This year 2015 will go down in history as an extraordinary year for the 44-year-old UAE.
Every day of 2015 was packed with exceptional events, dramatic announcements, multibillion dollar projects and grand plans for the future.
There was not a single day that was ordinary during this exceptional year. The country has been through many eventful years recently, but it has never experienced an avalanche of exceptional moments as in 2015.
To start with, it was an extraordinary day when the UAE unveiled the details of the Emirates Mars Mission, which was announced halfway through 2015.
The compact, hexagonal-section spacecraft built from aluminium and made by young UAE engineers that weighs about 1,500kg including fuel, and measures 2.37 metres wide by 2.90 metres tall will arrive on Mars in 2021 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE.
The Hope Mars probe confirms that the UAE is a country full of dreams, driven by an extraordinary mission with a strong sense of making history not just for itself but for all 350 million Arabs.
Also there was nothing ordinary about the UAE’s swift and decisive move to participate in the nine-month-old Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.
No one expected that the politically cautious and ideologically moderate UAE would make such an extraordinary military move in such a difficult place as Yemen.
The UAE went to Yemen for a purpose and with a clear message to all, especially Iran, that it is a rising regional soft power ready to take tough decisions when it is called upon, and it knows how to fight the fight.
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So far the UAE’s fighting spirit and skills have impressed friends and foes alike. But more importantly it made 2015 the year of maturity for the ever-young UAE.
Electing Dr Amal Al Qubaisi, an architecture teacher at UAE University, as Chairman of the Federal National Council is another extraordinary event of 2015 for the UAE.
This is not just the first for the UAE but also the first for the six Gulf Cooperation Council states and the first for the 22 Arab states confirming the UAE’s lead role as a trendsetter in the region.
2015 will go down in UAE history as the best year for women’s empowerment. In fact, 17.5 per cent of FNC members are women (40), and there are already four women holding ministerial positions in the Cabinet.
Four of the UAE’s Ambassadors, including its Permanent Representative to the UN, are women and four women have been appointed as judges.
And as though this is not enough, UAE women made worldwide headlines when 36-year-old Captain Maryam Al Mansouri, the first UAE and Arab female fighter pilot, was shown flying an F16 in a strike against Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) positions.
When it comes to women’s empowerment, the UAE has always been at its best, but in 2015 it made a surprise leap forward.
The first speaker of the FNC, the Yemen campaign and the Mars probe are extraordinary events, but the real highlight of 2015 was the 26 EU countries’ decision to exempt the one million UAE citizens from the Schengen visa.
The Schengen visa waiver was a major diplomatic breakthrough. It alone amply justifies calling 2015 an extraordinary year for the UAE. The Schengen visa waiver was extraordinary because it was tangible and it was about here and now and not something in the past and not something pending in the distant future.
The Schengen visa waiver is particularly noteworthy in light of the tragic terrorist attack in Paris in November, which led to calls for visa restrictions on Arabs and Muslims travelling to Europe.
The UAE as usual was one step ahead of the game. It would have been ten times more difficult to have any EU country agree to such a move if it had been delayed a year.
Now it is going to be very difficult for all the other aspiring GCC countries to get the same privilege as the UAE.
However, the Schengen visa exemption had nothing to do with luck but everything to do with hard work by UAE diplomacy, which is in its golden age.
UAE diplomacy was at its best this year. The UAE now is a country that has more than 106 visa-free exemptions and ranks 30th worldwide in the power of the passport index.
It took nearly two years of diligent and meticulous backstage work to crack through the tedious and elaborate EU bureaucracy with its numerous committees. The UAE Ambassador to the EU Sulaiman Hamid Al Mazroui said: “Not one dull moment about this whole process. The ups and downs were one thrilling experience of the best of UAE diplomacy.”
He added, “The challenge to UAE diplomacy was how to move from an anti-Arab sentiment to a pro-UAE sentiment. We had to engage in the art of convincing.”
The Schengen waiver was approved by an overwhelming majority vote in the EU parliament in November 2014, but was officially signed in May 2015. It capitalised on the positive image and energy of the UAE as an exceptionally tolerant society where a record of seven million expats are treated decently in a safe environment.
The EU finally voted for the extraordinary UAE. The more the 766 members of the European Parliament learned about the UAE the more they were impressed and convinced that they were voting for a stable and prosperous multicultural society that had the best gender equality record and where 200 nationalities live amicably.
A country that thrives on the official motto that the ‘impossible is possible’ deserves a vote of confidence. The message from the EU was this was not about a simple visa exemption. There was much more at stake.
With this solid annual record of achievement on all levels it is an understatement to call 2015 an extraordinary year for the UAE. In many ways every single one of the past 44 years of UAE history has been extraordinary and there is no reason not to expect the coming year to be just as extraordinary.
Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdullah is professor of political science and chairman of the Arab Council for Social Sciences, theacss.org. You can follow him at twitter.com/Abdulkhaleq_UAE.