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Monday, May 27, 2024

Righting the Wrongs, Democracy and Human Rights

by Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

© Al Habtoor Group
© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock

The full transcript of the keynote address by Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor at the C3 US Arab Summit at the Union League Club in New York City on Monday October 6, 2014.

Bismillah Al Rahman Al Raheem, Assalamu Alaykum Wa Rahmatullah Wa Barakatuh (In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. Peace Be Upon You) Ladies and Gentlemen, Good morning. I am happy to be at the C3 Summit today and to be recognised to receive the first Lifetime Achievement Award. The C3 Summit and its focus aspects are commendable and I wish you all the success this year and in the coming years. I pride myself on being an ambassador of my country to the World. I have always been conscious about the importance of bridging the East and the West, finding the similarities instead of the differences between different cultures.

I founded the Al Habtoor Group in 1970 and am proud to see it grow in what it is today, and for it to be recognised on international levels. As I wrote in my autobiography; Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor – The Autobiography, I was not born into a rich family, I did not hold sand in my hand and turn it into gold. I have had many successes for which I am grateful, but those came after many failures. I look back now at my life and my adventures and laugh. You will laugh with me as well if you read my autobiography. I am grateful for God’s blessings and for being born in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE was blessed with visionary leaders; the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum – the founders of my country.

At the Al Habtoor Group, my company’s motto is ‘Growing with the UAE’ and we have always worked vigorously to grow in parallel with my country. My country’s stellar growth is my responsibility and my privilege. No one should stand back and wait for things to be handed over to them. In the words of John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country". I am a firm believer in that. In the United Arab Emirates, we are partners in our country’s success and we do our best to protect the safety of our nation and its growth. Thank God, the UAE was the first country to recover from the economic crisis in 2008, and it is still growing stronger and stronger by the day.

However, despite this phenomenal growth story, the United Arab Emirates, in particular Dubai, has been the target of the Western media for a long time; being criticised for its firm laws and low tolerance of corruption, and our handling of people who threaten our safety and national security. But the criticism is not justified. Who can blame us? Yes, we are firm with criminals and we are proud of it! Some might object or frown upon our laws, but people from all over the world have decided to make the UAE their home because of what this nation has to offer.

This brings me to two topics that appear to be preferred by the Western media and the faultfinders when discussing the UAE: Democracy and human rights.

Human rights is one topic in particular that seems to be a favourite among my country’s strongest opponents. What is the definition of human rights? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 referred to human rights as the basic civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that all human beings should enjoy. Human rights issues include adequate housing, democracy, rights for children, education, economic rights, food, health, freedom of religion and belief, etc.

If we compare what the Western nations provide for their citizens and what the UAE offers, the difference is huge. All UAE citizens have homes. Young couples who cannot afford to buy homes, receive financial support. And I am not talking about community housing, this is a decent home where a couple can raise a family. Young people who want to get married are provided with money to have a ceremony and start their married life debt-free.

Education is available in the UAE at the highest standards. We have some of the top schools and universities in the world and they are available for all. We provide people with free medical care inside and outside the UAE.

My country is stable, our economy is strong and striving. We have the best infrastructure in the world; world-class banks, hospitals, two major airlines (Emirates and Etihad), and everyone wants to come to work, live and even retire in the UAE.

We have virtually no unemployment. While the streets of the richest cities in the world are full of homeless people living under bridges, tunnels and train stations. Safety and security are the number one priority for us. And we do not compromise on them.

We have used an iron fist with anyone who jeopardises our security, but this is our right and our duty - and we will not apologise for it!

Some might say that this is against human rights and democracy. I say: a parent or a head of family needs to know that their loved ones are safe, and that they will have jobs to provide for them. I need to know my employees will have jobs tomorrow to care for their families. My country’s stability, safety and security allows them that.

There is nothing wrong with democracy as a theory, where everybody gets equal opportunity, enjoys the same rights, has a safe and comfortable lifestyle and has a voice. Do you really think we, in the UAE, are missing on democracy? Think again!

Leaders in the democratic countries are locked away in their ivory towers with thousands of guards keeping them from the people they are supposed to listen to. In my country, I can meet the rulers any time I have a need, and they will listen. I can call them and they will pick-up the phone. The leaders in the UAE are reachable and approachable, and they are interested in what their people have to say. Our rulers care about their people and the residents of the country. The leaders of the UAE care about all humanity, and not just in words, but also in actions.

