The Middle East Has Its Own Map to Modernity

Jonathan Gornall

Sensationalist isn’t a word commonly associated with Foreign Affairs, the weighty magazine that since 1922 has prided itself on being “the leading forum for serious discussion of American foreign policy and global affairs.” But an essay in the current issue comes dangerously close to scaremongering. Under the provocative headline, “The Next Arab Uprising – the Collapse of Authoritarianism,” the author suggests that the oil-rich states of the Middle East are heading for “social unrest on a scale beyond anything they’ve seen before.”

Marwan Muasher’s target is the social contracts between the leaders of these states and their citizens, through which rulers “secure legitimacy and support through public spending rather than participatory political processes.” As oil prices have failed to keep pace with spending, he argues, so these relationships have begun to break down.

It’s true that oil prices have fallen, and that not all states have been equally prepared. Strikes over spending cuts are common in Algeria. At the height of the Arab Spring there were protests in Kuwait over alleged corruption. And even Saudi Arabia – now undergoing rapid top-down modernization – has experienced public displays of unhappiness. But Muasher ignores the efforts being made to equip nations and their people to thrive in a post-oil world.

Take the UAE, for example. There are no “demonstrations,” unless you count occasions such as National Day and Flag Day, during which Emiratis enthusiastically demonstrate their pride and loyalty. This has been the Year of Zayed, a celebration of the centenary of the birth of the nation’s founder, who is held in universal high esteem and regarded with genuine affection by Emiratis young and old.

In living memory, their forefathers lived a harsh and often perilous existence, battling to wrest a meager living from the sea. From the moment the oil began to flow, Sheikh Zayed was determined that all his people would benefit from the great, transformative gift. The traditional benevolence that had once taken the form of the leader’s protection evolved naturally into the provision of healthcare, education and all the other trappings of 20th century modernity.

But neither Sheikh Zayed nor his successors stopped at that. The founder knew that the oil would not last forever and his conviction that the nation’s greatest asset was its people remains central to government thinking. Sheikh Zayed’s legacy is not the population of pampered, welfare-reliant dependents implied by Muasher’s generalizations, but the lengths to which the UAE is going to meet the future head-on as a resilient, knowledge-based and diversified economy.

The creed of diversification is nowhere more evident than in Dubai, a city driven fast-forward into the future by the visionary build-it-and-they-will-come philosophy of its former ruler Sheikh Rashid, who in the 1970s transformed a sleepy backwater into a major entrepôt by the audacious act of creating airports and ports for which there was no apparent demand, and which are now among the busiest in the world. Under his successor, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the city has become one of the world’s top air hubs and tourism destinations. Having won the right to stage Expo 2020, it is on track to fulfil an ambition to attract 25 million visitors a year by 2025 and become the planet’s top destination.

The UAE’s diversification is driven not only by tourism but also by a host of imaginative investments at home and abroad, in sectors from aerospace to renewable energy. Proof of the success of this strategy is to be found in the economy ministry’s latest annual report. In 2016, non-oil activities accounted for 83.3 percent of GDP. A contraction in the UAE’s oil and gas business of 25 percent was more than compensated for by healthy growth in many other sectors, including education, healthcare and arts and entertainment. Meanwhile, through an ambitious space program that last month saw the launch into orbit of an observation satellite designed and made by Emiratis, the UAE is rapidly developing a homegrown space and aerospace sector.

Muasher, a former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan whose own attempts at reform were thwarted while he was in office, is today vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. From his vantage point in Washington, he appears to subscribe to the highhanded Western view that all that Arab nations and their people need to be happy, peaceful and successful is democracy – as defined and practiced in the West.

Witnessing the divisive and disruptive impact of Donald Trump, the rise of a vile brand of nationalism across Europe and the UK’s lemming-like rush to abandon the economic certainties of the European Union in the interests of appeasing populists, one might be tempted to wonder just how well that democracy is serving the West. For its part, the Gulf is attempting to find its own way. It hasn’t been easy or straightforward, but if the UAE is any example – and it is the better example for the Middle East than anything to be found to the north and to the west of the Mediterranean – it is clearly possible to chart a route to modernity through the byways of the Middle East.

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK. He specializes in health, a subject on which he writes for the British Medical Journal and others.