Why we will look back at 2020 as a critical year in UAE history

As the founding fathers did at the start, today's leadership has taken radical steps to shape the next 50 years

The celebration of National Day marks the beginning of the UAE’s 50th year of existence, a milestone in its history. It’s traditional at this time to look back and to review the achievements that have been made since that day in 1971, when the country first emerged on to the international stage. There’s a continuing relevance to that approach, but this year, it seems perhaps more appropriate to mark the occasion in a different way. Recent events and announcements, I believe, suggest that 2020 and the year that lies ahead may well prove to have been not just a milestone, but a significant turning point in the country’s history.

One reason for that assessment, obviously, is the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Everyone has been affected, from the highest to the lowest in the land. The impact varies, of course, not just in terms of whether or not one has caught the virus or has been affected because of quarantine imposed on one's family. The ability to travel has been curtailed, although in Dubai at least a return to something resembling the "Before Time" is well under way.

The regular pattern of education has been disrupted. For hundreds of thousands of people, these past few months have seen their time in the Emirates come to an end, at least for the time being. Many others have lost their jobs.

epa08671211 Flags of the United States, Bahrain, Israel and the United Arab Emirates during a signing ceremony of the 'Abraham Accords' on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 15 September 2020.  EPA/Chris Kleponis / POOL

As the UAE moves forward, major adjustments will need to be made. A move to more online working, and education, seems probable. Some businesses, large and small, will have put up the shutters for good. There will be permanent changes to the patterns of consumption, while demand in many sectors may remain depressed for some time to come.

While the points mentioned above, and much more, may prove to be a turning point in the country’s process of development, there is also a swathe of other changes that will have a substantial impact.

Internationally, of course, the Abraham Accord and the rapidly developing relationship with Israel represent a hugely significant step in terms of the UAE's foreign policy.

At home, the full impact of recent changes to legislation affecting personal lives, for both citizens and expatriates, is yet to be seen, but will definitely affect the way many people live.

These, along with changes to visa regulations, may provide a boost to the drive not only to attract people from overseas but also to encourage more inward investment. That process, it seems, is already under way, judging by the positive buzz pervading the property market.

The strategy of attracting more foreign investment, and, in consequence, the creation of new employment opportunities, is also likely to receive a further boost from last week’s announcement that non-citizens will now be able to establish onshore companies without the need for an Emirati partner. That will present a real challenge for those who have become accustomed to serve as silent partners in businesses, providing just the use of their name. The agile, who make a real contribution to such businesses, will survive.

Taken together, the impact of the pandemic and changes in regulations, both in terms of personal life and in terms of business and investment, may well lead to a substantial re-setting of the nature of life in the Emirates in years to come.

The changes we have seen have been driven by both the need to respond to the unforeseen pandemic and by a recognition that local society has reached a stage in its evolution where something other than incremental changes is required.

From that, on the occasion of this 2020 National Day, there are, I think, some lessons to be drawn in assessing the very nature of our Government.

In the past, even at times of huge challenges, such as the collapse of oil prices in the 1980s or the impact of serious upheavals in the wider region, Government has generally chosen to follow a well-charted path towards the future.

It would have been possible to continue to do so, with a few adjustments and tweaks here and there.

Such might, indeed, have been the approach of a Government that was averse to innovation, or one that, perhaps, had become slightly sclerotic, rigid and unresponsive, which had lost the ability to adapt to radically changed circumstances.

Brand Dubai unveils mural on Hatta Dam commemorating UAE’s founding fathers. Courtesy Dubai Media Office

Looking back to the earliest days of the Emirates, however, we can see that when an enormous challenge was presented, that of the unexpected announcement of the British withdrawal from the Gulf, the UAE's leadership, in particular that of Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi and Sheikh Rashid of Dubai, was prepared to take radical steps to set out on an uncharted path towards the future.

That set the course for the successful first half a century of the UAE. Now, however, the landscape is different, in ways we could not have imagined.

The changes through which we are now living may prove, with hindsight, to have laid down the foundations for a new, and increasingly successful, path for the next 50 years.

Peter Hellyer is a UAE cultural historian and columnist for The National

Peter Hellyer

Peter Hellyer

Peter Hellyer is a UAE cultural historian and columnist for The National