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Al Wasl's biggest signing: Diego Maradona as coach. Mike Young / The National
Al Wasl's biggest signing: Diego Maradona as coach. Mike Young / The National
UAE nationals cast their votes for the FNC elections in September. Sammy Dallal / The National
UAE nationals cast their votes for the FNC elections in September. Sammy Dallal / The National
Sir Paul McCartney at the Yas Arena. Antonie Robertson / The National
Sir Paul McCartney at the Yas Arena. Antonie Robertson / The National
New highway speed limits. Delores Johnson / The National
New highway speed limits. Delores Johnson / The National
The Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team sailing off the Spanish coast as part of the preparation for the Volvo Ocean Race. Jaime Puebla / The National
The Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team sailing off the Spanish coast as part of the preparation for the Volvo Ocean Race. Jaime Puebla / The National
National spirit: people join in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the creation of the United Arab Emirates at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi. Silvia Razgova / The National
National spirit: people join in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the creation of the United Arab Emirates at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi. Silvia Razgova / The National
Yahsat's first satellite Y1A is successfully launched from the European Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. ESA-CNES-Arianespace
Yahsat's first satellite Y1A is successfully launched from the European Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. ESA-CNES-Arianespace

2011 was a year to be proud of the nation

While other countries in the region experienced painful upheaval, for the Emirates 2011 was a year of business as usual, punctuated by cultural and political milestones.

There was, of course, the pride and the celebrations surrounding the milestone 40th anniversary of the foundation of the nation.

Also not to be forgotten were the many significant steps taken towards the continuously evolving goal of national improvement - determined initiatives to tackle such pressing issues as food security, Emiratisation, education and employment opportunities, for men and women alike.

And, of course, the first mass elections to membership of the Federal National Council proved a key waypoint in the voyage of the ship of state.

But at the end of a year throughout which the Arab world was shaken by widespread dissent and upheaval, perhaps the greatest achievement for the United Arab Emirates was the fact that 2011 was a year of business as usual.

As the President, Sheikh Khalifa, put it in his National Day address on December 2: "The current transformation in the Arab world has proven the soundness of the principles and pillars upon which our State has been based since its birth."

Not that the UAE was untouched by the Arab Spring, to which it responded from the outset with a range of diplomatic initiatives, aid and military muscle, earning the praise of the global community.

"As we follow developments in a number of sisterly Arab countries," Sheikh Khalifa said in December, "we affirm our respect for the choices of their peoples and express our support for the ongoing efforts to overcome this situation in a manner that preserves unity and cohesion and meets the aspirations of their peoples."

It was clear from the outset that the UAE would play a central role throughout the Arab Spring, seeking solutions, sending help and serving as an honest broker.

In February, for example, as it became apparent that the uprising in Libya was claiming hundreds of lives, the Emirates joined forces with Turkey to fly humanitarian aid into the country from Marmaris. "For us to help the people of Libya, we have to keep our focus on helping each man, woman and child," said Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed,the UAE foreign minister.

In March, as the GCC condemned Qaddafi's regime as illegitimate and opened diplomatic channels with the rebels, the UAE committed Dh6 million in aid and dispatched Red Crescent workers to ease the plight of refugees who had been driven from their homes and were gathering in makeshift camps on the Tunisian border.

The complexities of the tapestry of dissent demanded flexible responses. On March 14, the UAE was among the GCC member countries that responded to an appeal from Bahrain for help in dealing with widespread unrest, and contributed 650 police officers to a Peninsular Shield force sent to guard sensitive sites and government buildings.

Later that same month, as the GCC met in Abu Dhabi and declared its support for the UN-mandated no-fly operation being carried out "for the protection of the Libyan people", it emerged that UAE and Qatari forces were part of the coalition. "They are there," said Abdul Rahman al Atiyyah, the GCC secretary-general, "because they want to stop bloodshed."

In September, by which time most of Libya was under rebel control, the British government paid tribute to the UAE pilots who had helped to enforce the UN's no-fly zone and who had made "a huge difference". The UAE, it added, had "a very strong sense of responsibility" and was playing an increasingly prominent role in regional affairs.