What have the democratic leaders of the world achieved for the Syrian men, women and children being butchered daily except talk and make empty promises? What have they done for the Palestinians who are constantly denied their basic rights such as food, safety and education? Never mind the Arab world, what is the West doing for its veterans who end up homeless on the streets?

I wish the human rights organisations and the Western media would stop trying to fit us into Western moulds. We do not want to be influenced by foreign concepts of democracy and human rights. We know what works for us! Everyone is invited to come and see with their own eyes how we are living in my country and the blessings that we have.

In the United Arab Emirates, we do not differentiate between human beings whatever their nationality, colour, religion, sex, or any other status. We believe that all human beings are equally entitled to a decent life without discrimination. These beliefs have been inherited from our fathers and forefathers.


I am currently working on a proposal that I hope one day will materialise because its benefits will have a worldwide effect. For now, it is known as the ‘Poverty Alleviation Proposal’. The name is debateable, but for now, my concentration is on the concept.

What I am proposing is a global system of revenue-raising or a global poverty tax. The idea is not novel; but the attempts before have not succeeded. My proposal is more ambitious. It requires governments to pledge an agreed percentage annually to a new independent body tasked solely with poverty-reduction.

All the world’s greatest faiths teach us to take care of the poor. Giving to the less fortunate is required by Islam and Judaism.

I invite everyone to read my proposal and give me their input. Copies of the proposal are available today and online on my personal website


Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to address another subject in my speech of equal importance. Palestine has always been at the forefront of my thinking. We may be diverted from the Palestinian issue with other current matters only temporarily, but Palestine and the peace process are always in my mind and my heart.

I am a realistic man and I set my goals with a real view. I will not dream and stick to the romantic idea that the Palestinians will return to Palestine because there are different facts that have made this impossible and we have to live with them.

I have shared my passion and concern for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict resolution with two great men that I admire: former US President Jimmy Carter and former US Congressman the Honorable Paul Findley. I am proud to call Paul Findley my friend. Because of him, I have come to learn more about the great Abraham Lincoln and his history.

Through my foundation, the Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor Foundation, I have supported The Carter Center for several years now and will continue to do so in their efforts towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict resolution. President Carter and his team have worked tirelessly to find solutions, and many like him and Paul are loyal to the cause and will not hesitate to do what it takes.

But I was thinking about it and decided to try a different approach. The idea came to my mind, and after careful consideration I discussed it with my team and we proposed it to Illinois College. With the assistance of my great friend Paul Findley and the faculty, we have drafted a proposal that we call ‘Pathways to Peace’. I will have the honour to launch it personally with President Jimmy Carter next week at Illinois College.

Everyone hopes this issue is resolved sooner than later, but most probably, it will fall on the shoulders of our children. Their minds and way of thinking are different from ours. So, they should be asked to find scenarios and solutions to the conflict. They understand what their generation thinks and how they need to address this issue.

‘Pathways to Peace’ is a seminar focused on historical examples of different religious, ethnic and cultural conflicts and steps taken to resolve these problems. These examples of methods used to resolves those conflicts can be applied as potential ‘Pathways to Peace’.

The faculty and students involved will travel to Jordan and, if the security situation allows, to Palestine and Israel. They will meet with Palestinian and Israeli students and try to understand them and their needs first-hand. My hope is that they can achieve a realistic solution that could help the peace process move forward.

I realise that the project might not be successful the first time, but we will try again and again. This is too important an issue for us not to try every possible way to see it happen.


I would like to end my speech this morning by saying;

The world is very small, and we all have to share it. This is why we need to find the best way to co-exist, to work together to make it a better place for everyone. From the C3 Summit in New York, I will use this platform to ask the US and the first world countries to look at us at eye-level.

We are grateful for everything you have done for us, and we have learned a lot from you. We have benefitted from your technology and your knowledge, but sometimes we have succeeded where you have failed! It is time you started looking at us as equals and listen to our advice and recognise our achievements.

It is time the West realises we don’t need to be picked-on for not following Western style policies that quite frankly don’t seem to be working for the West that well either.

You have always had our respect and our acceptance, but it is time you accepted us, respected our choices, and looked at us on the same level. We want to help, and we can help - and given the chance this world will be a much better place for every one of us.

Thank you.

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