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UAE Celebrates 50 Years of Unity Amid Prosperity, Liberalization
A sign marking the United Arab Emirates' 50th jubilee is lit up along the side of the Sheikh Zayed Road in the Gulf emirate of Dubai on Dec. 1, 2021. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images)

UAE Celebrates 50 Years of Unity Amid Prosperity, Liberalization

‘My grandparents were illiterate; my parents went all the way to a bachelor’s degree,’ engineer/tour guide says

[Dubai] The United Arab Emirates is celebrating its 50th anniversary of unity this weekend with lavish celebrations around the country’s seven emirates. The country, known from 1820 to 1971 as the Trucial States, traces its history back as far as 6,000 BCE, but the last 50 years have seen monumental change.

The oil and gas-rich Gulf state is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, attracting tens of thousands of visitors each year including A-list celebrities who call it their second home. It became independent in 1971, gaining independence from Britain under the leadership of then-Dubai leader Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, known in the UAE as the Father of the Nation.

Looking at the country from its humble Bedouin beginnings until now, the changes are almost unrecognizable. The rapid change has seen the country surpass its neighbors economically, politically and socially with architectural landmarks such as the Burj Al Arab hotel, Burj Khalifa (the tallest structure and building in the world) and Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque now international icons.

According to the 2021 Arab Youth survey, for the 10th straight year, the majority of Arab youth polled in 17 states in the Middle East and North Africa would most like to live in Dubai, and the UAE is the state they would most like their own nation to emulate, a place where nearly 200 nationalities live and work together, and, according to a recent Gallup poll, also the world’s safest country in which to walk at night.

Abdulrahman Alzaabi, an engineer and passionate tour guide who goes by @ADayWithAbdul on Instagram, says access is one of the biggest changes over the last five decades.

“We now have access to the world and technology, healthcare, resources; this has been the biggest change [since] prior to the unity in the ’60s,” he said.

“We were a poor country, a third world country, and when you’re a third world country you don’t have running water, basic health services. Giving birth was tough with a lot of infant mortality. Even recording birth numbers, very basic components of modern life weren’t there. Now we don’t only have access but we have some of the best in the world.”

His parents’ generation was not born in hospitals. They were born either at home or with the neighborhood midwife. The generation now in their 50s, and those older, doesn’t know their exact birth dates. “They went from a generation when my grandparents were illiterate [to where] my parents went all the way to a bachelor’s degree, so the generation gap is tremendous,” Alzaabi explained.

In 1975, the rate of adult literacy was just 54% among men and 31% among women. Today, literacy rates for both genders are close to 95%, a huge achievement for a country that was little more than desert back in 1971, with education taking almost 15% of the federal budget.

The changing way of thinking required a lot of adaptation, with grandparents who grew up in mud and coral homes in the desert, worrying about their next meal, moving into modern life.

There are roughly nine million foreigners in the UAE and just one million Emiratis. The country is home to Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and more, all enjoying religious freedom.

A 2019 visit by Pope Francis only strengthened the UAE’s public commitment to religious tolerance, coinciding with the announcement of the building of the Abrahamic Family House, a center under construction in the country’s capital, Abu Dhabi, that will have places of worship for all three Abrahamic faiths (a synagogue, mosque and church) side by side.

Emirati tour guide Shamsa Al Naqbi attributes this to the legacy of the country’s founder, Sheikh Zayed, who she said implanted his beliefs and values of equality, generosity and tolerance into the nation.

“The UAE has become a place today that welcomes and respects all nationalities and promotes tolerance between all religions,” she said.

Sheikh Zayed was known for his people skills, building diplomatic ties with countries around the world that would set the future UAE up as a player on not only the regional but the world stage.

This ability to connect with other cultures, and the country’s oil and gas riches, set the UAE up as a power on the world stage, one which would later see it play an important role in mediating regional conflicts. It was the first country to sign on to the US-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020, normalizing relations with Israel, an unprecedented move that would soon be followed by Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

Women play a significant role in government in the UAE. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, once said that at least 80% of his office staff consisted of women, and his daughter, Maitha bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, was the first woman from the UAE to represent the country in the Olympics, in the 2008 taekwondo competition.

Under the constitution, women have the same rights as men. Women are increasingly seen in public life led by prominent members of the royal family. Recently, Sheikha Fatima bint Hazza bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a princess from Abu Dhabi, graced the cover of Vogue Arabia, something unheard of until now.

Amna Banihashem, an Emirati mechanical engineer, experienced horse rider and renowned show jumper, said the role of women has changed over time.

“Women are now not only productive members in society but are also taking on critical roles of leadership,” she explained. “Women are now encouraged to work, participate in sports, and lead businesses and government sectors.”

Women make up more than 70% of students in higher education in the UAE and more than ever can be seen in positions in government and on international bodies. Most recently, Hend Al Otaiba was named ambassador to France.

Al Naqbi believes that women such as her have a crucial role to play in breaking the stereotypes and misconceptions about women in the UAE.

“Being an Emirati tour guide at the beginning was a new concept to some people and even tourists were surprised to have a female local guide,” she said. “They were surprised to see me drive, and give tours in Arabic, English and French, but I think this is due to the stereotypical views that some hold without confirming the facts.”

Every August 28 since 2015, the country celebrates Emirati Women’s Day.

Several policies to support Emiratisation in both the public and private sectors have seen employment among male and female citizens rise exponentially in the last decade, with multiple government initiatives in place to support Emirati small and medium-sized enterprises.

With economic growth forecast for 4% in 2021 in spite of the coronavirus pandemic and measures in place to attract foreign direct investment, and billions of dollars of investment abroad in countries such as in new ally, Israel, across sectors including artificial intelligence and health and defense, the country is doing quite well.

Al Naqbi said that the country has achieved a great deal in a short time, catching up with if not surpassing many of the world’s most developed countries.

“We have achieved the Arabs to Mars mission [the Emirates Mars Mission], the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission, and have coped very well with the pandemic, still managing to host Expo 2020 in 2021,” she said.

The United Arab Emirates Space Agency’s Hope spacecraft entered orbit around Mars last February.

Alzaabi said, “Our people are resilient and our leaders future-oriented. We are rivaling the most developed countries in the world and statistics prove we are ranking high in happiness and safety, the metrics to live a happy and fulfilled life.”

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