x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

UAE has gone through its own steady and smooth 'Spring'

The UAE's version of the Arab Spring has stretched over more than 40 years of steady, peaceful national development. It's a model others in the region must envy.

When I meet recent arrivals to the UAE, they often ask me how many years I have been here. When I say that I first arrived over 35 years ago, there's frequently a comment along the lines of "Oh, it must have changed a lot." Yes it has. But how and in what ways?

To answer that question I typically tend to say that the transformation has been dramatic and peaceful. I leave it at that, apart from a caveat that I like most of the changes (though I do regret the loss of so much of what was once unspoilt natural habitat along the coasts, in the deserts and in the mountains).

Most UAE citizens have been born in the years since I arrived, but very few young Emiratis have asked me to describe my memories of the past. I like to think that they learn about it from their parents and grandparents, though I have a sneaking suspicion that many know nothing at all and aren't very interested. That is much more of a challenge to the UAE's national identity than whether girls' abayas have too much multicoloured embroidery or whether teenagers spend too much time in coffee shops or downloading western music videos from YouTube.

But for those who are interested, there are plenty of ways to find out about how the UAE has evolved. There's enough on the internet to explain how the population has multiplied 30 times over since 1971. How small buildings have been replaced by some of the world's tallest skyscrapers. And how a country that once had only a few small hospitals and clinics now offers world-class health care.

But that fails to show that the process of development has been largely continuous since the federation was formed and, indeed, since its founding father, Sheikh Zayed, became the ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966.

The occasional hiccups, such as those caused by the collapse of oil prices in the mid-1980s or the global economic crisis a few years ago that contributed to the slump in the Dubai property market, have been bumps on the road, not events that have thrown the UAE's development completely off-course.

A colleague of mine frequently meets foreign journalists who ask him why the UAE hasn't witnessed disturbances of the type that have racked other countries in the region during the Arab Spring. His answer, invariably, is that the UAE has been going through its own "Spring" for over 40 years - of social and economic development, of women's empowerment, of listening and responding to the concerns of the population, of according to citizens the elementary dignity that is the right of all.

This has ensured that UAE society does not contain within it the overwhelming frustration and pent-up demand for change that have exploded elsewhere in the region.

Instead, led by the late Sheikh Zayed and then by President Sheikh Khalifa, change has been an evolutionary process. The pattern of continuity is a fundamental part of the country's story and there's much for which to be grateful.

There is, of course, a need for further change and development. The UAE, after all, is a work in progress. It's inevitable that remote mountain settlements lack the facilities of major cities but, through investment in the various projects launched over the last few years, the facilities available to those settlements are being improved. Government departments provide services to the public and are responsive to the needs of their customers.

A steadily increasing number of jobs need to be found for Emiratis, particularly in the private sector. There's scope for more popular engagement in the political process and for greater empowerment of the Federal National Council, as its members develop experience and confidence. That will all come as the process of development continues.

None of the above, though, represents a sudden change of direction. The issues can be traced back throughout the history of the federation, even though they have became more complex, like society itself.

A continuous "Spring" of the type the UAE has enjoyed is far removed from the disruption, death and disasters - and the rise of sectarian hatreds - that have been part of the Arab Spring elsewhere in the region.

It's little surprise, then, that the overwhelming majority of Emiratis and of other residents prefer the brand of change the UAE has already been delivering.


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture