by Dr Peter Heath, Chancellor AUS, Dr Nada Mourtada Sabbah Vice Chancellor for Development and Alumni Affairs and Professor of International Studies AUS and Dr John Fox Senior Writing Researcher.
In celebrating its 40th anniversary, we note that one of the reasons for the success of the UAE results from its strong tribal values – which despite the massive changes that have taken place remain the backbone of the country.
An important anniversary for any country is a chance to pause and reflect on just how far it’s come. In the case of the UAE, that would be very far indeed in just 40 short years.
In fact most scholars agree that this part of the world is unique. No other country has ever entered the global market more rapidly and experienced such drastic changes in material abundance in such a short space of time.
Given the fact that the small seaports and desert towns of the UAE have transformed seemingly overnight into some of the world’s most avant garde cities, and considering that this has happened in just four decades, it’s only natural to query where the country is likely be 40 years from now.
In answering this, it’s important to note that the United Arab Emirates has so far defied all development trends, predictions and attempts to categorise it. The refore trying to predict the future, although a worthy pursuit is a difficult thing to do.
Nevertheless, the country’s strong Emirati heritage can help us to accurately assess what is likely to come. Based on sound values, it has changed little over the years and could to serve as a basic foundation for the UAE society of the future.
What’s more, as we begin a 40-year overview of the country, one cannot but note that the country possesses a one-of a- kind government among the nearly 200 sovereign nations worldwide. As a federation of seven emirates, it operates a system of checks and balances. The seven rulers make decisions which are beneficial to the country collectively in the Supreme Majlis, through deliberation, Shurah and by deferring to the wider good under the agies of His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates and the enduring legacy of His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan the First President of the UAE.
As a result, the UAE has experienced one of the greatest degrees of political stability of any country in the Middle East. And while its spectacular skyscraper-architecture has taken form with breathtaking speed, the organisation of the community which propelled it, has remained steadfast and true to its cultural norms and values.
It is this unique dichotomy which makes it fascinating to sociologists, anthropologists and city planners alike. Why? Because it negates nearly all of the accepted theories of how and why a cosmopolitan society should develop. And nowhere is this phenomenon of more interest than in the UAE itself – where it is a subject of debate in universities.
In analysing how it got to where it is today, it’s important to note that the economy of the country, once revolved around family-owned businesses and much of it involved trading with foreign countries, on dhows which traversed the Indian Ocean. Of course all this has changed since the discovery of oil and gas and the ensuing development of other businesses here and it will continue to change in the future.
Infrastructure and skyscrapers aside, the UAE has some of the strongest industrial production capacities in the Middle East. But despite the fact that it has become modernised beyond belief in recent years, Emirati families remain traditional in many respects. The kinship norms and values that they always possessed still exist and as a result families, neighbours and traditional allies are as close as ever.
This works to their advantage when it comes to the global market as they frequently take collective action, pooling resources which lead to profits in the long run.
The bottom line is that while many modernised countries in the world have let their once strong sense of community become eroded, the Emirates has succeeded in keeping the traditional cross ties amongst its people intact. This has worked and continues to work to its advantage.
In fact the age-old family values, culture and social fabric of the UAE remain the key factors in its overall economic, political and social success – providing a lifestyle for those who live here which is second to none.
More generally, much of the economic largesse derived from its oil and gas revenues has been recycled to serve the wider population in high quality education, housing and healthcare; those who live here also receive other benefits.
This willing redistribution of the country’s wealth may be considered a further example of the country’s time-honoured tradition of solidarity.
Historically, the Emirati community, like most traditional communities around the world, survived together through sharing what was available. So assisting the present day younger generation to find a place in the economy is like helping members of one’s own family, only on a country-wide scale.
And while much of the Arab world is suffering from unemployment, in the UAE there is no shortage of jobs. In recent years the government has followed a number of proactive programmes to foster the creation of jobs. Termed ‘Emiratisation’, they seek out and train young Emiratis to succeed in the private sector. Special training, internships and eventually entrylevel as well as highly advanced jobs are provided for them as a result. This policy of looking after one and all provides long-term benefits, rather than just short term profits. It won’t be long for example until the next generation of Emirati’s, those who are now just beginning their careers, start taking care of the wider ‘Emirati family’ of the UAE nation as a whole, after they assume positions of leadership.
As to how the UAE will look 40 years from now, much depends on world politics. During times of abundant natural resources (and especially when there was limitless oil and gas) steady economic growth was a foregone conclusion. This however is no longer the case. As a result more has to be done with smaller amounts of natural resources – we now have to manage with less energy, fuel, fresh water and even food.
There is much to learn from the communitarian Emirati ways however. And these are still evident in many different areas of life. One example is the recent scientific experiments being carried out in order to find new environmentally-friendly energy sources. The carbon free Ivlasdar City in Abu Dhabi stands as an example of urban living without the use of fossil fuels, but it also illustrates a wish to put community needs before personal gain.
What’s more, over the last 40 years the seven emirates have become closer, so it makes sense to predict that the neighbouring polities will continue to forge closer ties and pool their finances, labour and technological expertise.
Traditionally, in most communities this mutual strengthening of economies results in enhanced shared-identities and cultural norms. This can be seen in the fact that many young nationals already define themselves as proud Emiratis rather than as coming from a single Emirate of the Federation. So too, the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council are continuing to create closer economic ties through pooling their productive capacities and synchronising their banking systems.
It’s likely that the time-honoured way in the UAE of adhering to obligations for the wider community, whether in relation to an extended family member, another emirate, a country or a regional bloc of countries, will continue for future decades. In this way, the world has much to learn from the Emirati culture, which is based on close family commitment and honoured solidarity.
Blessed be the efforts of its rulers, under the leadership of His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates, the enduring legacy of His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan the First President of the UAE and the wisdom of the seven members of the Supreme Council.
May the United Arab Emirates continue to go from strength to strength in the next 40 years and beyond.