In 1971, a group of seven Gulf emirates was united under the banner of one federal state and chose the name of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The founder of the UAE, the late president and inspirational leader Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1918-2004), planted the seeds of success in this emerging nation that has witnessed nearly unmatched signs of success in a region that has been characterised by turmoil.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s visit to the UAE this month consolidates decades of friendly relations with this Gulf state. These relations, founded on mutual respect and mutual benefits, have seen the opening of a new chapter over the past five years. Aside from the developing strategic, economic and military alliance between the two countries, a new joint investment platform has been inaugurated by President Al-Sisi and Crown-Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed. The platform brings together total investments of $20 billion and is the latest step in cementing the strong bond between the two countries.
This agreement among many others also draws attention to the reasons why the UAE has succeeded where many other oil-rich countries in the region have failed.
Unlike other oil-rich countries in the Middle East such as Libya, Iraq and Iran, the UAE’s wealth has been directed to the development of the economy and not squandered in vain military adventures and “white elephant” economic projects. The UAE’s population now stands at just over nine million people, its exponential population growth since 1971 largely the result of foreign residents and matched by an equal economic growth rate.
The culmination of such economic successes has created a unique and unmatched experience in the Middle East and also globally. With the possible exception of Singapore, there has been hardly any similar success story for an emerging or a newly founded country that has transformed itself in such record time and has been leading by example.
At the moment, only one third of the UAE’s GDP is based on the oil and gas industries. The rest of the country’s revenue is from a wide variety of activities, including trade, tourism and industries ranging from raw materials such as aluminium, in which the UAE is ranked fifth globally in terms of production, foodstuffs and military industries. The country possesses a robust space programme and operates nine satellites, along with an ambitious programme called the Mars Hope Mission that aims to send an orbiter to Mars by 2021. The first Emirati astronaut, Hazzaa Ali Al-Mansouri, visited space in September 2019 and returned to earth after eight days, a landmark step for the country.
The Emirati military industry has also been expanding rapidly, and some locally produced military drones, armoured vehicles and other items of military equipment are part of an expanding industry.
Over the past three decades, Dubai has become a global financial hub, and its ports and airports have become among the busiest in the world, bustling with activity all year round. Religious harmony in the UAE is unparalleled in the region. The Emirati government has been quick to spot and purge extremism and terrorism-financing schemes that have attempted to utilise its financial facilities over recent decades. Moreover, the UAE was among the first countries to follow Egypt’s example and ban the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood and its franchises, including the US-based Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). The Emirati government has not only allowed the construction of Christian churches in Dubai, but has also licensed Hindu and Buddhist temples to serve its population from various religions among foreign workers and residents.
Tourism and real estate are huge economic sectors in the UAE, with over 15.8 million tourists visiting Dubai alone in 2017 and expected to reach 20 million by 2020 as a result of the organisation of the 2020 World Expo under the theme of “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future”. About 135 countries are expected to be represented in this gigantic event that will last for six months and be the first of its kind organised in the Middle East.
In 2006, the amount invested in real-estate projects in the country amounted to over $350 billion. As a result, impressive infrastructure that defies even the biggest world cities can now be found in UAE cities like Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, including the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, and some of the biggest shopping malls, hotels and recreation facilities on the planet. With a cosmopolitan society to match, the UAE has become a new hub for international trade, culture and social activities and the envy of other countries.
At the same time that Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan was building this success story after 1971, followed by his son President Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Libya’s late leader Muammar Gaddafi was cementing his power in his country after a successful coup d’état in 1969 that toppled the former Libyan monarch Idris Al-Senussi. Gaddafi promised prosperity, equality and a list of other dreams that were never attained during his 42 years of rule. A comparison between the current state of Libya nearly 50 years after Gaddafi took power and the UAE after its 1971 unification shows a stark difference between forms of governance and the fate these can spell for nations.
From humble beginnings in the early 1970s to a global economic player today, the UAE has taken enormous strides. The Emirati leadership chose the path of planned development, acquiring expertise to do so in all fields from across the world. This path was instrumental in the success story that followed, which gave rise to high living standards, security, prosperity and accessibility to Emirati citizens whose passport is now one of the most useful to have since it gives access to most countries on earth. The UAE has become the happiest Arab nation and the 20th happiest country globally.
Other oil-rich nations like Qatar, Libya and Iran have attempted to garner influence through conspiracies and the financing of militias, terrorism and political instability in the region and beyond. During the 1980s, Gaddafi financed the likes of the terrorist-designated Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Northern Ireland, and he went as far as to finance Native American tribes in an attempt to urge them to revolt against the US administration in North America. Iran still funds militias across the region from Iraq to Lebanon to Yemen despite the economic hardships that Iranians face. The Qatari regime led by Prince Tamin Bin Hamad Al Thani has been moving on the same path and has squandered Qatar’s wealth in desperate attempts to gain political influence through supporting terrorist groups and militias.
By contrast, the Emirati leadership has not ventured into buying respect and influence through greasing palms and controlling media outlets in the manner the Qataris have been doing. Instead, it has earned world respect through careful planning and being a force for good in a troubled world. The end result is that Qatari officials have become pariahs that most countries now loathe and avoid. Many Western officials and politicians have to explain themselves when meeting Qatari counterparts in public.
While upholding its national and Arab traditions and its Islamic background, the Emirati leadership has not wasted its people’s lives and resources by attempting to apply Sharia law to appease radicals, and it has not concerned itself with matters of the afterlife that are beyond its control. Instead, this leadership has poured all its resources and invested its oil wealth wisely to ensure that its citizens and others who reside in the country can live in a kind of earthly paradise of their own making and has thus succeeded where others in the region have miserably failed.
The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.