Happy birthday UAE!
02 December 2014
Today is the 43rd anniversary of the founding of the UAE. Driven by the energy and vision of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the charismatic leader of Abu Dhabi, the seven Emirates united as a single country for the first time on 2nd December 1971.
Today will be marked by plenty of celebrations across the country. There will be some orderly and dignified events during the day, but for the majority of young nationals in the Capital there is only one thing to do: pimp your ride and head to the Corniche.
The Corniche is the mile-long road sweeping along the seafront in Abu Dhabi. But it’s no Eastbourne Promenade. As wide as the M25, this is eight lanes of pristine tarmac between the glittering skyscrapers and the city’s main beach. For one night a year it is gridlocked, deafening and – to a Westerner’s eyes at least – utter chaos.
This being the UAE, it is a car-based party. You don’t even have to get out. The ride of choice is the ubiquitous Land Cruiser, although some like to turn up in something more esoteric. But cars are barely recognisable as they are so elaborately decorated in flags, decals and bespoke paint jobs. Every car needs a Sheikh Zayed, a falcon and a UAE flag as a minimum. UAE men and women lean out of the windows, stand up through the sun roof or stand on the roof itself. After all, you’re not going anywhere fast. The odd cheetah looks out from the back seat. A cacophony of horns, gunning engines and Arabic music fills the air. Fireworks are launched from inside the cars. Subtle it ain’t - see some great photos from last year.
Not quite St George’s day is it? UAE nationals are intensely proud of their country, and have an incredibly strong cultural identity. But they are outnumbered 5 to 1 in their own country. The UAE has invited the world in, to help them build a country in double-quick time. In the UK, immigrants represent about 12% of the population, an issue that seems to be causing a bit of a fuss, but in the UAE it’s 84%. London might be rightly proud of its multiculturalism, but it’s nothing compared to the UAE. Arguably this is the most hospitable country on earth.
Sheikh Zayed was a man with a plan. He had a vision of how his new country should use its oil endowment, and pursued it relentlessly until his death in 2004. Since then the pace has even increased as the next generation has taken up the lead. In 1971 the country had a population of only around 300,000 people. Now it’s home to over 9m people with a GDP per capita of $44,000. It has a vision as a modern, pluralistic, tolerant country with global relevance; Dubai is already the regional centre for finance, trade and logistics, and it has a further vision of being in the very top tier of globally connected cities, alongside Singapore, London and New York.
Mohammed Al Fahim’s excellent book Rags to Riches is first on the list of essential reading. It tells the story of the astonishing development of Abu Dhabi, written in a frank and open style that only a UAE national could do.
Ultimately the aim is an economy that can stand on its own feet, without being too reliant on expatriate skills or oil money. It’s still a little way away off, but don’t be fooled – the direction of travel is clear and given the progress over the last 43 years, don’t bet against them. In the meantime, consider it a privilege to be able to work in a country with this level of energy and ambition. The pride seen on the Corniche tonight is entirely understandable. Beep beep!