The UAE National Day means much more to me than just a public holiday or an opportunity to celebrate. I thank God for his gifts every day and never cease feeling privileged to have been born in Dubai (then a little known backwater). But December 2nd is special. It focuses my mind on our nation’s successes and my hopes for the future like no other. It reminds me that with unity of thought and effort nothing but nothing is impossible.
The decision of our rulers to come together to unfurl the UAE flag for the first time on December 2nd 1971 following the expiration of Britain’s treaty with the Trucial States the day before, was a sign of strength and determination. With the fluttering of that standard, old hurts were forgiven, old feuds buried. Agreed borders, a federal government permitting each emirate to have autonomy and a written constitution brought peace, security and economic advancement. Our neighbours were no longer competitors but brothers, compatriots working together towards one goal. With unity came the strength to fend off our envious enemies.
The birth of the UAE was met with skepticism in some quarters. It won’t last, said the naysayers, tribal divisions will prevail. But not only has it sustained, it has grown from strength to strength.
We no longer think of ourselves as nationals of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Umm Al Quwain or Ras Al Khaimah. We are all proud Emiratis. For that our gratitude must go to the respective rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, acknowledged to be the driving force behind the union.
I count myself lucky to have known them both personally; they changed my life in different ways, detailed in my recently published “tell all” memoir – Khalaf Al Habtoor: The Autobiography.
Through their wisdom and humility, they inspired me to become a better man, the best I could be. They ruled by example. Neither had authoritarian ruling styles; they always listened to the advice of others irrespective of their social or material status, before they took their decisions. For us, they were more like gentle fathers than rulers.
They devoted almost every waking minute of their day to their people’s well being. Cognisant that oil is a dwindling resource, their mission was to encourage and support the growth of the country’s infrastructure, trade and commerce. They finely balanced their inherent conservatism with rare, often breathtaking vision. Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid were extraordinary human beings whose lessons must never be forgotten.
We mourned their passing as though they were members of our own families, not only out of respect but love for men who truly cared for their country and its sons and daughters. They left behind them solid foundations of prosperity; they put the UAE firmly on the map. More than that, they assured political continuity by bequeathing their sons – HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum - to bring their hopes and dreams to fruition, in partnership with their counterparts in the five other emirates.
Kudos to Sheikh Khalifa and Sheikh Mohammed for pulling the UAE through the 2008/9 economic crisis that hit our nation harder than most eliciting doom-laden predictions in Western newspapers. Dubai bore the brunt of those attacks. Pundits, lacing their words with envy, saw Dubai disappearing below the sands of our own ambition.
They’ve since been made to eat their words even as their own countries still struggle to combat recession. The UAE has been back for some time… and how! Sad to say, this hasn’t prevented the snipes of foreign columnists like Simeon Kerr writing in the FT under the headline ‘Dubai, a spot of the old hubris’. It seems our success still rankles with some. In 2009, Kerr was penning articles headed ‘A world beater carried away by its success’, ‘Good Times endin Dubai’ and ‘Dubai, Emirate on the Ebb’. Sorry, we couldn’t oblige you, Mr. Kerr! We won’t apologise for striving to be the best. In fact, we’re proud to have overcome a global problem not of our own making, so swiftly.
The economy of the UAE ranks No. 30 on the worldwide scale; GDP is more than one trillion Dirhams while per capita GDP is the 7th highest on the planet. Economic growth of four percent was recorded last year and a similar level is expected this year. Those of us who live in Dubai feel the increasing buzz. To quote Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, “There’s growth in every business, especially in the tourism sector, aviation sector, business and insurance. Everyone says the city is lively.” My belief in Dubai never faltered even in the days when static cranes dominated the skyline. I told everyone not to worry, that the downturn was a blip in our path that would soon be overcome. Like many others whose confidence could not be shaken, I’m investing in Dubai with three luxurious new hotels (St. Regis, W Hotel and Westin) on Sheikh Zayed Road where the Dubai Metropolitan used to be and the construction of the Waldorf Astoria on the Palm Jumeirah Island is poised to welcome its first guests next year.
Many will enjoy this day to spend time with family or simply to have fun. But let’s also use it to count our blessings and celebrate that our country’s multicultural environment that makes it a unique international hub for multitalents, while nurturing Arab talent, previously lost to the West. Let’s appreciate our modern cities, built with infra and super structures, are acknowledged as second to none. And let’s remind ourselves that in just over four decades, the UAE has phenomenally emerged as a major international tourist destination propelled by world-beating airports and Emirates and Etihad - airlines that never cease to expand their fleets while others are downsizing.
Our governments have achieved wonders for their people but, more than that, they have not forgotten the needy within our region and other areas of the world; their compassion extends to all irrespective of nationality, religion, race or colour. Such humanitarian values have contributed to the respect Emiratis enjoy wherever they travel.
I pray that God continues to unite us and protect our nation. It is my hope that the GCC will evolve into a strong political, economic and military federation within my lifetime. I pray, too, that the rulers and ordinary citizens become even closer and that our culture and traditions remain the basis on which we lead our lives. Although we may have deviated from them a little, today we must all remind our children and grandchildren that they are the invisible threads that bind us and must never be broken.
In this momentous occasion, I would like to congratulate Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid
and all UAE rulers and proud citizens on the 41st UAE National Day. May God bestow on us His grace, and may we always be blessed with safety and security.