The task of writing a regular newspaper column is not as easy as it may seem. If something irritates, provokes or inspires, a topic springs easily to mind, but at other times the deadline approaches and I am obliged to rack my brains to think of something suitable. Fortunately, so far at least, something has always turned up. I and presumably other columnists are always on the lookout for ideas, however, and it was in that frame of mind that I recently approached an old friend of mine who now occupies a prominent position in Abu Dhabi. What, I asked him, did he think I should choose as a topic?
His said that a more recent column on the way in which customers of duly-licensed and approved providers of health insurance faced problems in getting local health authorities to accept their insurance cover was actually much more useful to him, since it identified an area where it seemed there was scope for the process of delivery of services to the public to be re-examined and improved. Such columns, he said, might occasionally irritate officialdom, but they were of value in terms of providing feedback.
I remembered his remarks last week while I was reading some statements made many years ago by the country's founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed. At the time, the UAE was a very different place, still in the throes of building its infrastructure and with a population that was scarcely a tenth of what it is today. The things we now take for granted, like schools, universities, hospitals, highways and so on were still in their relative infancy. So too was the country's mass media, technologically and in many other ways.
In contrast to the leaders of many other developing countries, whose view of their local media was that it should serve simply as a cheerleader for Government, Sheikh Zayed was of the view that the media not only had a role to play as a source of information for the public but also that it should seek to put forward comments, suggestions and - yes - criticisms. Meeting with local editors and reporters in 1975, he told them: "The duty of the press is to highlight positive developments so that they may increase. At the same time, it is also the right, and the duty, of the press to criticise. We welcome constructive criticism as we want to build our country. In this society, we believe in a man's freedom and dignity and in the freedom of the press as well. We are all partners in opinion-making, policies, planning and execution."
At the time, the population was much smaller, permitting UAE residents, both citizens and expatriates, easier access to officials of all ranks and the process of Government itself was much simpler, allowing such officials to spend more time soliciting and exchanging views. The traditions of a society in which most communication was oral, rather than written (or, now, electronic), were still vibrant. It's not so easy today.
Private exchanges of views remain important, of course, as they do in any society, whether through verbal communication or through the simple firing off of an e-mail to a friend or contact, but the role of the media as a channel of communication has, in my view, become more significant. It needs to take up, more actively, what Sheikh Zayed described as "the right, and the duty, to criticise". Over the last couple of years or so, we in the Emirates have become accustomed to the country being the subject of criticism in the overseas media. Some of that criticism may be to a large extent valid, albeit rarely taking a broad or objective view, but, as Jim Krane, the author of a recent book on Dubai, noted in a column a couple of weeks ago, much is exaggerated and subjective, providing ill-informed commentary that while entertaining, is also ill-informed. It contributes little to a real understanding either of the United Arab Emirates as a country or of the problems that the Government faces. Indeed, in some cases, the misrepresentations in such media coverage actually exacerbate the problems.
Over the course of the next few weeks, The National is planning to hold a series of workshops for its staff on the topic of "What every reporter in the UAE should know". That's a wide-ranging subject and each of the invited speakers will no doubt have their own ideas, depending on their own particular area of expertise or interest. Since the paper is published in English and most of its staff are expatriates, my first recommendation would be that they must strive even harder to recognise, to "know", that the UAE is a culture and a society with its own specific characteristics and components, its own heritage and history and its own way of life, however much that may have evolved and changed over the recent years of rapid development and population growth. Whatever their origins, they are now, albeit temporarily, a part of that society.
A second would be that there is scope for all who live here to contribute to that process of development. Those who know the country the best are those who live in it - and they, rather than external observers, are the best placed to identify not only where there is scope for change but also how such changes can be brought about. The responsibility assigned to the local media by Sheikh Zayed is now of even greater significance than it was when he spoke so many years ago. It would be nice to see "the right, and the duty" of offering constructive criticism of which he spoke being more effectively exercised and discharged.
Peter Hellyer is a writer and consultant who specialises in Emirati culture and heritage