As the UAE celebrates its 40th birthday, it is looking ahead to a future which is as challenging as its past. The UAE has worked hard to position itself as one of the leaders of Arab states looking to be full members of the global community of nearly 200 nations, while also retaining their Arab and Muslim identity.
The UAE is right to see this as the only way forward and the UAE government has been instrumental in fashioning a new perception of what defines an Arab nation, which has moved far beyond the narrow inward-looking definitions of the past decades. For far too long, the two definitions of what made an Arab nation was, first, how much it supported the Palestine Liberation Organisation's struggle, and second, if its people spoke Arabic.
Focusing on these two issues means that the state of an Arab nation's government and its people were not considered to be defining issues for any Arab nation's identity. This gap had dangerous consequences which allowed far too many Arab nations to remain dictatorial and slovenly for decades, and the UAE was fortunate to avoid this terrible fate.
In far too many Arab countries, the definition of what made an Arab state did not include a commitment to quality education for all its citizens including men and women, a commitment to open business and economic principles, and a genuine interest in defeating global warming and embracing renewable energy. While some of these issues may be defined as global standards, they have deep implications for the way any nation manages its affairs, and need to be at the heart of any Arab nation's identity, as the UAE has achieved.
In the region, the UAE has a special place as one of the smaller nations which have stood up for dialogue and sensible negotiation as the only way to finding long-term answers. This makes it stand out in a region where resorting to violence is all too common. In addition, the UAE has proved that it is willing to put itself to great trouble to bring about regional calm. It has spent a large amount of its money, and the time of its senior government figures, in helping the Palestinians seek better education and services than seemed possible under Israeli occupation.
The UAE has committed its troops to helping refugees in Kosovo during the Nato invasion, and to support displaced people in Pakistan after the disastrous floods last year. Its forces have been with the Nato forces in Afghanistan trying to bring about a more stable future for that sadly troubled country. More of this kind of activity is likely to be a hallmark of future UAE foreign policy.
But the UAE faces one of its largest challenges within its own borders as it continues to wrestle with the issue of how to tackle the poverty and illiteracy of some of its own nationals. Ever since the start of the federation, the UAE has been well aware that its increasingly sophisticated main cities were drawing far ahead of the rural population with alarming speed. It was courageous of the government not to slow the economic growth of the urban centres which might have discouraged or stopped development. But this commitment to open markets means that the federal and emirates governments still have a challenge in coping with the many thousands of UAE nationals who have failed to join the fast-moving economy.
It is important that the governments of the UAE offer respect, education and economic opportunity to their rural poor, since it would become a serious long-term problem to have a disaffected rural and conservative minority who grow to resent the success of the majority of the UAE which has moved into the global economy and has prospered.
The story of the UAE's past 40 years has been a story of success. This success has not been automatic, and has often required extremely hard work and a high degree of commitment from both the country's leadership and the people. But their legacy has been so effective that it is possible to look ahead to the next 40 years with a great deal of confidence.