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The UAE strides confidently along the path to the bright future it seeks to achieve for itself and its sons and daughters, as ambitious plans and strategies aim to place it at the heart of global transformations in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI). The goal is to win the race, between advanced and emerging countries, to harness the power of science and knowledge as the most important drivers for development, progress and prosperity, now, and in the foreseeable future.

In previous articles and studies, I have touched on the issue of the 4IR, its potential impact and the UAE’s efforts to master the changes that come with it. In this article, I will focus on another important aspect related to the future of our dear country and its ambition to lead the world in all fields of development and progress. It is an area closely associated with societal development, as we prepare UAE society for the age of the 4IR and AI. We do not lack the political will, and God has given us a wise leadership with the vision, ambition and determination to work miracles. We may need, however, a deeper awareness and a more effective response at the societal level, in order to keep pace with our leadership’s ambitions.

The societal development, which I touch on in this article, is reflected in efforts to enhance the abilities of all members of society so that they become effective in realising comprehensive development goals. In this way, society can be transformed into one that enjoys higher standards of living. It is an ongoing process, especially in dynamic societies, that is a continuous pursuit for excellence, as we look toward the future. It is also a comprehensive process, in the sense that it is not limited to a particular group or a small number of people, but involves all members of society.

The process of cultivating human resources, and nurturing capacities and skills to serve the goals of society, is the very essence of societal development. This process is the ultimate goal of any society striving for progress and modernity. It is the foundation on which the UAE built its pioneering development experiment. The founding father, the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, was convinced that people are the true wealth of the homeland. This is reflected in his well-known quote: “Building human capital is more important than building cities.” Regardless of the wealth a state might accumulate, its ability to capitalise on or squander this wealth, depends on the quality of its human capital as the instrument of development. Our wise leadership has embraced this approach and promotes it by investing in and training local human capital, in order to develop its capabilities. As a result, UAE citizens will be able to drive the future of the development process to new heights.

Human resources are the instrument with which the UAE realised its grand civilisational transformation, from a traditional nation to one of the world’s most modern societies with a rich and successful development experience that is unsurpassed in the Middle East and many parts of the globe. Continuing in this vein, realising the UAE’s ambitious goals to lead development regionally and globally in the era of the 4IR and AI requires continued efforts to nurture Emirati human capital. It is crucial to achieve societal development as it helps to prepare citizens to master the manifestations and implications of the knowledge revolution, allowing the UAE to lead the way in this historic evolution.

In this respect, a number of issues can be raised, which I think are vital for achieving societal development and preparing UAE society for the era of the 4IR and AI.

First, education is the most important factor. It is the instrument of change in society, preparing its members to progress to a more advanced, developed and civilised level. All pioneering development experiences in the world show that the development of education was the main driver of society’s transformation. This was the case in the Malaysian experience with Mahathir Mohammad, and in Singapore with Lee Kuan Yew. It has also been seen in South Korea, Japan, China and in many other countries. Development of education was their way out of poverty and destitution to join the advanced nations. The UAE has witnessed a similar experience. From the time the nation was founded, during the reign of Shaikh Zayed, the wise leadership’s focus on developing education has been key to the success of the UAE’s development experience.

Indeed, the leadership gives a higher priority to education in order to prepare for the 4IR. This was underlined in the historic keynote speech of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, at the 2015 Government Summit in Dubai, when he stressed that: “Our best bet at this period of time is to invest all our resources in education.” However, we should admit that there is a considerable gap between the wise leadership’s ambitions and the reality of the education system on the ground. I do not believe that currently our universities and schools could graduate academically and technologically qualified generations capable of keeping abreast of, adapting to or leading the 4IR.

The education system in the UAE, despite development efforts, requires a comprehensive ‘revolution’ to modernise the current curricula, methods of instruction and its mechanisms in order to identify innovative and creative students. Even today, our education system focuses on producing generations that seem unsuitable for the labour market and its employment opportunities. Several international reports indicate that more than half of today’s jobs will disappear in the near future, replaced with new roles associated with the knowledge-based economy, AI and information technology.

