x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

As a new year dawns, a look back on a tumultuous decade

There are many reasons not to be hopeful but the next decade will be far more peaceful if we choose to have a fresh, less fearful outlook.

"Every great situation gets a mention, and every time has its great men," states an Arabic proverb. Looking back on this decade as we approach a new year, there are events and names that are certainly worth a mention.

We bade farewell to Arab leaders such as Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of the UAE; Yasser Arafat, the face of Palestinian revolution; Hafez al Assad, the president of Syria who ruled with an iron fist for over three decades; and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, who established the Saudi constitution and Consultative Council. We also saw the fall of Iraq's strongman, Saddam Hussein.

I grew up with these figures, believing that they were invincible. This decade proved otherwise. It was the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri and 21 others in Beirut that showed me how vulnerable even the greatest of men are. It also showed me the uncertain trajectory of human events. Who knew that his murder would set off mass protests and eventually lead Syria to end its military presence in Lebanon? His death may have more consequences yet.

Overall, it wasn't a great decade for Arabs and Muslims. While it may be an oversimplification to narrow events down to a single day, many believe that the world was plunged into an "us versus them" dichotomy with the September 11 terrorist attack on the US, broadcast into homes around the world.

The term "terrorist" never seemed to disappear from the news and frequent fears of "imminent" attacks seemed to define the decade. Arabs and Muslims replaced Russians and Germans as the "bad guys" in the movies; the niqab debate in Europe demonstrated a growing intolerance in the West for Muslims, and al Qa'eda's leader, Osama bin Laden, became one of the most infamous figures of the decade.

War in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and the continued conflict between Palestine and Israel continue to be disheartening. These wars never seem to disappear from our history books.

I am reminded of my Arab roots whenever I travel to and from war zones and now in far more peaceful settings. Due to post-September 11 security vigilance, airports started introducing all sorts of procedures, with some leaving you standing stark naked, or nearly, while being frisked "randomly".

Some positives did emerge from the decade, however. The world saw the election of America's first black president, Barack Obama.

And though the outcome was positive, a tragedy instigated warming relations between Russia and Poland after a plane crash in April of this year killed 98 of Poland's top officials, including President Lech Kaczynski.

The world also mourned the loss of an icon: the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, whose music remains popular even in the most conservative settings. I can't remember a wedding in Saudi Arabia that hasn't played his music, with women in one hall and the men in the other.

It was a decade of great connectivity but also digital overload. From iPads to iPods and BlackBerrys to Facebook and Twitter we found many more ways to distract ourselves. This summer, Facebook boasted more than 500 million members, many of whom no doubt trawled WikiLeaks when the site released classified US documents from the State Department and the Pentagon.

But to celebrate technological advancement, when so much of it is merely for our own entertainment, seems inappropriate when there are a host of medical and societal issues that must be solved. Malaria kills more than a million each year. Outbreaks of the H1N1 swine flu and the avian flu show that we should be introducing reforms in the treatment of animals and livestock. While the decade before last ended with fears about mad cow disease, we still have few other solutions for helping sick animals than to cull them.

There are many reasons not to be hopeful but the next decade will be far more peaceful if we choose to have a fresh, less fearful outlook. We should still dare to dream the impossible: peace for all living beings.