Legend has it that when the late Czechoslovakian magnate Thomas Bata, whose name is synonymous with his shoe empire, sent a salesman to Africa to tap into a developing market, the employee returned empty-handed, complaining that there were no opportunities because everyone walked around barefoot. The salesman was promptly fired but the incident – whether true or not – highlights a truism: that challenges can also present opportunities in disguise.
Such fabled inspirational stories do not only exist within the realm of entrepreneurship. The UAE tells an inspiring story itself. Since its founding nearly 48 years ago, the country has achieved remarkable advancements in economic, technological, medical and social spheres. What was once a barren desert is today a flourishing, cosmopolitan nation.
Many thought the UAE desert was an impossible obstacle to overcome. All they saw was never-ending sand and barren land. But the UAE's leadership embraced the dunes and cultivated native flora and fauna. Arabian oryx, once close to extinction, are now thriving in the wild. Today more than 15 million people from around the world visit the UAE every year, in large part to experience its deserts. To meet rising demand from visitors, Abu Dhabi recently announced plans to transform its isolated regions into ecotourism hotspots. Rather than be deterred by vast swathes of desert, the country's leaders had the vision to embrace our distinct geographical beauty and transform it into a cultural, economic and ecological asset.
Another challenge that confronted the UAE was the plunge in oil prices in 2014. But rather than a pushback, energy security concerns have propelled the UAE forward into becoming a global leader in investing in renewable energy and reducing carbon emissions. Today a diversified economy and renewable energy development are core priorities for the government. The UAE has integrated its sustainability measures into several of its national strategies, such as UAE Vision 2021, the UAE National Climate Change Plan 2050 and the UAE Energy Plan 2050. The country is home to the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), an intergovernmental organisation that promotes renewable energy use, as well as Masdar Institute, a graduate-level university dedicated to developing alternative energies. It has also become a global platform for furthering the world's sustainable development; it hosted a number of international summits such as the World Green Economy Summit, the World Government Summit and most recently, the Abu Dhabi Climate Meeting. In June, Noor Abu Dhabi, the world's largest single solar plant with 3.2 million solar panels, began its commercial operation.
The UAE's mindset of transforming challenges into opportunities has underpinned many of its other achievements, from launching the satellite KhalifaSat to hosting the world at Expo 2020 Dubai.
To our east, Singapore was once a water-scarce country. With its small land area, lack of fresh water resources and dense population, it was almost entirely dependent on Malaysia for its water supply. But through creative thinking, holistic planning, advanced technology and persistence, the country has transformed its challenge from water insecurity into an opportunity to develop its water management strategy. Today Singapore is a world leader in water innovation and management. Not only has it achieved water self-sufficiency but it also exports its expertise around the world.
The Asian debt crisis of 1997 and 1998 was among the worst recessions to affect countries in the region, particularly Indonesia and Thailand, plunging their societies into poverty and unemployment. But the economic crisis also offered valuable financial lessons for the future. Many Asian countries underwent structural reforms to strengthen their banking and corporate sectors, establishing a sounder economic foundation than they had previously. These lessons and reforms helped build their resilience to withstand many financial crises later.
We can apply the lessons behind these countries' achievements to our own lives. Challenges are an inevitable part of life. Whether in our professional or personal lives, we have all experienced difficult times. Often, we perceive these challenges as obstacles to our goals. However, the stories of these countries reveal that a challenge is not a roadblock but a crossroad; it is how we respond to that challenge that determines whether it becomes our gravest difficulty or our greatest opportunity. The Korean word for "crisis" is "ui gi", which combines words meaning "danger" and "opportunity", implying that every seeming catastrophe has the potential to be both. If we open our eyes and minds and look for the opportunity in every situation, we will find it – whether it is a shoe market in a barefoot country, an ecotourism destination in the desert, or lessons of resilience and innovation from crises. The process of working through our challenges also empowers us to grow. Challenging situations push us outside our comfort zones, compelling us to expand our imagination, creativity and character.
If we recognise and embrace them as such, challenges can in fact be the greatest gifts – waiting to be opened and enjoyed. Let's not be limited by our challenges, but challenge our limits. These impediments are not boulders in the path ahead but stepping stones that lead the way.
Fatima Al Fahim is a writer and Oxford University graduate in public policy