UAE defies west's stereotype of the Middle East

Bob Tippee

It is misleading to describe all of the Middle East in terms applicable only to the region's most violent and oppressive countries.

Anyone who has spent time in the United Arab Emirates knows this.

The UAE has much in common with its less stable neighbors: Islam, Arab language, desert culture, tribal systems of government, and oil.

But it is neither as austere as Saudi Arabia nor as dangerous as Iraq.

In fact, the UAE is warmly hospitable to outsiders, tolerant of non-Muslims, politically calm, and pleasant to visit.

Characterizations of the Middle East in much of the Western press make no room for the UAE or other Persian Gulf states that defy preconceptions about backwardness and xenophobia. Many Westerners don't know where or what the emirates are.

Believers in the stereotype would find astonishing Abu Dhabi's blocks of skyscrapers, tree-lined boulevards, and beautiful corniche; Dubai's glitzy architecture, lush golf courses, and irrepressible growth; and the less frenetic charms of quainter emirates to the north.

Three decades ago, the emirates were stark villages along the Persian Gulf's southern coast, their economies based on pearling and light trade. Now they're a working federation of seven states in varying degrees of modernization.

This all happened during the rule of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, president of the UAE Supreme Council and ruler of Abu Dhabi, whose death was announced on Nov. 2.

Zayed succeeded a brother as ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966, 5 years before the UK withdrew its protectorate over what were then called the Trucial Sheikhdoms. He oversaw the formation and development of the federation and set its economic course.

Zayed's legacy shows that oil wealth, prudently managed, doesn't always disrupt cultures and that the Middle East isn't immune to progress. It's also a useful reminder to a sometimes impatient West that much of the Middle East's modernization, uneven as it is, has occurred during a single generation.

Progress continues. Before his death, Zayed appointed Sheikha Lubna al-Qasimi of Sharjah minister of economy and planning—the first woman to become a member of the UAE cabinet.

(Author's e-mail: bobt@ogjonline.com)

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