As a young, passionate state, the UAE is forward-looking, unlike older nations that gaze back on their history and to a nostalgic, remembered past. Young governments speak the language of keeping up with technological developments and enhancing competitiveness with overwhelming curiosity and practical measures and acknowledge the need for continuous reform and development of governance.
The Emirati discourse has introduced new terminology to the Arab policy lexicon and in the wider Middle East, from Iran to Turkey and Israel. The UAE has created ministries for happiness, tolerance and artificial intelligence, advanced women's rights, hosted open and sustained discussions between the world's leading thinkers and, most recently, fostered an unprecedented leap in interfaith relations.
By contrast, the public policy discourse in Turkey under president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rolled back modernism, imposing on the country instead an expanding religious discourse that belongs in the wider Muslim Brotherhood project he sought – and failed – to impose on Arab countries when this extremist faction hijacked the Arab uprisings. In Iran, the revolution created a theocratic republic in 1979 and deepened the animosity between religions and sects. Iran sought also to export its Revolutionary Guard model to Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. It restricted freedoms, shrank rights – including women’s rights – and fuelled proxy wars in Arab nations.
Israel’s discourse, meanwhile, also manipulates religion to impose a purely Jewish state that discriminates against non-Jews in Israel. It stems from a siege mentality but also from believing it is America’s pampered child, to circumvent and annul the two-state solution and with it, the Palestinian people and statehood.
The Emirati model seems to rise above these examples. The UAE leadership speaks the language of comprehensive development, improving living standards, preparing for the future and transforming the UAE into a global hub planning the future of humanity. That was clear last week when two emirates hosted two major international summits. In Dubai, the World Government Summit brought together 4,000 leading decision-makers, policymakers and creative and tech leaders. Abu Dhabi then hosted the Milken Institute, bringing together leading business, policy and thought leaders from around the world.
Addressing the WGS opening ceremony, UAE Minister of Cabinet Affairs and the Future and chairman of the summit Mohammad Al Gergawi spoke about the impact of rapid transformations on people’s lives, calling on governments to accommodate and keep pace with change by altering their strategies. Imagination and ideas are the most important commodity in the future, he said, and those who possess them possess the future. He said that future economic wars will be wars of ideas but insisted that governments do not drive change, they only try to respond to them and adapt as big corporations control information and produce disruption. He also spoke about the UAE’s experience under the leadership of Sheikh Zayed and how he “imagined how the UAE should be, then designed it and executed” his plan. In short, imagination has been the most precious commodity in the experience of the UAE, while some other governments in the region have stifled imagination, ideas, creativity and happiness for their own vindictiveness, corruption and authoritarianism.
During the Abu Dhabi summit, Khaldoun Al Mubarak, chief executive officer and managing director of Mubadala Investment Company, compared the experiences of the UAE and Libya, two countries of similar size, natural resources, desert landscape and initial Bedouin background. He said it might not have seemed likely in 1971 but the UAE has left Libya in the shade. The reason for the disparity, he added, was one word: leadership. He said the reason for the Emirates’ success was the focus on people and their needs.
The Dubai summit focused on the future of work in the 21st century and innovative models for employment. There were seminars about global challenges, fighting extremism through hope, the role of women in post-conflict community building and how to achieve better and longer lifespans. The scope was broad, from future media and future government to artificial intelligence in healthcare, new types of medicine and designing future societies. In short, in all these discussions, humans came first.
At the Milken Institute summit, the themes ranged from the future of technology and banking, building the cultural infrastructure of the future, reviving trade and investment in the Red Sea region, a creative economy, the treatment of diseases and start-ups in the Middle East.
It was both reassuring and informative to hear the forward-looking language, different from the political discourse prevailing elsewhere in and about the Middle East. The US-backed Middle East Conference in Warsaw, which was attended by about 70 states, was an important milestone in the effort to highlight Iran’s subversive role in the region. It was also an occasion to reaffirm US commitment to its policy on Iran.
The Warsaw summit was clearly a meeting of an expanding regional axis led by Washington, against a shrinking axis led by Russia, which held a summit in Sochi under the Astana process. The common denominator between the two sides, however, is the vagueness, divisions, differences and lack of trust. Moscow does not trust Ankara or Tehran, and vice versa. Half of those who came to the meeting in Warsaw do not trust the continuity of US policies while Washington itself lacks clarity, in light of its president’s conduct. All this highlights the need for a new discourse, because the old one has become stale and exhausting.