Special Olympics, Ghadan 21 and themed years: the UAE has got its priorities right

Focusing on the future, the government is promoting start-ups, creating social development and wellbeing programmes


UAE's handball team celebrate their win agains Russia at the Special Olympics World Games in ADNEC.

 (Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

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Next month the UAE will welcome the Special Olympics back to Abu Dhabi. Following the success of the World Games last year, which featured 7,000 competitors from more than 190 countries, the Special Olympics UAE Games Abu Dhabi 2020 will host 650 athletes competing in six sports, including athletics, swimming and volleyball. The games will open on March 19 and the sports programme will run for three days.

Announcing the event last week, Shamma Al Mazrui, Minister of State for Youth, said the 2019 World Games had been a "turning point for people of determination with intellectual disabilities" before adding that the 2020 UAE Games will "build on this annual milestone" and "serve as a platform to increase understanding, tolerance and inclusion throughout the UAE".

The Founding Father's guiding principles and the focus on health, wellbeing, education and prosperity still burn bright today

If you were lucky enough to attend the World Games last year, you will know what an incredible week it was, fusing transformation with inspiration in a true sporting spectacle. Studies have also proved the hosting of the 2019 games delivered a positive impact both in terms of changing perceptions and breaking down barriers among the general population.

They also delivered an economic boost, although that was never the primary or even the secondary goal. The 2020 Games will surely deliver more of the same.

The competitors were the stars last year – as they will be again in 2020 – while the words of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, delivered at the opening ceremony captured the moment. "We send a message to the world," he said, "that nothing is impossible when there is determination."

The World Games were a marquee moment in last year's Year of Tolerance, one that had also witnessed the history making visit of Pope Francis to Abu Dhabi a month before. The return of the Games underscores the country's commitment to inclusion and progress.

The broader process of marking each year thematically in the Emirates tells observers much about the focus of government and, indeed, how the country’s leadership seeks to point the nation towards its future. We have now had six themed years and together they paint a detailed picture of the UAE’s direction of travel.

The first two years were marked by an emphasis on developing the knowledge-based economy (2015’s Year of Innovation) and knowledge acquisition (2016’s Year of Reading), as the nation’s leadership sought to kickstart the discussion on what the country would look like in the post-oil era.

Sheikh Mohamed asked during this period: "The question is, 50 years from now after we have loaded this last barrel of oil, are we going to feel sad?"

He told the Government Summit in 2015 that “if our investment today is right, I think we will celebrate that moment.”

The next three years sought to promote further core values of the country. In 2017, it was the Year of Giving, while 2018 was dedicated as the Year of Zayed and last year was billed as the Year of Tolerance.

At the outset of 2017, Sheikh Khalifa, the President, reminded residents that “our goal is to instil the culture of voluntary service and service to society as a higher value in our institutions and our citizens,” while the Year of Zayed that followed allowed all of us to explore the Founding Father’s legacy and values. Famously, he once said that “citizens are the true resource” of the nation. His guiding principles and the focus on health, wellbeing, education and prosperity still burn bright today.

Tolerance was a natural partner to the previous two years. Their combined focus encouraged us all to think about our place in society and promoting the right priorities.

And so to 2020, which is themed “Towards the next 50” and has two strands: to build a development plan to carry the country forward to 2071 and to mark the Golden Jubilee celebrations next year. It is a year of preparation and planning before a new year of commemoration and celebration.

In Abu Dhabi, some of that preparation and planning is bearing fruit already in the economic stimulus and transformation programme being delivered under the umbrella of Ghadan 21, which is described by the Crown Prince as "our commitment towards community, economy and knowledge."

The programme's core principles include seeking to deregulate the business environment to promoting start-ups and creating social development and wellbeing programmes, in the form of everything from creating cycle paths to fostering mental wellbeing. You can see its impact in street art, community parks, cultural events and the newly opened mangrove boardwalk, as well as in the harder currency of housing and business investment and incentive programmes.

The broader aim, according to Sheikh Khalid bin Mohamed bin Zayed, Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Office, is "to accelerate Abu Dhabi's journey to become one of the best and most inclusive places in the world to do business, invest, work, study and live."

Those are also national aims too, of course. Both the return of the Special Olympics and, later in the year, Expo 2020 Dubai, will provide ideal showcases for that inclusive and expansive ambition.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National