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The Future Is Now

Published by Current on 2007-10-26

(Pranay Gupte is a veteran foreign correspondent, author and documentary maker who has worked for the New York Times, Newsweek International, and Forbes, among other international publications. He focuses now on writing books, and on magazine articles for Portfolio. The following essay was published in a new book, "The Sands of Thought: Essays on the World of Ideas," by John Strassburger, president of Ursinus College. The book was published on the occasion of the Festival of Thinkers in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, October 21-24, 2007.)

As a journalist and author who's been covering international affairs for more than four decades, I have, of course, my favorite places and people. I also have my peeves. There are some countries that I'd rather not re-visit, although these are only a few?and getting fewer as intolerant regimes yield to democratic forces, however clangorous.

The United Arab Emirates is not among my peeves. Never was. Granted, it isn't a democracy in the Westminster or Washington style, but you'd be hard pressed to come across a more tolerant and welcoming culture in what socio-economists used to call the "developing countries." (They now call these 135 or so of the world's 192 nations "emerging markets." I'm a little flummoxed by the new moniker; I mean, "emerging" from what? From the Proterozoic Period of 2.5 billion years ago?)

Granted, too, that the UAE is generally known to people who care about geography?that is, if they care at all?as one of the twelve members of the oil cartel known as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, a country that sits on such enormous reserves of crude oil that if it continues pumping out oil at its current rate of two million barrels a day, the proven reserves will last at least another 150 years.

That means, of course, that the UAE is a very, very rich country. The current price of a barrel of crude oil is $80. So you do the arithmetic.

But as a journalist who's been trained to do more than arithmetic, I'm always more interested in the larger ethos of a country, which is why I say that the UAE, in fact, is a joy to visit, and to visit over and over again. I can admit with no embarrassment whatsoever that I was smitten by the place and its people during my very first visit more than two decades ago, at a time when Abu Dhabi and Dubai and Sharjah and Fujairah may have sounded like the mellifluous names of
sheikhdoms, but most people?including many of my editors?had not heard of them. I don't quite remember what I'd expected of the country when I landed in Dubai, but I do recall that it was joy at first sight.

Joy? Joy about a federation of seven emirates cobbled together thirty-six years ago in a desert by the Gulf? A country where the temperature can easily soar past a hundred degrees Fahrenheit in the shade of a palm tree during the summer, and where it can drop so precipitously at night?especially if you're out in the sand dunes?that shawls and sweaters may not suffice?

Did I say "joy"? Have I?as the administrators of the British Raj that once governed this part of the world would have put it--"gone native"?

Yes, joy.

I say this, not because of the technologically advanced?and environmentally conscious?cities such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai that dot the UAE. I do not even say this because a visitor can be assured of total safety anywhere in the emirates. I do not say this because of the ease with which you can fly in and out of the country (the airports are so modern that it's entirely understandable that some passengers ex ibit inclinations to establish camps within their precincts, transit be damned!). I do not say this because the highways are so smooth that you'd be forgiven if you thought that they were covered with velvet. And I do not say "joy" because telecommunications are so advanced that not only can you call anywhere in the world from the tiniest of handsets, some of them even capable of bringing to your eyes television programs in real time.

I say "joy" because, most of all, the UAE's culture of warmth and hospitality is sui generis?totally unique. For an Indian-born man accustomed to being welcomed, fed and even housed by total strangers in a land of 1.2 billion South Asians, this is saying something indeed. Not for nothing has "Arab hospitality" entered the global lexicon.

The term has, in fact, become a metaphor for generosity, charity, largesse and openness of heart. I once met an Emirati who wore a striking diamond-crusted gold Rolex, and I complimented him on it. He immediately took the watch off his wrist and gave it to me. I could not, of course, accept the gift, because I was a journalist engaged in writing his company's profile, and he seemed a tad pained when I declined his watch. Then he offered an even more valuable gift?he
invited me to his home for a lavish meal. I had no difficulty whatsoever in partaking of his table. The real difficulty lay in leaving it.

I realize that it's not terribly fashionable for a journalist to seemingly wax eloquent about any country he covers. But I can't help it. I have made many, many friends among Emiratis, and virtually all these friendships have been sturdy and sustained. It's a clich? to say that Arabs are loyal to their friends, and, as with all clich?s, that's true. What's even more true is that of all the Middle Eastern countries I have visited, I find the people of the UAE offering most readily the gifts of friendship and loyalty. This isn't to be dismissive of other Arab countries, where hospitality and generosity are also the convention; I am only sharing my experiences.

Not all my experiences in the UAE have been superlative, of course. Because native Emiratis constitute just about 20 percent of the country's overall population of about four million, that means the UAE must rely heavily on expatriate workers, mostly from other parts of the Arab world, the Indian Subcontinent, the Far East, Europe, and, increasingly, the United States. Observation suggests that some expats often do not look beyond the length of their contracts or the size of their pay package.

The excessive reliance on expats, in turn, means that a new caste system has been created. Britons and South Asians don't necessarily mix much socially. The French? Ah well, the French will always be French. Filipino manual workers look askance at the growing numbers of South Koreans. Russians sometimes view the Chinese with what seem more like gimlets than glances. The UAE is indeed a melting pot, but the brew sometimes has inconsistencies.

