We live in an age where grand ideas are suspect, over-arching narratives are subtweeted and purpose is questionable. We live in an era that has substituted conclusion with perpetual revision.
Nowhere is this iteration as evidently infinite as in the Arab world. There is a malaise of helplessness, perhaps a tragic misunderstanding of destiny even. A succumbing that we were, are and shall always be targeted by ‘them’. ‘Them’ of course can never be named or defined because that could form a finish line after which we are victims no more. It is the bigoted Muslim Brotherhood, mediocre pan Arabists, puritanical Salafists, devious Jews, nostalgic Turks and conniving Persians. Before them, it was the French and the British and the Ottomans before that. And it was the crusaders before that and the Mongols prior to them. It was all others who have subjugated us or denied us our rightful place in world and history.
Of course some of this is very true. Those mentioned above have all contributed to the state of the region. But it is not global conspiracy, but rather game theory. We are weak. We do not possess the resilience to develop grand ideas. This is regardless of whether we did so in a previous golden age. We are here now.
But how does one escape the intellectual humility of history? How do a people — who were told that they once were a remarkable civilisation, almost mythical, that not only mattered but defined the world — rise again? It starts with letting the narrative go. Nobody cares who we once were. Just like we did with the heritage of our precedents, they have taken what we had and made it more. And we should not either. We must have our own ideas now. These ideas must be really grand; so grand that they sound impractical, ridiculous even.
The UAE was once such an impractical idea. Seven emirates, six rulers, sceptical colonisers and ambitious neighbours ... What were the odds, really? It was not exactly the nation that bond traders flocked to fund upon its founding. But it has come through and established itself in its own idea of itself. Taking different things from different places, it remains within the concept of a union of port cities ... always pragmatic, seeking peace and developing commerce and at first tolerating and eventually thriving on cultural multiplicity.
To be sure, the UAE remains a work in progress with much more to do and improve and develop and fix.
But there is a silver lining here. What the UAE has done well is recognise the validity of the effects of scheming neighbours and adjective-less colonialism and the general trend of decline in regional development, intellectual and economic, without granting it disproportionate measure. If the cause of our plight were mostly due to them, we would first address the part that was squarely due to us.
That is the ultimate summary of the Emirati story. It is about assuming responsibility for one’s own fate. Every nation and individual should aspire to be in control of its own destiny.
The government summit that took place in Dubai recently is nestled in that. Think of the state of government services in the Arab world — an anaemic and chronic issue. So much that it has become a standard subject of public joke and mockery in Arab culture. Think of careers in the public sector. Yup: Long, safe and unchallenging.
The UAE highlights the idea that we are not predestined by greater powers and histories, that we can discover control and that we can arrive at a narrative that is our own.
This Emirati idea itself cannot iterate in vacuum. It must expand and be shared and must evolve with others. National vanities aside, this realisation underlies the decision to expand the summit’s mandate from national to global.
The summit itself surely seems to have a lot of room to develop. Here are two suggestions. For one, beyond social media, there does not seem to be enough presence of dialogue with the citizenry. The public is the ultimate arbiter of the utility of government services. Perhaps some of the panels next year could include active members of society. There should also be surveys taken before the summit during which they would be analysed and reflected upon. Social media provides a huge opportunity to mine data on public attitudes and perceptions of government services and overall performance. A more focused version of this could help the government in its annual reassessment of the recently launched star rating of its entities.
Second, there seems to be a focus on benchmarking government to business. While there are certainly a lot of things that companies do well — such as customer service, communication, organisational management and R&D — the complete corporatisation of the government risks being reductive. Governments’ relationships with their citizens are more complex than that of corporations with their customers. For one, governments, unlike corporations, are morally obliged to provide basic services at a minimum quality regardless of macro economic conditions. And while a change in income demographics is an opportunity for a company, it is certainly a challenge to a government.
The summit provides a very promising platform for the government to look itself in the mirror and rethink its utility and purpose in the fastest century yet.
Mishaal Al Gergawi is an Emirati current affairs commentator. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/algergawi