Amid challenges, UAE policies engage gradual reforms

The UAE has been relatively unaffected by the Middle East's political upheaval, says Dr Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, but major challenges remain.

These have been challenging times for the region as a whole. The Arab spring has dominated the news and engaged policymakers for many months.

The outcome of these momentous events of historical proportions has not yet settled to produce an accepted conclusion. In many cases, revolutionary youths and activists have been sidelined in favour of organised political operatives. Time will tell what sort of society will emerge from these months of turmoil.

In the UAE, we have been less affected by the events of the Arab spring, partly due to our economic success and partly due to the legitimacy of the political system.

Throughout these difficult months the UAE has continued to provide its citizens and residents (including hundreds of thousands of Arabs) with a secure and stable livelihood and an opportunity to prosper economically and to thrive socially.

Yet, throughout the Arab spring the UAE has been criticised from various quarters. Detractors include Islamist groups emboldened by political success and dismayed by the UAE's open society and its moderate approach in defining the role of religion in everyday life.

Further criticism was directed from a number of NGOs unwilling to acknowledge the achievements of the UAE, but quick to point out alleged shortcomings. Many of these critics are trying to portray the UAE in a negative light with very little reference to our many achievements.

An objective perspective needs to take into account the goals of the UAE, and measure its success in relation to these goals. Additionally, a fair assessment entails an understanding of regional history and a comparative assessment of the successes and failures of our region.

Any opinion that only highlights our political "failings" and national security concerns, while ignoring the regional context and its dangers, will appear as a condescending monologue. Many recent news reports fall into this category.

The UAE's end goal is not a liberal multiparty system. This model does not correspond with our culture or historical development. There is insufficient evidence that a multiparty system works in the Arab world.

An important component of this model is the organised political party. We have a natural aversion to political parties because in the Arab world these parties have disintegrated into tribes, clans and sectarian groups. Recent developments in the Arab world augment this view, and political parties remain polarised, threatening the unity of the state and the cohesiveness of the society.

The UAE seeks to improve governance, to build institutions and create opportunity for its citizens. It has made significant steps in enabling women and accepting their presence and talent in all walks of life.

We have also worked hard to improve the social welfare and health services in our society and communities.

The UAE has tackled the thorny issue of education to produce a chance for an educational system that can compete on a global stage. This goal has not been easily achieved and has earned us the wrath of political Islamists who are traditionally obsessed with control over the educational sector.

In 2006, we began our first small steps at institutionalising political participation. Limited elections were introduced and the electorate was greatly enlarged in the 2011 elections.

At the outset we argued that our gradual approach should be judged in its entirety. To the critics of the approach we say that it enjoys the support of the majority of our citizens, and it is a home-grown solution that we believe will work for us. I have to add that if something goes wrong, we alone will be picking up the pieces.

While the Arab world has been in flux due to the Arab spring, the UAE has, notwithstanding regional events, tried to look forward. It has continued to develop its infrastructure and its ambitions in developing a civilian nuclear power programme as well as making its foray into alternative energy. In a small way, we are saying that we want to be part of a wider world beyond the tribulations of our surroundings.

The UAE's religious tolerance has also come under attack by a small group of local Islamists. Traditional government sanctioning of community churches has been criticised. Churches in the UAE have been part of our tolerant landscape for many years, even before the formation of the state. Given that we welcome so many non-Muslims to reside in our country, surely we must provide them with places of worship?

The arrest of various Islamist activists in the UAE is not an event to celebrate. It poses a challenge that can alter the nature of our society, which we view as a small and tightly knit one.

The charges against this group will be governed by our laws and customs. Our courts will decide the merits of these charges.

What is clear is that the dynamics of the Arab spring have created various challenges in different societies. The political success of Islamic parties in many Arab lands has emboldened their protégés.

These are some of the challenges of our region, and they are reaching our borders. I believe we will be able to tackle them while maintaining the integrity of the overall vision of the UAE.

Dr Anwar Gargash is Minister of State for Foreign Affairs