Not Saudi Arabia

I arrived back from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) this morning. You can attribute any nonsense in this post to the 14-hour plane ride. I went there with colleagues from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies to contribute to planning for the UAE diplomatic academy, which aims to professionalize training for the small but growing Emirates diplomatic corps. But of course I kept my eyes and ears open to learn as much as possible in an admittedly superficial three-day visit. Those who know the UAE well can skip this post.

Abu Dhabi, the capital, is centered on an island that commands spectacular beaches and an excellent view of the Gulf. Almost everything visible to a casual visitor is new. Independent only since 1971, the seven Emirates rely on Abu Dhabi’s substantial oil resources for pretty much everything in sight:  spectacular highrise apartments and offices, opulent hotels, excellent restaurants and a quiescent population of 9.3 million, 85% of whom are non-citizens. Per capita GDP is a bit higher than in the US. English, Urdu, Punjabi, Thai and other foreign languages are at least as common as Arabic. The infrastructure is impressive:  the 12-lane highway through Dubai (the business metropole) as well as the Burj al Khalifa skyscraper, air conditioning everywhere, green laws and shrubs irrigated with desalinated sea water, photographic

Tallest building the world, Dubai
Tallest building the world, Dubai

enforcement of driving regulations that sends you a text message with the amount of your fine within 20 minutes of a violation. Traffic is remarkably calm and disciplined by Middle Eastern standards. In an accident the foreigner is usually at fault.

The social contracts are clear:

  • non-citizens get to stay and earn decent salaries that would be unthinkable in their home countries so long as they have employment and behave themselves;
  • citizens get subsidies and good jobs if they want them, but the running of the country is left to a small elite.

Worker safety issues, especially for the many foreigners working in construction, have attracted attention. There are consultative mechanisms to allow for individual citizen petitions and complaints, but organized political opposition would be unwelcome. Public discourse values respect, not tolerance, including for the non-Muslim and non-Sunni majority (most citizens are Sunni Muslims). Hospitality is important. If someone serves you tea in a cracked cup, you know you weren’t welcome.

There is a palpable sense of common good, usually attributed to the country’s founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan. It was he who decided that Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth would be shared with the other British “trucial states,” which originally included near neighbor Qatar and somewhat farther neighbor Bahrain. President for 33 years after independence in 1971 (elected by the other Emirate Sheikhs), Sheikh Zayed is honored as the “man who built a nation” and began the still on-going engagement of the UAE in “global philanthropy,” which today has the Emirates engaged in supporting the Syrian opposition, the restored military regime in Egypt, the relatively liberal side of the Libyan revolution, the training of a new army for Somalia and other international causes. Whatever we give away, one diplomat told me, will eventually come back in appreciation and good will.

At home, what was until recently a traditional tribal society is changing, but only so much. There are no more bedouins or pearl divers. Men normally wear the kandura, a white robe, and white guthra (headdress). Women are being educated in substantial numbers, but the burqa and niqab are still common. Western women run on the downtown bike paths in Abu Dhabi in sports bras and shorts past completely covered Arab women pushing strollers, but I am assured that in some of the other Emirates things are not so relaxed. Arranged marriages are less frequent than in the past, but they are still sometimes used to settle conflicts between families. Social and tribal status is still an issue. I heard that the foreign ministry, which is keen to recruit women as diplomats, will pay for a male relative to accompany its unmarried employees on trips abroad.

The UAE leadership prides itself on being quick and flexible in reacting to world events. The recent fall in oil prices I was told will cause a quick reaction, presumably to cut public expenditure (the diram is tied to the dollar, so devaluation is not an easy option). Or maybe to cut oil production as well? The country runs its oil sector and its giant sovereign wealth funds with a view to ensuring stability and prosperity over the long term. I was told sovereign wealth was not tapped in reaction to the 2008 financial crisis, which hit Dubai’s rapidly appreciating real estate hard. Abu Dhabi footed the bill. Renewable energy is a serious government interest. Islamic finance is practiced.

The almost total absence of any visible security presence surprised me. People come and go in major hotels without passing through magnetometers. Security examination at the foreign ministry is cursory. At the National Archives it was non-existent. I didn’t see a single policeman or woman on the street and only saw a police car once, at the site of a traffic accident. Crime is virtually unheard of. I was assured that the invisible security presence is extensive. When called the police arrive with startling rapidity. Some rougher parts of the country have seen police abuses. But still: this is the Middle East without the usual uniforms, pat-downs and sirens.

It is easy to pooh-pooh the Emirates as more an airline than a country. The number of Boeing 777s at Dubai airport is genuinely impressive. Or to suggest that it is only the abundance of money that makes UAE what it is. But that is not right. It could be Saudi Arabia, with which it remains tightly allied, but it isn’t. The social contracts are holding, at least for now. The Islam is more moderate than radical. That is a lot better than can be said for much of the Middle East.The Emirates seem to me to have spent their money well, even if the lavishness is sometimes over the top or the taste dubious. Hard for Americans to complain about those faults.

Emirates Palace Hotel
Emirates Palace Hotel
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