At one point, the UAE found itself confronting for the first time the question of how to handle its own internal discord; five Emirati bloggers were arrested and later convicted on various charges, including instigation to break laws, threatening state security and opposing the system of government.

The letter of the law was followed and in November the five were each sentenced to two years in prison. But then a simple gesture of humanity spoke volumes about the difference between the UAE and the troubled Arab states: almost immediately, the five were named as among the 554 prisoners pardoned by the President ahead of the imminent National Day.

Throughout 2011, as has become almost commonplace in the modern UAE, art, sport and culture of a global standard played a significant part in the lives of residents and nationals alike.

Once again the UAE was host to a series of high-profile music events, including performances by Eric Clapton, Maroon 5, Britney Spears, Metallica and Liam Gallagher's post-Oasis band Beady Eye - by any standards an impressive bill, culminating in tonight's New Year's Eve concert by the band Coldplay at the Volvo Ocean Race Destination Village on Abu Dhabi's Corniche.

This year saw the usual packed international sporting calendar, including the third Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but much of the excitement was homegrown. In April, 37,000 fans - the largest turnout yet - packed Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi for the thrilling final of the President's Cup football tournament, which saw Al Jazira beat Al Wahda 4-0.

The following month, however, it was another UAE side that scored the biggest win so far in the history of Emirates football - Dubai team Al Wasl's signing of the Argentinian football legend Diego Maradona as coach.

And in July, Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing unveiled Azzam, the state-of-the art sailing boat that would compete in the 39,000-mile Volvo Ocean Race in November. On board would be 22-year-old Adil Khalid, a symbol of the growing engagement of Emiratis in all walks of national life.

It was, he declared, "my dream". For a while, that dream looked as though it might become a nightmare when the yacht's mast broke shortly after the start of the race in Alicante, Spain, in November; but the team rallied round and Azzam - and Adil - was quickly back in the race.

In looking to the future and the modern world, the UAE continues to take care not to lose sight of its past, and one of the most impressive cultural events of the year served as a reminder that although the country was only four decades old, its roots run deep into antiquity.

Splendours of Mesopotamia, a breathtaking exhibition curated by the British Museum, partners with Abu Dhabi in the development of the Zayed National Museum, ran at Manarat al Saadiyat throughout April, May and June. In a year during which Al Ain's mysterious, dome-shaped Bronze Age tombs earned the area status as a Unesco World Heritage Site, it was a timely reminder that behind the beaches, the hotels and startling high-rise buildings, the real foundations of the Emirati way of life were laid at least 5,000 years ago, during the rise of the ancient civilisation of Mesopotamia.

But the single event this year that perhaps best symbolised the progress that has been made in the UAE since its birth in 1971 was the launch in April of the nation's first commercial telecommunications satellite. Furthermore, for a nation striving to move away from reliance on fossil fuels, it was "a significant step forward for economic diversification and growth", said Jassem al Zaabi, Yahsat's chief executive.

The following month, the nation took another step forward on the world stage when it became the first Arab country to send an ambassador to Nato - a demonstration of its commitment to playing a significant role in the world community.

Back home, though, pressing domestic problems continued to test the young nation - among them, the issue of road safety. The extent of the problem was highlighted by a survey sponsored by the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy. It found that 50 per cent of male Emirati drivers admitted engaging in risky behaviour, including failing to wear a seatbelt, speeding and cutting up other motorists.

In April, after a series of multiple pile-ups in foggy conditions had claimed the usual annual toll of lives, police lowered the speed limit on the main Dubai-Abu Dhabi highway by 20kph and began enforcing a strict 140kph speed restriction - with dramatic results. By August, it was clear that the number of accidents had been cut by a third over the same period the previous year, a positive step towards an ambitious target of reducing the number of fatalities on the roads to zero by 2030.

The road ahead may be a long one. A depressing insight into the dangerous behaviour of the UAE's motorists emerged in October, when a three-day disruption to BlackBerry Messenger services was credited with cutting traffic accidents in Dubai by 20 per cent, and in Abu Dhabi by 40 per cent, with no fatalities. Under normal circumstances, there would be a fatal accident in Abu Dhabi every two days. It was proof, if it were needed, that too many motorists had habitually been reading and sending messages while driving.

