On a summer's day in 1967, a teenager is walking down the now old Sabkha in Dubai. His breathless friend finds him and tells him that they're recruiting volunteers for the war. A passionate believer in the Arab cause, the teenager signs up immediately and is shipped out. The war's over by the time he makes it to Basra.
My father enlisted because he believed that Jamal Abdul Nasser was a patriot and wanted to free Palestine. Today, he acknowledges that pan-Arabism failed but absolves Nasser from blame. He blames the incompetence of his lieutenants and treachery of his contemporary Arab leaders.
The Islamic awakening, Al Sahwa, was primarily the emancipation of the view that the Arabs lost their wars with the Jews because they left God out of the equation. In other words, the Arabs lost because they effectively stopped being Muslim. Friday sermons were reminding devastated Arabs that they were people that only knew glory after embracing Islam and would only know it again if they embraced it once more. Nowhere did this resonate as vividly as it did in the Arabian Gulf.
As the years went by, Al Sahwa was no longer a phenomena but very much the norm. I often heard elders when reflecting on the liberal 1960s and '70s conclude by saying: "We were living in ignorance." Then came the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which pretty much ushered jihad's pop-culture decade. It would be the last time an American president would speak in defence of the Mujahideen. Recruitment offices were opened across the world — the Gulf included.
This ended with the invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf states' fatal fallout with Osama Bin Laden & Co. Islamism, the very tool that Gulf countries had used to thwart Nasser's pan-Arab ideological march, was now turning against them. Islamic jihad had mutated into terrorism. The 1990s represented a marriage of liberalism and nationalism that would remain uneasy until the 9/11 attacks; after which it would very much be consummated. Tolerance, coexistence and the denouncement of violence were the main products of the marriage.
Impact at home
Today and amid the Arabs' spring and winter, as liberals and Islamists (temporarily?) unite in their call upon (all?) Arab states to reform, Emiratis are bemused by the idea that this could, would or should happen in their country.
The argument for the UAE's little need of an Egyptian revolution or even a constitutional monarchy isn't one of papal infallibility but one of proverbial context.
Maintaining a column for the last three years, I have never been in short supply of things that I could note and recommend to be revamped, improved or totally replaced.
A Dubai-based Kuwaiti friend recently told me that, unlike in his hometown, he feels hopeful in the UAE because of a general sense that ideas can be realised here. And it is precisely because I have hope that I have taken the effort to analyse issues relating to the UAE's development and competitiveness.
The UAE will turn 40 at the end of the year. It has only had two presidents and three prime ministers so far. In other words, it is a young country. Its successes and shortcomings have been the product of the best efforts of individuals, not institutions. Above and beyond the offensive circumstances surrounding the UAE's petition calling for a fully elected Federal National Council (FNC) with legislative powers, I fundamentally disagree with it and will make my case against it.
As I said, the UAE is a young nation that was founded against all odds. It had to adopt an aggressive welfare state model to domesticate much of its wayfaring tribes. Today, as it attempts to diversify its economy and contemplates reinventing that welfare model, a legislating FNC would not aid it in achieving those goals.
Example: Ahmad and Saeed are both running for the FNC and want your vote. Ahmad wants to lower government expenditure, privatise some non-core assets, introduce tax and overhaul the educational system. Saeed wants to raise salaries of government employees by 50 per cent and reduce the retirement age by three years. Who would you vote for? Everyone I've spoken to concedes that Saeed would be our very own Joe the Plumber's candidate. Almost every elected FNC member would be a variation of Saeed. But is that really what the UAE should do right now? As the Bric (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and others continue to climb the ladders of prosperity and innovation, should the UAE blow up its budget and numb its populace? I think it would take Tocqueville's tyranny of the — unaware — majority to new heights.
In a world primarily split between the Washington (now Seoul) consensus and the Beijing consensus, Singapore's shown that with vision, discipline and accountability, successful and unique domestic systems can emerge.
There is no reason why the UAE cannot develop its own consensus. In addition to addressing challenges of cultural creativity, academic innovation, economic diversification and social security, this consensus should end the decade-swaying pendulum of secular liberalism and religious conservatism and replace it with a national consensus that recognises the joint aspirations of the UAE's leadership, businesses, intelligentsia and, most importantly, its society.
Mishaal Al Gergawi is an Emirati current affairs commentator.