrating Christmas this year. The country, after all, is in the midst of celebrating its Golden Jubilee. And so exactly 50 years ago, the UAE lived through its first festive season as a unified country. It would have been a very different affair to what we expect now. With a population of fewer than 250,000, in a relatively isolated part of the Islamic world, the celebration would barely have registered in the minds of its residents.
Now, it is hard to go about the day without seeing reminders, often spectacular. In Abu Dhabi's Galleria Mall, Santa Claus is handing out gifts underneath his vast sleigh and reindeer, which are hanging from the atrium's ceiling. Expo 2020's Al Wasl Dome in Dubai, moreover, is home to one of the tallest Christmas trees in the country.
Such scenes embodies the unprecedented pace at which the UAE has become a global, multicultural destination. It is that otherwise positive identity that means this year's celebrations, like the last, will be bittersweet. Everyone in the country, the majority of whom are from overseas, continues to be affected by the pandemic. For some residents, travel to their home countries to see loved ones, although easier this year, is far from normal.
No matter how tough the situation, we know that the message of Christmas – resilience and hope in difficult times – can help us get through a tough winter. What we cannot be so sure about is what awaits us in the new year in the light of Covid-19. All we know so far about Omicron – a new variant of the disease discovered in November by South African scientists – is that it is spreading at a record-breaking pace. The hope is that it is not equally lethal.
Early evidence creates room for optimism but there is still too little known to let down our guards. This week, the UAE recorded the largest number of daily new Covid-19 cases in more than three months. Consequently, new Covid-19 safety measures for Christmas and New Year celebrations have been announced: venue capacity must be capped at 80 per cent, and people attending events must present their Al Hosn green pass if required and proof of a negative PCR test within 96 hours. This is one step back, but the UAE has taken far more steps forward this year.
Sadly, much of the Middle East has not seen such progress and this Christmas people should spare a moment for those who have even more to worry about. As The National recently reported, millions already suffering war and oppression are now dealing with environmental catastrophe. The economy in parts of the region has made normal life impossible in 2021 – Turks are currently dealing with wild currency swings after a year of rapid decline, while Lebanon continues to plummet to new economic lows – and political instability and intractable conflict can be found in all corners of the Middle East.
Is there some hope for a better geopolitical situation in 2022? It's too early to tell, but the UAE has been part of a noticeable shift towards regional diplomacy, with senior officials reaching out to countries around the region, including Iran and Turkey.
In the most fortunate of nations, this Christmas will be a restful one. The story at the heart of Christmas, however, is anything but relaxing, and in it, we must all find extra meaning. Perhaps the original message, of celebrating resilience in periods of hardship, is a more apt reading for the Middle East in these uncertain times.