The story behind UAE headlines

Over the course of 2014, the weekday Focus feature has provided in depth coverage hundreds of issues and events both at home and abroad. Here the members of the Focus team pick their story of the year, and reveal what has happened since it appeared.
Syrian refugee children in a camp in Lebanon. Anwar Amro / AFP
Syrian refugee children in a camp in Lebanon. Anwar Amro / AFP

Over the course of 2014, the weekday Focus feature has provided in depth coverage hundreds of issues and events both at home and abroad. Here the members of the Focus team pick their story of the year, and reveal what has happened since it appeared.

Mers

At the beginning of 2014 there was really only one “deadly virus” that people were talking about and it was not Ebola, it was Mers.

The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome has been around now for more than two years but has not turned into the epidemic that people feared.

Since Ebola was declared a world health emergency in March, Mers disappeared into the shadows.

The last major coverage in The National was in April when experts said much more needed to be to trace the source and understand the links between the virus and camels.

But people are still being diagnosed with Mers and a handful are still dying. And little is known about the animal to human connections. Between November 3 and 19, Saudi Arabia reported an additional 18 cases, including four deaths. The previous month it reported 17 cases including five deaths.

A meeting of the World Health Organisation in September determined the number of cases was falling, and transmission in health care setting was generally contained. It did, however, warn of an upsurge in Spring. It gave no indication that the virus would disappear from existence and called for more epidemiological studies of camels in the Middle East and Africa to try to pin down how the virus is jumping from animals to humans.

Camel farm owners have previously dismissed this link, saying their animals are not to blame. With general distrust and confusion, the answers are unlikely to be found any time soon.

* Mitya Underwood

Cultural heritage

One issue resurfaced repeatedly in 2014: the UAE’s cultural heritage and the role that it should play in the present.

In April, we reported on the ways young Emiratis choose to wear national dress and their responses provided an excellent example of how Emirati culture can thrive, not as a thing of the past but as a living tradition.

In November, Tourism & Culture Authority Abu Dhabi and the British Council attempted to address the same issue with the unveiling of their Abu Dhabi Art UAE Designer Programme, a scheme that challenged local designers to engage with traditional crafts while developing prototypes for products fit for the 21st century, but it was in Al Ain that a project emerged which truly succeeded in reconciling Emirati traditions with modernity.

The Sabla Project uses the knowledge, skills and materials associated with the emirate’s traditional palm frond architecture to tackle contemporary issues such as food security, resource scarcity and sustainable development and the scheme’s value has been recognised by the United Nations Commission to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). The Sabla Project will feature at the UNCCD’s third scientific conference in March 2015.

So as the UAE enters its self-proclaimed ‘Year of Innovation’ it is not ‘smart’ urbanism, a drone or even an app that promises most, but a 7,000-year-old technology, proving that the true strength of traditional Emirati cultural heritage lies not in its supposed timelessness, but in its proven capacity for adaptation, reinterpretation and change.

* Nick Leech

Refugees

For just a few moments, they, and I, forgot about the world and its tragic realities.

We forgot about the continuing war in Syria, we forgot how it become the world’s worst refugee crisis in more than 20 years, we forgot about the losses of lives and livelihood, and we forgot that there might not be a home for all the refugees and displaced to go back to.

In my report for The National’s Focus page, I just scratched the surface of what it was like to share my birthday with a group of Syrian refugee children, laugh and compete in foosball table tournaments and give out Eid gifts, made possible through my own money and generous donations from kind souls in UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Writing about their gentle requests and exuberance at getting toothbrushes and toothpastes had a greater impact than I had ever had hoped for from the readers.

Boxes of donation of toothbrushes, toothpaste, medicine and toys arrived at my door with requests to send them along to more children. The story caught the attention of UN officials, who invited me over to speak about the small steps of kindness and what worked and challenges at one of the biggest regional conference on refugees: Investing in The Future: Protecting Refugee Children in the Middle East and North Africa”. I had a chance to offer some solutions, such as giving them jobs at calls centres that need Arabic speaking operators, and a representative from a major telecom company actually noted it down.

Since then, it has only got worse. Funds and aid cuts, financial crisis combined with donor fatigue set in. The number of refugees grows daily, with UN estimates at 6,000 people fleeing Syria every 24 hours. Add to that the newborn children of refugees, born without birth certificates and a new generation of stateless children.

* Rym Ghazal

Mental health

Getting people to talk about their psychological disorders is a difficult task in this region. To many Arabs, seeing psychiatrists immediately translate as being “insane” For this reason, many people shy away from seeking expert advice. n January, two girls gave me the privilege of sharing their stories to a wider audience. The first girl, 25, suffered from Trichotillomania — the clinical name for repetitive hair-pulling and the other, 33, from stuttering. Hasna told how she began to pull hair out at the age of 11, with her family baffled by this behaviour.

Hasna has managed to stop doing this, but she promised in our interview to seek professional help if she relapses. Shaima after much consideration, sought help from a hypnotherapist. The attitude toward seeking mental health treatment is changing with a new generation being more educated and understanding how the experts can help.

Over the years, the UAE has raised the issue of lack of Emirati health experts. In 2013, Zayed University welcomed dozens of psychology students who wished to pursue a profession in this field. Mental health has also been a hot topic in the FNC. Last month, Dr Mona Al Bahar, an FNC member from Dubai, addressed the lack of health services provided in the country and the need for more psychiatrists. The good news is Dubai will soon unveil a new psychiatristic hospital, Al Amal, catering all ages.

* Asmaa Al Hameli

Fish farm

Last January I visited Emirates Aquatech, an indoor fish farm that hopes to one day be the world’s largest producer of Siberian caviar.

At full capacity, the 56,000-square-metre facility in Musaffah aims to produce 35 tonnes of caviar and 700 tonnes of meat a year, while promoting a sustainable breeding programme for the endangered Siberian sturgeon.

At that first meeting with Ahmed Al Dhaheri, the co-founder and managing director of Emirates Aquatech, he revealed that the farm was on the cusp of releasing its signature caviar product, Yasa.

He also spoke of the farm’s plans to export their products across the world, subject to regulatory approval. Later that year, the Yasa line madeits debut in May at The Market, in Abu Dhabi’s Mushrif Mall.

The next month, the company received approval from the United States’ Food and Drug Administration to export to the US and has since entered the Australian market and then Japan. With a European license on the horizon, it appears there is no stopping Yasa.

Mr Al Dhaheri believes part of the product’s international appeal, especially in countries like Japan where the market is very “sophisticated”, is the company’s sustainable business model. He says: “Consumers can still enjoy their caviar, at the same time knowing the species is being very well taken care of — in big numbers.”

As ambitious as it seems to build a Siberian caviar farm in the middle of the desert, Emirates Aquatech is a testament the power of entrepreneurialism over logistical adversity.

* Hareth Al Bustani

Published: December 30, 2014 04:00 AM

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