The great wealth we possess in our youth and our land

Young Emiratis love the wilderness and their golden sand dunes, but they sometimes love their gadgets and video games more, and here we are talking about the country¿s future leaders.
A group of young people take in the view from the top of Jebel Hafeet in Al Ain. Paulo Vecina / The National
A group of young people take in the view from the top of Jebel Hafeet in Al Ain. Paulo Vecina / The National

Emiratis worry about the region's political turmoil, fear the possibility of a new economic crisis even worse than the one that began in 2008, and are thinking of ways to maintain a flourishing economy after oil runs out, but we need to step back, relax and embrace two of the nation's greatest treasures: its young people and its public lands.

These are not counted in our GDP or our country's net worth, but our public parks, beaches and deserts, and our youths - who should be enjoying them - are utterly priceless.

Unlike many of today's youths who prefer to stare at their iPads, I spent a great chunk of my childhood constructing sandcastles and enjoying barbecues on the kilometres-long beach at Al Raha.

Cycling with friends in Airport Park or Al Mushrif Park was another fun pursuit.

Just last Eid, I took my Bahraini cousins on a road trip to Al Ain. After spending a few days mall-hopping in Dubai, they were sick of the closed environment and man's creations. They wanted to see some of God's for a change.

As their tour guide, I drove them to the top of Jebel Hafeet, where they enjoyed the slightly cooler weather and beautiful views from atop the mountain. We then bathed our feet in the hot springs further down the mountain.

In a grim era shaped by political upheavals and economic downturn, there was something magical about reconnecting with nature.

Standing next to a poor waste collector at the top of Jebel Hafeet made me realise that even though there was a huge wealth gap between us, right at that moment it did not matter.

We were sharing the beautiful views in a state of absolute democracy. The poorest citizen can enjoy a splendid view that even a billionaire is not allowed to purchase.

That day was the highlight of my cousins' stay, and they wondered why so few young people opted for the outdoors.

I must make two points about these treasured public lands, which are enjoyed by visitors and residents alike.

First, they are under threat. Not that the municipality will stop taking care of them, but they face the danger of further urbanisation and construction, which erode their beauty and reduce outdoor space.

Some project managers and businessmen argue that these acreages could accommodate multi-use developments that would generate business for the capital.

The stretches of Al Raha Beach where we once strolled are now packed with residential and hotel properties, and the seafront area has been narrowed and lacks the privacy it once had.

The Government has spent millions in reconstructing the Corniche, which now must be among the world's most beautiful corniches, but one result was that the safe public beach areas were reduced to just about one. Many young Emirati women wishing to swim must hop into their cars and drive for an hour to Dubai Ladies Club to enjoy the privacy, especially since the Abu Dhabi Ladies Club has been shut down.

The second challenge is far more complicated. Young Emiratis love the wilderness and their golden sand dunes, but they sometimes love their gadgets and video games more, and here we are talking about the country's future leaders.

Just take a stroll in any park with someone who has lived in the UAE for a long time and the person will tell you that the number of park visitors on the weekends has declined over the past decade.

The youths are enjoying a far more lavish childhood and teenage life, but are we losing something at the same time?

Obesity and diabetes are increasing in the UAE. The modern Emirati's childhood has moved indoors and has become sedentary, and that harms not only our young people's personal health, but also the country's economic health.

As a result of the increasing rate of diabetes, which the World Health Organization expects to double worldwide by 2030 to affect 440 million people, the country spends millions of dirhams every year treating a disease that is highly preventable by slight lifestyle changes.

The number of Emiratis in the workforce is already low, and if a large portion of the local population is affected by this disease, the chances of Emiratis taking over the expatriate-dominated job market will be doomed.

One way to protect public spaces and wilderness run and to reduce the rate of obesity and diabetes is to promote more outdoor activities such as festivals, cultural activities and concerts - events that would promote movement and also introduce people from other cultures to Emirati heritage. These events could be hosted in different public parks to promote those venues within the population.

The events would also boost economic activities if small stalls were rented to retailers and restaurateurs.

This overall proposal could be achieved through a collaboration between schools, the Ministry of Health, and the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage.

Outdoor activities may leave us exhausted, blistered and sweaty, but we gain perspective from such pursuits - and good health to help us build the country.

Manar Al Hinai, an Emirati, is a fashion designer and writer based in Abu Dhabi. She recently was named an Arab Woman of the Year

Published: September 17, 2011 04:00 AM

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