Tradition of tolerance is a model during turbulent times
One of the key features of the UAE's philosophy and way of life is its tolerance and respect for religious beliefs, as Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education, noted in an interview last week.
That approach has a long history. With the country's most recent Anglican church inaugurated in Ras Al Khaimah last week, it's worth recalling that the first modern church in Abu Dhabi was built in the 1960s on land donated by Sheikh Nahyan's grandfather, Sheikh Shakhboot bin Sultan. Similarly, the support for religious tolerance shown by the late Sheikh Zayed and by other rulers of the emirates is well known. So, too, is the determination that the UAE should be a country where people of different ethnic and cultural origins can coexist peacefully.
That tolerance and respect are not only fundamental to the nature of the state; they are also closely associated with a more general belief in human rights.
These beliefs underline that the UAE is an open society, where all are welcome, provided that they adhere to the country's laws and broad guidelines about due respect for its traditions and culture.
People from more than 200 different nationalities have taken that opportunity. And without them, it would have been impossible for the country to have enjoyed the same degree of success developing its open economy.
Moreover, the display of that tolerance is, in itself, an indication of the way in which the country's leaders show their respect for the numerous separate communities that make up the kaleidoscope of the Emirates today. The free exchange of views benefits everyone, both Emiratis and expatriates, and both groups should know that the government not only leads but it listens, too.
There is also a relevance to this tolerance that goes beyond the borders of the UAE.
Over the course of the last year, we have seen in the Arab world an upswelling of protests against governments that have forgotten how to listen to the voices of their people and who consequently have failed to recognise the need for change.
The UAE, sometimes openly and sometimes in a more discreet manner, has made plain its views that such change is to be welcomed.
At the same time, the UAE has shown the necessary caution regarding the actions of those, both from within the region and its neighbours, who have used the opportunity to seek to create or to deepen divisions between ethnic, cultural or religious communities in the countries involved.
The UAE has not been alone in supporting change in the Arab world, whether through military means, as with the contribution to the internationally mandated "no-fly" zone over Libya, or through diplomatic pressure.
These efforts are in addition to the extensive humanitarian assistance that has been provided to people who have been displaced by conflict.
There is a further form of support that the UAE can provide, not in terms of practical aid, but by the example it offers for civil society.
That support could simply be the restatement, again and again, of our belief that the respect and tolerance for people of different religious views or ethnic origins, which characterises the UAE, should be fundamental to the success of any state.
The forces of sectarianism are gathering strength, pitting one community against another. Yet, as anyone with the slightest knowledge of the history of the Arab world will know, the region has thrived on its religious, cultural and ethnic diversity since time immemorial.
As one example, those who would drive Christians from the Arab world - as over 800,000 have fled Iraq - or promote a fundamentalist view of politics are not only rejecting the lessons of history, they are contravening the essential humanity of the message of Islam.
While others promote a skewed fundamentalist message, the UAE will continue to emphasise the view that governments must encourage and foster the role of all of their people, regardless of their beliefs or other differences.
Peter Hellyer is a writer and consultant who specialises in Emirati culture and heritage
Updated: March 13, 2012 04:00 AM