But though individuals continued to risk their lives and those of others, it became clear during the year that overall the situation was slowly improving. Figures released in June by the Ministry of Interior showed that the awareness campaigns and tough enforcement were paying off and accident rates were in decline: in the first five months of the year there were just 2,618 accidents nationwide, compared with 5,032 in the first six months of 2009, and 3,581 in the same period in 2010.

Too many are, however, still paying a high price: in the first six months of 2011 there were 338 deaths and 3,326 injuries. The majority of fatal accidents, as usual, took place on Fridays - and drivers aged between 21 and 23 were responsible for causing 40 per cent of them.

This year the UAE also found itself drawn into the issue of piracy. It began in January, when the MV Al Musa, a dhow heading from Dubai to Salalah in Oman, was seized by pirates, along with its crew of 14, and taken to Somali waters. That same month, an Algerian bulk carrier was seized about 240km southeast of Oman. Later, the pirates would grow even more audacious, capturing a tanker and crew just three kilometres off Salalah.

The UAE reacted quickly to the increasing menace now lapping at its shores. In April the nation hosted an international conference to discuss ways of dealing with the problem - and that same month turned action into words when its special forces stormed the MV Arrilah-I, a bulk carrier that had been hijacked east of Oman, en route to Jebel Ali from Australia, freeing all hostages and capturing the pirates.

While the military was coming to grips with its new role on the high seas, so the political landscape at home was about to undergo historic change.

In February, Sheikh Khalifa pledged that the parliamentary process that had started with the foundation of the Federal National Council in 1971 would "continue to develop, so as to meet the needs of the nation and to achieve the hopes and aspirations of our people for participation, security and stability".

This was no hastily contrived sop to the sentiments of the Arab Spring. In fact, Sheikh Khalifa had first outlined plans to reform the government and the role of the FNC in December 2005, during his second National Day address as President. "We want to make the FNC more effective," he had said then, "so that it can deal effectively with issues that concern the country and to introduce our citizens to the concept of shura [democracy]."

The first elections followed in 2006, when half of the previously wholly-appointed 40-member council were elected by an electoral college of 6,700 Emiratis, chosen at random by the rulers.

This year, that process took a giant step forward. On September 24, the second nationwide FNC elections saw 130,000 Emiratis - almost a third of the 430,000 over the voting age of 21 - given the right to vote, with 468 candidates contesting the 20 seats. In 2006, said Dr Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for FNC Affairs, speaking in May, "we said it was the first step. A lot more wanted to participate. We said then: 'Your turn will come,' and now it has."

The Government, he said, planned to extend the franchise every election until 2019, by which time every adult Emirati would have the vote. And those citizens who voted, said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice-President and Ruler of Dubai, were "writing a new chapter in the UAE history".

The newly elected council went quickly to work; among its first priorities were addressing shortages of housing in the northern Emirates and the shortcomings of state education, but it quickly became clear that its top concern would be the issue that many see as the single most pressing concern for the UAE today: Emiratisation.

In their official response to the President's opening address, the members called for policies that would strengthen national identity, reduce the number of expatriates in the UAE and provide opportunities for more Emiratis.

"After 40 years," they wrote, "we must set the appropriate successful solutions for Emiratisation and provide job opportunities for nationals."

It is a goal they share with the leadership, which has set up a number of bodies to address the issue - including the Federal Council for the Demographic Structure, the National Qualifications Authority and the Khalifa Emiratisation Fund.

"We hope the initiatives of these bodies will serve as a realistic prelude for tackling these challenges we are facing," Sheikh Khalifa said during his National Day address. The way ahead, he said, had been mapped out in the UAE Vision 2021, "a sustainable model of human society, whose target is to empower society and to build the capacities, skills and knowledge of its members".

It was, he said, "our road map for the future and the main way to address the challenges faced both by the State and by society. On the top of these are national identity, the imbalance in the job market, low productivity and the weak rates of replacement and Emiratisation".

As the year was drawing to a close, the next chapter in the story of the UAE was already being drafted.

         

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