I’d like to come back when they’ve finished building the UAE,” a fellow journalist joked to me at one of the many launch events in the heady 2000s. From audacious islands shaped like palm trees to arterial urban transport systems, from world-class museums to residential developments in what was once the middle of the desert, launches came thick and fast in those years as the country focused on developing its physical infrastructure.
I turned around and asked, “But why do you think they’ll ever be finished building the UAE?” We agreed that even 50 years down the line, roads networks would still be in the process of being rerouted to accommodate a sprawling new development to cater to a continuing influx of tourists, businesses and new residents.
For the UAE, it is in a competition with itself. It isn’t enough for the nation to rank above its peers on a major global development indicator in a particular field; leaders ask how far the UAE has improved its position on those indicators. It is this unstoppable ambition that has transformed the country from a collection of fishing villages into the diversified regional economic powerhouse it is today.
By one standard, the UAE has done exceptionally well. The country topped the Arab world last year in the most recent ranking of the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI). As the simplest measure of human progress, the index tracks longevity, education and income, in addition to poverty, inequality and gender gaps. With a value of 0.890, the nation ranks in the very high human development category. It places at 31 out of 189 countries and territories and ranks far above the Arab states’ HDI average of 0.705. While the index has been revised over the years and scores are thus not directly comparable, the UAE’s HDI has increased 23.1 per cent from 0.723 in 1990.
Using a different measure – influence – the nation ranks 17th in the world on the Global Soft Power Index 2021. The ranking, determined by polling 77,000 respondents in 105 countries, evaluated the familiarity and influence and global reputation of nations on pillars such as international relations, business and trade, education, people and governance – as well as measuring Covid-19 response of governments in a newly launched category. The UAE climbed one place in 2021.
Responding to the soft power ranking, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, noted that the UAE was ranked the 9th nation whose affairs people follow closely around the world, an increase of 9 places. Similarly, the international public named the UAE among the world’s top 10 nations with a strong and stable economy, safety, security and diplomatic influence. “The UAE will continue to build bridges with people across the world and establish positive economic and developmental relations with other nations. The UAE is not a place in the globe, but the globe in one place,” Shaikh Mohammad said.
Indeed, as home to people from over 200 countries and territories, the nation has a track record of coexistence, as well as religious and cultural tolerance among its residents. Last year, the UAE ranked among the top 20 countries in the world on eight indices related to tolerance and coexistence.
Strengthening national identity
That respect for diversity finds its roots in the country’s very DNA. When six emirates and their very individual tribes and people came together in a federation in 1971 — Ras Al Khaimah joined in 1972 — it wasn’t the Arab world’s first experiment at unity. That the federation has lasted half a century is testament to both the will of the Emiratis and to the unwavering belief that the seven emirates were stronger together. One reason Ras Al Khaimah signed up, Abdullah Omran Taryam historian and a former minister for justice and education, writes in his 2018 book on the establishment of the UAE, was because the state’s people were pressing their ruler to do so.
As he explains, early challenges to the federation were overcome because members of the federation were “determined to observe the unity and prove their collective existence during the changing political circumstances witnessed by the region”.
Those early years were spent consolidating a national identity and strengthening federal structures, while using its recently discovered hydrocarbon resources for the benefit of its people by way of socioeconomic development. New federal structures were established, notably the Federal National Council, the establishment of the Currency Board (and subsequently, the Central Bank of the UAE), and the unification of the armed forces into the Union Defence Force in the seventies.
The UAE launched an early liberalisation and diversification programme to reduce its reliance on oil and transform its labour-intensive economy to one based on knowledge and technology. As one of the world’s most open economies, the nation has since capitalised on its strategic location to build strengths in sectors such as aluminium and metals production, commerce, wholesale and retail trade, tourism, aviation, logistics, and telecommunications.
Peaks and troughs in GDP growth were streamlined by the late noughties. Despite significant dips in 2009 and 2020, the economy has expanded at an average rate of 3.8 per cent between 2000 and 2020.
Oil exports now account for about 30 per cent of total UAE GDP, with the country expanding into renewable and nuclear energy, and establishing leadership on several fronts.
The UAE ranks ninth on the wide-ranging world competitiveness index for the second consecutive year despite the lingering impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a survey by Switzerland’s International Institute for Management Development.
Earlier this year, the UAE was ranked the fourth best place to live and work in a survey on an expat survey polling more than 20,000 people who live and work abroad.
The UAE has also shown its ability to bring nations together. It is host to the global headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and events such as the annual meetings for the boards of governors of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, as well as the World Economic Forum’s Annual General Meetings. The world’s largest expo, Expo 2020, is currently underway in Dubai, and in 2023, the UAE will welcome climate leaders from around the world to the UN Climate Change Conference COP28.
Developing priority sectors
Over the decades, economic growth and political achievements have been accompanied by social development.
Education and healthcare were major early priorities in the seventies and eighties. Hospitals were opened in each emirate over the two decades, beginning with the inauguration of Rashid Hospital in Dubai in 1972. The UAE ranks 20th in the World Index of Healthcare Innovation, and Abu Dhabi and Dubai have achieved universal coverage. In recent years, the UAE has demonstrated its strengths in science and healthcare research — including, last year, in phase 3 trials for a Chinese Covid-19 vaccine.
Primary education became mandatory for both boys and girls, and universities were established to develop an early knowledge-led society that could help maintain the economic and social independence of the nation and region. Education is now seen as the route to develop the economy outside the hydrocarbons sector, while enabling future generations to guide and transform society.
Women’s empowerment was a significant area where the fledgling country diverged from its regional neighbours. The first meeting of a women’s association was in Abu Dhabi in 1973, followed by similar bodies in other emirates. In 1975, Sheikha Fatima Bint Mubarak established the General Women’s Union, which contributes to policymaking and legislation concerning women in the UAE. Under the constitution, women enjoy the same legal status as men.
