Abakar Manany
Abakar Manany
The UAE at 50

The UAE at 50: Progress, prosperity and, yes, peace

The Gulf state, now marking 50 years since its founding, rejected religious fanaticism and has stretched its hand out to Israel in genuine friendship
An Emirati man records the celebration after the Hope Probe enters Mars orbit as a part of Emirates Mars mission, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 9, 2021. The spacecraft from the UAE swung into orbit around Mars in a triumph for the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission. (AP/Kamran Jebreili)
An Emirati man records the celebration after the Hope Probe enters Mars orbit as a part of Emirates Mars mission, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 9, 2021. The spacecraft from the UAE swung into orbit around Mars in a triumph for the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission. (AP/Kamran Jebreili)

The United Arab Emirates has had so much impact on the region and the world in recent years that it is surprising just how few outsiders know the country is celebrating its 50th birthday this week.

Birthdays can be childish things, but they are also occasions to celebrate. Countries can be instruments of oppression and power, but they can also be forces for good. I am writing this to argue the point that the UAE is a force for good, worth celebrating.

Against all odds, the UAE has developed into a post-national nation, a center for commerce, learning, culture, and a beacon for peace. I should know: I am a Chadian who has been warmly welcomed in Dubai. I am also a person who has tried his best in discreet ways to support the Abraham Accords with Israel.

I hope people in Israel appreciate that this agreement, now in its second year, reflected a pivotal decision to try to bring not just prosperity but progress. The Abraham Accords underscore the Emirati model of conciliation (now visible in the first signs of detente with Turkey as well) – to not let faith separate peoples but rather unite them.

This openness to the world has enabled Emirates to enjoy the world’s fourth-highest GDP per capita, and exceptional continued growth along with one of the highest human development indices in the world. When teenagers from the West these days say they want to visit or even live in Dubai, it is not because of extravagances and cliches about oil wealth, it is because something good is being done here.

The Persian Gulf was long a maritime trade route for the world, a potentially prosperous theater at the crossroads of the Indian peninsula, East Africa, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley Civilization.

But little of that potential was visible in this corner of the Arabian peninsula in January 1968, when the British government announced its forces would soon withdraw from the protectorate of small emirates then known as the Trucial States. On December 2, 1971, the United Arab Emirates was formally established.

There was no hint then that one day there would be gleaming cities whose towers would rise up to the clouds. There were only small fishing and pearling villages with palm-leaf huts sparsely populated along dry peninsular lands. There was a lack of schools, hospitals and other large institutions; most of the people in the area were illiterate and living in poverty.

Who could have imagined the country being a major player today on the diplomatic and military stage, a tourism magnet, a hub for science, technology and entertainment, and a peaceful epicenter of a flourishing spirituality?

Rarely in history have such changes happened in only half a century. When they do, it is because of great leaders and wise decisions. In this case, much credit goes to the founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

Born in 1918, the sheikh ruled from 1971 for more than thirty years, a tribal leader who became one of the most respected heads of state in the Arab world, importing the best from abroad for inspiration, while exporting new ideas from the region. His genius was a fusion of loyalty to the ancestral codes of the Bedouin world from which he came and a visionary moderation that was valued by the international community.

He was the one who brought together the seven existing emirates (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras el Khaimah and Umm al Qaiwain) into a confederation.

The sixth-largest oil producer in the world, the country has achieved its transition thanks to natural gas, nuclear power and solar power plants, which provide light for the nearly 10 million Emirati residents.

But the sheikh made sure the people benefited from oil wealth by building a true welfare state. There was massive support for the public sector and redistribution of wealth with medical care for all, free schooling and scholarships for students with a focus on innovations and modernity. There were road and port infrastructures, housing, access to electricity and running water, green spaces, and free social services.

Although a devout Muslim, the sheikh was the first enemy of religious fanaticism. As a man of peace and dialogue, he was on several occasions a mediator in local or regional conflicts, for example during the Sudanese civil war in the 1990s.

Sheikh Zayed built his dream floor by floor, until his death in December 2004. That tradition is being continued today by his son, Skeikh Mohamed ben Zayed Al Nahyan, along with his fellow UAE leaders.

So the UAE today is a story of progress.

Abu Dhabi is home to the world’s largest solar photovoltaic plant, Noor Abu Dhab. Last February marked the first successful Emirati entry into orbit around Mars (a first for any Arab country). There has also been the recent creation of the Ministry of Artificial Intelligence, and great leaps made in the world of women’s empowerment. The UAE has set an example for the Arab world and beyond.

It is a story of decency.

During the COVID crisis, the UAE distinguished itself not only with a quick and prepared reaction of rapid vaccination but also with donations of medical equipment and vaccines to less-fortunate countries (I put my Amjet Executive fleet at the disposal of the UAE to transport doctors and supplies in April 2020). The welcoming spirit was also evident in the country recently opening its gates to tens of thousands of Afghans fleeing the Taliban.

It is a story of culture.

This multicultural haven offers a privileged creative platform for artists. Projects of international scope, such as the Louvre’s branch in Abu Dhabi, interfaith emblems like the Abrahamic House (with a synagogue, a mosque and a church) on Saadiyat Island, and partnerships with leading schools such as NYU, the Sorbonne and American University. It all lives harmoniously beside the cultural capital of Sharjah, rich in its book fair, Islamic museum, souks and also the Biennial of Contemporary Art.

It is a story of cosmopolitanism.

That’s because the United Arab Emirates is a story of a vitality that is both open to the world and proud of its Arab-Islamic core. One of the most striking results of this visionary and generous project is the incredible attractiveness of a country where the number of foreigners has increased greatly since the early 1970s. Immigrants now make up 90% of the Emirates’ population.

Finally, it is a story of peace.

Israelis need not be concerned about cynicism and transactionalism, though these things certainly exist in the world. I urge them to accept the truth – that the UAE is a remarkable force for good whose hand is outstretched in genuine friendship and fervent hope.

Long live progress, and happy birthday!

About the Author
Chad-born Manany, a businessman and resident of Dubai, is the most followed Chadian public figure on social networks. He is a former diplomat and special advisor to the Chadian president, and was awarded France’s Officier Cross of the Legion of Honor by French Presidents Jacques Chirac, and Nicolas Sarkozy.
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