As the year draws to a close, I have been thinking about the months that lie ahead. With over 40 years in the UAE behind me but not, I assume, quite so much ahead of me, what would I like to see in 2020?
Leaving aside personal wishes, I would, of course, like to see a thriving economy with greater job security for all. A boost in the property market would be welcome. Continued efforts to modernise and to streamline government would be nice. And where minor problems do exist, as with the procedures to introduce Abu Dhabi’s new tollgates, due to come into operation on Thursday, some more transparency would be reassuring.
More generally, though, where can further steps be taken to keep the country moving forward, complementing the remarkable progress that it has achieved so far?
Some topics are already familiar. We have heard about the importance of women's empowerment. More can be achieved, but its relevance is widely accepted. It is no longer a matter for debate. I would, though, like to see more attention being paid to some of the remarkable individuals in fields that tend to receive little attention, such as scientific research. Last month, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr Mejd Alsari, a physicist from Sharjah. Formerly with the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi, she is now a post-doctoral fellow at the world famous Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, studying materials for use in solar power generation.
She and others like her are engaged in research that is of global importance. It is time, perhaps, that our Emirati scientists got more recognition for their contributions at an international level.
This past year, our Year of Tolerance has seen considerable emphasis on broadening and deepening the concept of tolerance that is such a fundamental part of UAE society. The February visit by Pope Francis has done much to promote recognition here and overseas of our religious and cultural tolerance. I hope that the UAE will continue to disseminate that message. It is something of enormous significance in a world where a nativist populist narrative now thrives, promoting division and discrimination.
There is scope, I believe, for more attention to be paid here at home to other aspects of tolerance, going beyond culture and religion. If tolerance is to be fully achieved, more effort is needed to build a society that not only respects other forms of difference but pays attention to those who face a variety of complex challenges. That will make it easier for those facing challenges to contribute to society. A good start has been made in terms of our people of determination, those who are fighting to rise above handicaps.
Perhaps in the year ahead there could be a concerted effort to tackle what I described a few weeks ago as a "Voldemort illness", something whose name could not be mentioned: the issue of mental health.
If we really want to build an all-encompassing tolerant society, then we need to challenge and to overcome the stigma that prevents people from admitting publicly that, yes, actually they are struggling to cope and would like help. More open discussion of the issue and its many causes might prompt wider debate.
The fact that I am even able to propose these topics as areas for discussion is evidence of how far the country has come in the decades since I first arrived. Back in the mid-1970s, the idea of an Emirati woman being a world-class physicist would have been in the realm of dreams. A project to build an Abrahamic Family House, with a mosque, a church and a synagogue, would have seemed, at best, unlikely. The suggestion that people of determination should be welcomed into society would have sounded rather odd when many of those who were disabled in some way were often just hidden away. And another "Voldemort illness", that of cancer, was just that – something not to be mentioned. That stigma has now largely disappeared.
Lest we forget, all of that has been achieved in a rapidly developing country that has thrived while much of the region has been racked by turmoil. We should never forget our good fortune to have been guided for so many years by our remarkable founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed. Without his leadership, we would not have reached where we are today.
I have always seen the UAE as being a work in progress. There is much yet to be achieved. Looking back, I draw inspiration from the fact that so many challenges have been successfully tackled in the past. In 2020, and in the years to follow, I am confident that we will see progress not only on the issues I mention above, but in much more besides.
Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture