The UAE's rise rests on two critical decisions Sheikh Zayed made in 1971

A succession of leaders have committed to the vision of building a nation that is Muslim, modern and moderate

Rare and old photos of Abu Dhabi from the collection of Dr Abdul Rahman Makhlouf who was a close friend of Sheikh Zayed and had planned Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The Nationa.
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When the UAE observes Union Day today, it will be celebrating an unusual success story in the world. The UAE’s population is just under 10 million of which 12 per cent are Emiratis, but its impact on global affairs and its contribution to overall human accomplishment exceeds that of many larger countries.

Starting out as a union of seven relatively less-known emirates in the Arabian desert 52 years ago, the UAE is now one of the world’s leaders in cutting-edge technology. It is the first Arab and Muslim country to launch a mission to Mars. It ranks 10th in the 2023 Global Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Forum, which assesses the economic capacity of countries to compete globally.

The UAE also occupies first position in the 2023 Global Passport Power Rank Index and is one of the top 10 donor states providing official development aid to those living in less fortunate circumstances. Its achievements are not just because of its oil wealth but the outcome of sensible policy choices by a succession of leaders committed to the vision of building a nation that is Muslim, modern and moderate.

At the time of its independence, the UAE’s Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, made two critical decisions that put the country on the path to success. The first was to eschew political Islam and ensure that maintaining tradition would not come at the cost of embracing contemporary ideas. The second was to embrace a positive nationalism, based on shared aspirations, instead of the negative nationalism chosen by many post-colonial states, based on antagonism towards an enemy or adversary.

It is not the case that the UAE did not have territorial disputes with other countries. But Sheikh Zayed, and his sons, the late president Sheikh Khalifa and President Sheikh Mohamed, did not allow these disputes to obstruct pragmatic decision-making.

Over the decades, the UAE has built a reputation as a country that values talent

The UAE invested its oil wealth in its people by building world-class infrastructure, healthcare facilities and educational institutions. Education was a key priority from the beginning, as Sheikh Zayed considered it to be the way forward for creating an inclusive and prosperous society. In 1975, adult literacy stood at 58 per cent among men and 38 per cent among women. Today, literacy rates for both genders stand at 95 per cent.

The UAE’s investment in education and openness to learning and competing in the global marketplace has led to some of the world’s best universities establishing programmes and campuses in the country. As a result, a population that lived in palm-frond houses transformed into a highly educated and skilled population within a generation, working alongside large numbers of expatriates. The presence of citizens of 190 countries helped create a cosmopolitan outlook among Emiratis, in addition to helping the UAE draw on global talent in its own development.

Over the decades, the UAE has built a reputation as a country that values talent and has ended up attracting the world’s most skilled individuals, innovators and creative minds. About $44 billion in remittances annually are sent from the UAE to countries around the world, primarily in the Global South.

The top five recipient countries for remittances from the UAE in 2021 included India, Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines, with India receiving half of these annual remittances. These remittances are critical to the economies of these countries. As a Mastercard survey in 2022 showed, 51 per cent of UAE residents who sent money to family and friends believe they would have struggled financially without their support.

As an oil-producing country, the UAE recognised its responsibility in embracing sustainability and environmentally friendly energy policies earlier than many others. It is currently chairing the UN Climate Change Conference or Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC, commonly referred to as Cop28, in Dubai.

The UAE has also become a global financial hub. According to the 2023 World Investment Report of the UN Conference on Trade and Development, foreign direct investment inflows to the country in 2022 crossed $23 billion. The UAE manages extensive investments abroad, totalling more than $1 trillion through multiple sovereign wealth funds, as well as through several emirate-level, government-related investment corporations.

It is, among Muslim-majority countries, one of the earliest investors in innovation, entrepreneurship and technology. Vision 2021, National Advanced Sciences Agenda 2031 and Open Labs are policies launched by the UAE to support research and innovation in science and technology.

The UAE, like any other country, has its critics. But few would deny that it has become a model for religious inclusion in the region. Since 1971, the UAE government has demonstrated its commitment to inclusion, implementing laws that protect religious freedom and programmes that foster interfaith understanding. It is home to 40 churches and 700 ministries. In 2019, the UAE partnered with Unesco to restore Christian churches in Iraq destroyed by ISIS.

Two Hindu temples now operate in Dubai, and several cremation facilities in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah provide Hindu burial rites. The UAE’s first Sikh temple opened in Dubai in 2012 and the country is also home to Parsis, Bahais and Druze communities. The UAE’s economic success, technological ambitions, and its growing international influence are largely the outcome of the culture of tolerance fostered by its leaders and their preference for pragmatism over hardline ideologies.

Published: December 02, 2023, 4:00 AM