In recent months, the greatest source of criticism of the media has been the Panglossian gloss that it has managed to put on the state of economic affairs, choosing to “spin” the story, rather than “criticise” some of the failings.
Indeed, it has become fashionable to be a cynic in an era of instant communication. No narrative spreads as fast as “bad news”, especially under the guise of authentic witness testimony floating around in the form of forwarded WhatsApp messages that we have all received. These bemoan the latest series of bad economic or falling asset prices.
Why, the traditional questioner asks, not call a spade a spade and admit that times are tough, rather than attempt to exert a positive narrative?
This angst is not new — we see it in every recession, not only in the UAE but throughout the world. However, when history books are written, these recessions are often looked at in hindsight with the positive spin of “perfect opportunities for buying”.
Curiously, even the Great Depression of 1929, is viewed under the lens of a) government failure to not address the malaise quickly enough and b) as spawning “The New Deal”, a welfare state that protected the average citizen. (This itself is a contradictory tale for it admonishes and praises the government at the same time for causing the malaise while simultaneously solving it). In retrospect, commentary about the greatest economic collapse of the 20th century is rewritten with a positive spin. This, however, was not true at all, if you looked at the commentary generated at the time. Rage-filled invectives were hurled at from every direction, with every rumour racing through the country, regardless of its source or authenticity.
The worse the news, the more credible it was deemed. Underneath this psychosis, stand basic premises that bring the idea of any country into question. The idea of economic liberty — fundamental to the UAE — cannot be always squared off against the transformation that it sparks off and resultant insecurity that it unleashes. Traditional capitalistic narratives lead to wealth concentration. Leftist systems fail as it inhibit the individual impulse for enterprise, and mixed economies suffer from an ideology that is fundamentally reactive rather than responsive.
This has fed, more than ever, the narrative of cynicism and indignation. It is pertinent to note that the rise of this indignation has mirrored the rising rate of change caused by economic and cultural experimentation on the one hand, and the resultant reactionary elements seeking to put the genie of globalisation back into the bottle on the other.
It is clear that the centre of gravity has shifted again, from science and economics to mass media. How the message is communicated is as critical (if not more) as what the message is.
But the impulse that drives mass media is different from the impulse that drives science and economics; the latter is driven by a process of creativity, the former is fuelled by the noise of despair.
It is important to listen to both sides. How one chooses to do so ultimately becomes the driving force behind the country’s progress and defines its very essence of being.
The UAE has not been hung up on European or American dogma or ideology. It has its own “frontier mentality”, and has exploited the opportunity to cherry-pick what was best of the West, and eschew the rest.
Partly, as a result, the model of development, both economic and social, has been fiercely practical, immediately and useful responses to the evolving world. This pragmatism grounds its society even as the world continues to change radically, often in ways that are unpredictable and even dangerous.
In the UAE, with its many immigrant groups, this pragmatism has spawned many successful companies and narratives of growth and leisure. At the same time, the ideas of the “growth movement” always risked being taken too far, bringing its own set of problems.
It has been this funambulistic exercise that we have been witnessing (at an accelerating pace) since the creation of the union 47 years ago.
A country that is teeming with immigrants who do not share a common heritage, the UAE has become a natural home ground for experimentation across an array of industries — from architecture, to urban growth to science and even media.
Instead of the grand all-embracing ideas of America or Europe, or the mystical notions of the East, the UAE has preferred more practical, and even more limited ideas that work, relishing the difference from the rest of the world, as it seeks to engage the future on its own terms.
This pragmatism, in many ways, is the country’s most precious asset.
Sameer Lakhani is Managing Director at Global Capital Partners.