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Paradox of plenty has crippled some, but not the UAE

The UAE can serve as a model for resource-rich African countries seeking to order their domestic affairs after independence

For the past five years I have been visiting Abu Dhabi around this time of year to see my daughter and her family, and escape the cold monotony of the European winter.

I am not one of the many expatriates who seek out business or life opportunities in the UAE. I am not economically vested.

But I have formed impressions of the Emirates, views of a man in his later years who has worked all over the world as a civil servant, economist and consultant, and who is very impressed with the rate of progress in the emirate and the country.

Every time I land in Abu Dhabi I encounter new terminal upgrades. My family takes me to their home via new routes (the Khalifa Bridge, the Sheikh Zayed Tunnel), past new attractions and developments (Yas Water World, the St Regis Hotel, the Yas Marina Circuit). I sometimes think that those who live here can become immune to the developmental cycle around them. But to a casual visitor like me, what has been achieved in just over 40 years since federation is nothing short of spectacular. If globalisation remains largely an abstract concept for the man in the street in Europe, one can almost feel the physical reality of it here.

After my second or third visit it became apparent that the country should - and hopefully will - serve as a model for resource-rich African countries seeking to order their domestic affairs after independence.

I began my career as a Belgian civil servant, working in the Congo. In 1955, I joined the Directorate of Economic Affairs of the Central Government in Kinshasa (then called Leopoldville). It was an exciting time for a young man to be working in a country the size of western Europe, or 80 times the size of my native Belgium, endowed with vast natural resources and enjoying a vibrant economy with an average growth rate of about 8 per cent over the previous 30 years.

Soon after independence in 1960, the Congo was engulfed by growing insecurity, corruption, hyperinflation, the excesses of dictatorship and vast population movements as well as violence that claimed millions of lives. The conflict between communism and the West also found a focus in the newly established country, adding to the mess. As a result, despite its vast natural resources, the per capita income of the Congolese today is only a fraction of what it used to be more than half a century ago.

My subsequent employment as an economist for one of the largest multinational mining corporations exposed me further to social and economic trends in various sub-Saharan African countries.

In some cases the leadership of these countries failed to seize the opportunities offered by independence and the chance to harness their natural resources for their nation. Instead, they opted for corrupt solutions to the exclusive benefit of political or other affiliated supporters and blamed - with some justification occasionally - past colonial sins for present day dysfunction.

The so-called colonial legacy in terms of infrastructure in the Congo was substantial, consisting of roads, railways, airports, maritime and river transport facilities, hospitals and schools. In the field of education, for instance, in the mid 1950s Lovanium University in Kinshasa set up the first small nuclear reactor in Africa to help teach nuclear physics to students.

In contrast, the remarkable infrastructure we see in place in the UAE is largely the country's own, conceived and executed for the most part after the formation of the UAE.

The country lost no time in shaping its own destiny, with an eye towards diversification of the economy away from oil and towards sectors that would provide jobs and careers for Emiratis, as well as for thousands of expatriate workers. Even though the UAE remains firmly attached to its culture and its Bedouin heritage, it has a firm eye fixed on the future.

Many of those who live permanently in the UAE do not, I believe, recognise the pace of change around them as they have become so used to new buildings springing up, new roads being built and the constant swinging of cranes and pouring of concrete.

As someone who lives in Europe, a region suffering from demographic decline, an ageing population and economic uncertainty, I find it refreshing to visit a country with such a firm grip on its economic destiny.


Luc Smets has worked as an economist and consultant for various companies related to mining, including Charter Consolidated in London and De Beers, for over 20 years

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