x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

US gun violence reminds us of our fortune to be in the UAE

By many standards, the UAE is a peaceful and law-abiding society, where violence is usually an anomaly. It's good to remember that, especially this week.

We've all been horrified by the tragic shooting at a primary school in rural Connecticut last Friday, in which 20 children and six adults were killed by a deranged gunman. I myself have a child of primary school age and the news of the incident filled me with dread, along with deep respect for the principal of the school, the school psychologist and the first grade teacher, herself only 27, who died as they tried to protect their young charges.

How fortunate we are that in the United Arab Emirates such an event would appear to be almost inconceivable. Long may that remain so.

And yet, the Newtown massacre is not, sadly, an isolated event. As the American president, Barack Obama, noted in his moving address following the killings, such slaughter by lone gunmen is all too familiar. There have been three similar mass shootings in the United States this year: at a mall in Oregon, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and a cinema in Colorado.

So it's not surprising that there has been a renewal of calls for legal controls to be placed on the constitutional right of Americans to carry guns.

In many states, not only can individuals not associated with the armed forces and law enforcement authorities carry a range of deadly weapons - including automatic rifles that are carefully engineered tools for killing - but they can obtain them with little in the way of checks into their backgrounds or mental stability.

In 2010, there were 8,775 deaths in the US caused by gunshots. With a population of 315 million, that is an annual death rate from guns of 1 for every 35,900 people.

In the UAE, with about 8 million people, an equivalent rate would be 222 gun-related deaths annually. Yet so far this year, as far as I can see, there's been one - and that was either a suicide or an accident.

In other words, an individual is 23 times more likely to be killed by a gun in the US than in the UAE.

Nor is American gun violence confined to murders. According to the FBI, an armed robbery takes place in the US almost every five seconds. In the UAE, such crime is so rare that every time one takes place it's headline news.

Another statistic: between 2007 and 2011, death sentences were carried out on 220 people in the US. Two were carried out in the UAE.

The US is, clearly, a more violent society than the UAE, not just in areas of social and economic deprivation - such as rundown inner cities - but also in quiet areas like the small town where the latest mass killing occurred.

Over and above my feelings about the Newtown incident, I cite these figures not to criticise the way of life in the US, a country which, for all of its many faults, has done much to improve the lot of mankind.

I do so, rather, to point out features of the UAE that, to my mind, are often overlooked by the external commentators so eager to find fault with the way of life that both expatriates and citizens enjoy here and to suggest that, somehow, they have something better to offer.

By many standards, this is a peaceful and law-abiding society. Violence is usually an anomaly.

The UAE is by no means perfect, of course. Only 41 years old, it is very much a work in progress. Despite the advances that have been made in areas such as the eradication of human trafficking, the empowerment of women, the Government's firm commitment to cultural and religious tolerance and the promotion of wider political engagement, quite apart from the spheres of social and economic development - there's much that has yet to be achieved. We live in a dangerous neighbourhood, with covetous eyes upon us, and it may, at times, be a bumpy ride.

But despite all that, I will be able to sleep tonight without worrying about the safety of my child at school tomorrow or that an acquaintance may die tonight as an innocent witness to a downtown gang fight. The odds of that, especially compared to many other places, are infinitesimally minute.

And for that, I am profoundly grateful.


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