Women now serve in the armed forces and have mandatory membership on the boards of directors of federal institutions. The country now leads the region on gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap report, and ranks 24th among 170 countries in the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security – and tops the global ranking for women’s safety, even at night.
“The United Arab Emirates does not fit ordinary norms – be they the ones of political and social structures or of economic assets,” historian and political scientist Frauke Heard-Bey, author of From Trucial States to United Arab Emirates, the singular reference work on the country’s formation and early years, wrote in a paper on nation-building in the UAE that was published in Middle East Journal.
“When this federation was proclaimed in 1971, the majority of the distant observers had their doubts about the viability of this precarious structure. More than 30 years later,” she wrote in 2005, “it may be argued that the unorthodox nature of the UAE’s political makeup may have proven to be its strength and is likely to serve the country well enough for the foreseeable future. The expectation now is that the foundations, which have been laid down in over three decades, will sustain lasting stability and prosperity into the future.”
Time and again, the UAE has proved observers and naysayers wrong. As the nation looks ahead to the next 50 years, could we be witnessing the dawn of the UAE’s Golden Age? ■
Shaping the future of a nation
How UAE citizens and organisations are building the next 50 years
hile the 50th anniversary of the UAE’s federation is a cause for celebration, the moment is not one for relaxation. Rather, as the nation’s leaders recognise, the anniversary is more of a turning point in the nation’s journey to achieving its ambition of making the country the best in the world on every front.
The nation’s long-term roadmap, called Centennial 2071, aims to strengthen the country on every front, by investing in the future generations, establishing a diverse and competitive economy, consolidating the values of tolerance and social cohesion, and fortifying the UAE’s reputation and soft power.
Dr Dalya Al Muthanna, President of GE in the UAE and the global Chief of Strategy & Operations for GE International Markets, explains how several federal policies launched could help realise these aims. “The Operation 300 billion industrial strategy, Make it in the Emirates and now the UAE Net Zero for 2050 Strategic Initiative are key pillars that demonstrate the nation’s leadership in driving not only industrial growth, but to do so in a sustainable manner that secures the future for our coming generations. The nation has set actionable goals and strategies, underpinned by investments in solar and nuclear that enable the country to achieve sustainable progress in preparation for the next 50 years,” she says. “Complementing this, we see a strong opportunity to further advance Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies, as well as to build localised manufacturing competencies to support the energy value chain.”
Extending innovative and sustainable initiatives across the economy through the use of 4IR technologies such as blockchain, AI and data-led innovation will be essential to securing the role of trade, already the largest component of non-oil GDP. “The various supportive blockchain and crypto initiatives across the UAE will set the country apart from its peers when it comes to improving efficiencies and harnessing the most value out of global trade. Blockchain technologies have the potential to revolutionise the entire trade ecosystem, and Dubai is well and truly leading the way in this field,” says Feryal Ahmadi, Chief Operating Officer, Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC).
Perhaps the biggest transformation will need to be in the energy sector. As the world reckons with the impact of climate change, building leadership in renewable and nuclear energy will be essential to global leadership. In October, the UAE became the first major oil exporter in the Gulf to commit to fully decarbonise its economy and reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Hydrocarbons currently account for 30 per cent of GDP.
“This mid-century goal acts as a beacon of hope for sustainable development,” says Dr Nawal Al Hosany, Permanent Representative of the UAE to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). “As the first country in the Middle East to launch a net zero strategy, the UAE created a cross-border ripple effect, which resonated with world leaders at a time when we must urgently rethink the balancing act of economic growth and sustainable development, and the vital role that energy has to play.” She says the greatest testament to date of the UAE’s ambitious energy roadmap is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s decision to announce the UAE as the host of COP28 in 2023.
Public sector energy enterprises are already working towards the energy transition, says Saif Humaid Al Falasi, Group CEO, ENOC Group. “By pursuing ambitious targets set out in initiatives such as the Dubai Clean Energy Strategy 2050, the country’s leadership is a step ahead in its efforts to secure energy sustainably whilst also meeting the Emirates’ growing energy demands, which ENOC has been supporting for over three decades now. This is evident from the private public partnerships, regulatory frameworks and innovative initiatives that have been implemented over the years, which is yielding strong results today.”
Khalid Al Marzooqi, Chief Executive Officer, Tabreed, says citizens and residents will need to do their part. “Ambition, attention to detail, high expectations and an insistence on absolute quality have seen this country rise to be a powerful and influential player on the world stage, including in environmental issues as it lessens reliance on traditional power generation.
“We need to be taking swift and decisive action right now in order to reverse global heating and there are practical things we can all do to help,” he says. “Right now, we can’t dictate how the energy we use is produced but we’re hoping that will change soon. Tabreed’s green credentials are already beyond question, and we intend to build on them over the coming 50 years as an essential utilities provider across the UAE and beyond.”
A strong education system that maximises knowledge capabilities will be essential to realising these goals. Organisations across the board have implemented education and training plans with a view to promoting the contribution of Emiratis to the economy, and towards boosting overall enterprise and innovation.
Dr Khalid Omar Al Midfa, Chairman of Sharjah Media City (Shams), explains how his organisation builds intellectual capital. “Shams relies on talented individuals to come forward with innovative and unconventional ideas and transform them into businesses. We provide ample opportunities for entrepreneurs to establish companies and businesses, as well as to grow and hone their skills through workshops and partnerships,” he says.
Dr Al Muthanna has a similar view. “We believe that in the nation’s onward journey, youth will play a key role, and that is why we continue to focus on building talent, inspiring and enabling them to co-create innovative solutions.” ■