From Cairo to Istanbul, the Middle East's cities have always been the primary hubs of the region's development. But life in them has not always been safe. Even in Abbasid Baghdad, one of the most important and productive cities in human history, criminals and tricksters were so prolific they were thought of almost as a tribe of their own. Anxious references to the "Banu Sasan", as these rogues were popularly known, can be found throughout historical and literary works.
Hundreds of years later, the safety of cities is an issue that continues to be a matter of concern to the region and beyond. But in parts of the Middle East, life has never been safer. According to Gallup's Law and Order 2021 report, people feel more secure while walking at night in the UAE than anywhere else in the world.
Specifically, the country has a remarkable record on women's safety. According to the UN, an estimated 40 to 60 per cent of women have experienced sexual harassment on the streets of the Middle East and North Africa. Despite this crisis, the UAE is not just the safest country for women in the region, but the entire world, according to The Women, Peace and Security Index published by Georgetown University; the UAE ranked as the country in which women felt most safe walking alone in their neighbourhoods at night.
The capital city Abu Dhabi has further accolades of its own. Earlier this year, global data website Numbeo listed it as the safest city in the world, with Sharjah and Dubai featuring in the top 10. Abu Dhabi has also triumphed in the face of the pandemic. In September, it topped a list of jurisdictions that have best dealt with Covid-19, compiled by analytics consortium Deep Knowledge Group.
Because so many complex factors play a role, few cities – even rich ones – have these levels of security. Urban planning is a crucial one. Tasked with making Paris safer, 19th century official Georges-Eugene Haussmann controversially razed medieval parts of the city to create a more organised, sanitary urban environment that exists to this day. In the UAE, free zones bring order to rapidly developing cities, create centres of excellence and allow tailored legal jurisdictions to help sectors grow.
Another crucial ingredient is a fine balance between being tough on crime and having compassionate law enforcement. In Abu Dhabi, recent legal reforms have loosened restrictions on certain social aspects, while retaining high penalties for abuse. The city's police force also employs "community policing" practices, which emphasise securing the confidence and co-operation of the public, and incorporating non-coercive methods into crime reduction.
But people's prosperity is perhaps the most important factor. Again, there is data that the UAE is a leader in this regard. This year it jumped 10 places to be ranked the fourth-best place in the world to live and work in HSBC’s 14th annual Expat Explorer study. And ever-evolving legal norms, such as a raft unveiled for non-Muslims earlier this month build a sense that the UAE is a home away from home.
This has required long-term, costly planning. But the satisfaction of the UAE's residents shows that investing in safety is one of the best policies a government can pursue. By doing so, in just a matter of decades it is possible to build an oasis of calm, opportunity and safety that people from all over the world can call home.