And, to be sure, expat communities often organize themselves along regional and communal lines. The Indians, for example, come mostly from the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, bringing with them the politics?often petty?of their localities. (I must report here that in my long journalistic career, I have never
been openly abused and threatened anywhere other than by a fellow Indian on a campus in the UAE. I am at that age when other people's transgressions don't bother me much any longer. I'm more amused than angered. Nevertheless, had I been a drinking man?and I'm not?that particular episode, which I'm certain flowed from the honorable gentleman's envy, was so unexpected and so unsettling that I would have headed for the nearest pub. Instead, I turned on my iPod and listened to a fabulous New York-based singer of Indian origin named Falu. But I still sometimes think about how foolish it was on that expat's part to forget a major tenet of Bedouin culture: the best threats are never made, and a smile can do more damage than angry words. You are unlikely to catch a local Emirati making that sort of a mistake.)

The Emiratis realize that they are going to have to lessen their reliance on expat help. The social demography of the UAE is going to need to be more native based, as it were, not the least because the native population is youthful and seeks more outlets for its entrepreneurial and intellectual talents; the UAE's leaders want to retain the affection, attention and presence of their young, some of whom are already carving out careers abroad. That's why the efforts of His Highness Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, the UAE's Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, to expand the campuses of the country's three major institutions of higher learning, are so critical. Those institutions?the Higher Colleges of Technology, the UAE University, and Zayed University?have among the most sophisticated classroom facilities that you'd encounter anywhere in the world. They have fine teachers, but nearly all of them are imported.

That's also why Sheikh Nahayan's initiative of the Festival of Thinkers?which he founded two years ago as a biennial event?seeks to become a global brand. The idea is to develop a global community of thinkers and doers without a political or partisan agenda. The festival seeks to be more than an event featuring top intellectuals and achievers from around the world; it seeks to be a process that generates ideas for the solution of problems that bedevil the global commons. You need spend only ten minutes with Sheikh Nahayan to be transformed from a neophyte to an acolyte. Five more minutes with him?if he has the time?and I'm willing to bet that you'll want to start a fan club in your part of the world.

But publicity and accolades aren't what Sheikh Nahayan seeks. And that, too, is a special Emirati characteristic?modesty. There's a perception floating around that UAE natives are arrogant. Not true. Some of the very young are doubtless jaunty, and brimming with self confidence. After all, why not? As the saying goes, Dubai has all the flash, and Abu Dhabi has the cash. (It has the cash because virtually all of the 10 billion barrels of the country's crude oil?representing almost 10 percent of the world's total of proven reserves?and 5.8 billion cubic meters of natural gas?or 4 percent of the world's total?lie in the emirate. Nearly 92 percent of the country's gas
reserves are located in Abu Dhabi and the Khuff reservoir beneath the oil fields of Umm Shaif and Abu al-Bukhoosh ranks among the largest single gas reservoirs in the world.)

The natural modesty that's characteristic of Emiratis stems from the example set by the UAE's founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed Al Nahayan. He put together an agreement to create the UAE in 1971 from the British possession known as the Trucial States (now divided up as the UAE, Kuwait, and Oman). President Zayed is widely credited with
holding together the seven emirates with his unique, desert-wise way of keeping various sheikhs from squabbling over the country's natural wealth.

And so disputes are settled by conversation and consensus. You will be hard pressed to find Emiratis openly in confrontation with one another, even though the politics of the court are no less robust here than anywhere else in countries ruled by primogeniture and aristocracy. As Sheikh Zayed did in his time, leaders such as Sheikh Nahayan encourage people to come to assemblies known as the Majlis. Problems are discussed, and then the visitors are fed?fed huge, lavish meals after which only the most insane?or inane?person might want to continue a dispute.

As Sheikh Zayed would often say, nation building demands the prudent utilization of natural resources in the service of economic growth. The Emirati style is getting things done by quiet agreement. That style may seem ponderous to fast-talking and fast-acting foreigners, but it isn't inferior by any means to the post-modern management techniques being sculpted in Western business schools. There is, in fact, even a case to be made that a low-key chat over roasted lamb, saffron rice and nicely brewed tea?known locally as Suleiman chai?can accomplish more by way of conflict resolution than the in-your-face methods advocated by some contemporary Western business gurus.

Perhaps one should add another vital element to that fundamental Emirati characteristic: adaptability, yet adherence to enduring values. Good manners are valued. Politeness is a must. Respect for elders is essential. There is remarkable gender parity in professional circles, and not only in the privacy of Emirati homes.

There is also the recognition that a nation's institutions of economic, educational and social development need to keep up not only with the exigencies of domestic economic development but also the demands of the global market place. There is no longer "out there," and "us in here." The UAE's national ethos highlights a simple, fundamental premise of modern-day nation building: a country's wealth, especially accruing from its natural resources, must be put in service of economic growth.

Sheikh Nahayan's institutions?under the patronage of the UAE ruler His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and Crown Prince His Highness Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan?well understand that ethos. They have already constructed the nexus between Abu Dhabi and the vast world outside. To put it another way?perhaps a slightly retrograde but nevertheless quite relevant way?UAE has shown how it's done.

It's done the old fashioned way?by tapping into the wisdom and traditions of the people of the UAE's deep deserts. It's done by adapting appropriately to the demands and requirements of an age of galloping globalization. It's done through an intricate system of governance that incorporates social harmony, one that is predicated on
the notion of sustained peace in the neighborhood and sustainable economic development.

And it's all done with joy?a great joy in the high adventure of nation building. It is impossible for a visitor like me not to sense and savor that joy. And it is impossible not to want to participate in that nation building.

But, of course, I'm just an outsider on account of the accident of birth. I am just a visitor, however welcomed I am by Emiratis, and however frequently I come here. And I am just a journalist whose primary allegiance is to the integrity of his craft. So as much as I like this place and its people, as much as I would privately want to be part of this extraordinary country's strenuous efforts to modernize at warp speed, there's a distance that I need to keep, however reluctantly.

Still, I can share in the joy of this place and its people, can I not?

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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