x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

UAE's tradition of dialogue more relevant than ever

Tradition of communication between the the UAE's Rulers and its people remains vibrant and relevant.

Like most people, in recent weeks my attention has been gripped by the sudden wave of unrest that has spread throughout the Arab world. After Tunisia and Egypt, the focus of attention is Libya, now seemingly headed for a drawn-out conflict as Colonel Muammar Qaddafi and his cohorts brutally cling to power, although any legitimacy they may once have had is long gone. Closer to home, there have been protests in Bahrain and Oman, although fortunately dialogue rather than conflict offers the way forward.

Foreign press coverage has often been dramatic and excited in tone, but there has been a lack of analysis. Overseas media have too often adopted the over-simplified suggestion that the entire Arab world can be lumped together. It brings to mind another, now discredited, "domino theory": during the Cold War, it was widely believed that if one country fell into the Soviet Union's orbit, others would inevitably follow.

The Arab world extends from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and, and although there is an inchoate sense of nationalism that links the 22 members of the Arab League, these are very different countries in many ways. Each is defined by its own geographical boundaries, population size, levels of development and education, wealth (or poverty) and system of government. No single rule can be applied to such a mixed group of countries - and the factors that contribute to unrest in one country do not necessarily exist in its neighbour.

For anyone who has lived in the UAE, it is clear that the country has its own character. In the context of unrest in the region, it is worth examining how the Emirates' history has shaped the current state of affairs.

One aspect, of course, is that it is a federation of seven individual emirates created about 40 years ago by Rulers led by the late Sheikh Zayed with the intention of following a single path to development. This was a federation built on consent, unlike the short-lived union between Egypt and Syria, which was an agreement between leaders but never enjoyed popular support and quickly fell apart.

Moreover, the UAE Rulers themselves were representatives of a system of traditional government that had enjoyed legitimacy for generations. They were not parvenus who had risen to power on the back of a tank brigade or sought to preserve their positions by force. As a member of the Al Nahyan family once told an American journalist: "My family has ruled this emirate, by consent, for over 200 years."

Within the newly created UAE Federation, there were wide disparities in access to resources. From the outset, Sheikh Zayed ensured that Abu Dhabi's wealth was used to fund development for all, a process that continues today. Most recently, there was the announcement last week of the plan of the President, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, to invest billions of dirhams in energy and water supplies in the Northern Emirates. Much more investment, I suspect, is still to come.

The extent of development still varies throughout the country. A small village on the east coast or a tiny settlement in the heart of the mountains can never compare with major cities, while internal migration for employment opportunities still needs to be addressed. But there has been an effort to include every community in the shared fruits of investment in infrastructure and social services, even if urban areas have developed more rapidly.

As a result, the long history of disputes and conflict between the emirates has been replaced over the years by a widespread acceptance among Emiratis that they are UAE citizens first, regardless of their strong loyalties to their home emirate.

Unlike some of the countries that have seen protests over the past weeks, the UAE has been blessed with valuable natural resources, including of course oil and gas. An open economic policy has encouraged the private sector to flourish, helping to spread the wealth despite the adverse effects of external factors that have sometimes buffeted the region.

This is not to suggest that the United Arab Emirates has none of the problems that have come to the fore in other parts of the Arab world. There are, for example, thousands of young Emirati college and university graduates who are looking for, and have a right to, satisfactory employment. There are parts of the country's national infrastructure that require considerable improvement - schools and health services among them, in addition to transport, water and electricity networks.

There is also a need to engage more of the country's citizens in a debate about the future of society. This can be achieved in part through an expansion of the role and accountability of the Federal National Council, and the recently announced decision to substantially increase the size of the FNC electoral colleges in each emirate is a good step forward. But there should also be a wider discussion of issues promoted through the local media.

In the UAE, there has long been a tradition of discussion between Rulers and their people, based on the practice of open dialogue in the majlis. While that tradition has become somewhat attenuated as a result of the complexities of modern life and the rapid population growth among citizens, it remains both relevant and vibrant. Proposals, suggestions and, yes, complaints, do get heard and acted upon.

In today's circumstances, this time-honoured feature of UAE society will once again prove its worth.


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