This means a significant percentage of today’s students could add to the numbers of unemployed in the future. We still depend, one way or another, on traditional methods of instructive and rote learning, which will not equip the next generation with the skills necessary for the 4IR. The new era instead calls for critical thinking, innovation, creativity and the ability to propose solutions, as just some of the attributes vital for success. I am completely confident that the relevant authorities in our beloved country are striving to develop these skills, believing that modernised education is key to the UAE’s entry into the era of the 4IR and AI.

Second, society’s attitude toward the status and role of women in public life has a significant part to play. Here, we should admit that the UAE’s prudent leadership, from the rule of Shaikh Zayed, has always taken a more progressive view than that of society, in terms of the importance of empowering women in public life. These perspectives are reflected in the many policies and strategies that have made the UAE’s experiment in engaging and empowering women one of the most successful and pioneering in the region.

There are many examples to cite in this successful endeavour, however, here I intend to highlight some attitudes, which unfortunately continue to exist in our society, hindering the full engagement of women in the development process, and restricting them to domestic roles. These attitudes stem from religious misconceptions, which the UAE spares no effort in correcting by improving religious discourse, as well as from some social customs and traditions, which are no longer relevant in a modernised society. It is important to note, however, that negative attitudes towards empowering women in development and employment are changing. Women in the UAE have become a key part of development at all stages and in areas of national effort. However, these gains should not undermine efforts to overcome social obstacles women still encounter, so that they can fully and effectively take part in the development process. Indeed, this country requires the contribution of all its people as we approach the era of the 4IR.

Third, promoting a culture of innovation and creativity in society is crucial as we face the future. As always, the UAE has spared no effort at the official level to develop this culture through initiatives, strategies and cutting-edge ideas. Once again, the role of UAE society is no less important in this pursuit. Families bear a substantial responsibility for cultivating creative and innovative thinking, as well as identifying and developing the talents of their children. They also play an important role in directing them towards educational paths that meet the requirements of the 4IR.

Businesses should also shoulder a significant responsibility for fostering a culture of innovation. They can accomplish this by nurturing the skills of innovative and talented people, implementing creative ideas that deliver innovations to benefit society and by hiring expert, creative and innovative personnel from all over the world to make use of their ideas and expertise, as happens in advanced countries. As an example, the Sandooq Al Watan initiative is a unique model that sees the UAE’s private sector engage in social responsibility by helping fund key development projects. This approach is also demonstrated by other civil entities who acknowledge that bringing about societal development, and promoting a culture of innovation and creativity is a community effort.

Fourth, national identity is vital in the era of the 4IR. A key challenge in the era of knowledge, open skies and advanced technology comes as barriers between nations dissipate and foreign influences exert a greater sway on local societies. Therefore, national identity has become vulnerable to external influences, exacerbated further by the 4IR and AI. As national identity is the protective shield, and the strongest bond among people and the parts of society that serve to enhance internal cohesion, it is necessary to support efforts to bolster national identity, loyalty and allegiance to the wise leadership. This is particularly important among the youth who are vulnerable to outside influences, especially from negative forces and extremist groups. All of this should go hand in hand with our drive to ready society for the requirements of the 4IR. This means maintaining the true social values of UAE society, such as tolerance, cooperation, generosity, bravery and altruism, as well as its many other long-standing values. It also requires fostering a sense of the true Arab UAE identity and connecting new generations with the heritage and culture of their country, as we approach the era of AI.

The role of society, in terms of its components and people, is essential to any cultural shift of a country. UAE society has always supported and embraced efforts of its wise leadership to achieve comprehensive development, as they strive to make a success of any effort, action or pursuit that takes society from development to advancement. It is society that contributes to accomplishing the UAE’s aspiration for entering into and leading the transformations to come in the era of the 4IR.

Dr Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi is a UAE Author and Director-General of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research