Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Lessons from Emirate Royalty

Wednesday brought us to one of our most exciting interviews. We were in the presence of royalty. We had the great fortune to meet with her Excellency, Reem Al Hashemy in Emirates Towers. A surprisingly young woman, Al-Hashemy was sworn in as a Minister of State in the Cabinet of the UAE. It is common for young people to have important positions in the UAE if they are smart and talented.  Al Hashemy was clearly both. In fact, the population of the UAE is fairly young in general. 
Educated at Harvard, her Excellency spoke eloquently, and with only a slight accent, from underneath her black hijab (traditional dress for Emirate women). Many Emirates are US educated, and many have a good opinion of the US. Unfortunately, more so than the American public's opinion of the UAE. The UAE's regional neighbors criticize the country for being too westernized and close to the US.

According to Ms. Al Hashemy, the UAE was created by Sheik Zeyad in 1971. She explained that Emirates are a tribal culture and that each of the seven Emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates. Some of the Emirates are more modern, like Dubai, which is very western and business minded.  The capital, Abu Dhabi, has the biggest population of Emirates, and Sharjah is much more religious. (To find out more about the UAE see here)
Financial Crisis
Like most of the world, the financial crisis hit Dubai. Particularly, its banking and real estate sectors. International media speculated disaster for Dubai, claiming it was done. The Government failed to respond to what Ms. Al Hashemy called exaggerated accusations. 
Combating Terrorism
As the US Consul General had told us a few days earlier, the UAE works closely with the US to combat terrorism. Dubai has the largest US Navel monitoring fleet and 100% of shipments that leave Dubai are checked by US Costumes agents. Mrs. Al Hashemy spoke of how little the global public, particularly Americans, new of this. Surprisingly, in 2006, the UAE was the only Middle Eastern country to deploy Special Forces in Iraq. Her Excellency spoke of the difficulties of trying to get Americans to realize the UAE matters. She has spent much of her career lobbying in the US for better opinions toward their country. Many public diplomacy efforts have been implemented to this aim. At one point, a group of Rabbi's from the Simon Wiesenthal Center in LA visited the UAE.
Green Initiatives
Although it is not an important issue to the Emirate public, the Sheik of Dubai has introduced an effort towards green technology for his city. This includes the construction of the world's first completely green city. The UAE also won the bid for the headquarters of IRENA. This will be the first multinational organization in the global south.
(I highly suggest this 60 minutes piece on Dubai for more information.) 

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In conclusion, her Excellency explained that, like it or not, the Middle East will continue to be very important. She explained that the Sheiks have tried to build a very different Middle Eastern country. One with an open society, both culturally and religiously; One that empowers women in work and education. The Sheiks foundation, Dubai Cares, works on education issues throughout the world. But she added the caveat that it isn't just important to make the UAE exceptional.
"You can never have a great house if it is a bad neighborhood. The UAE is a good house."
Therefore, she says, the UAE has a direct interest in developing the region as a whole. I asked her if she felt that the UAE could act as a moderator between Middle Eastern countries and the ME and the US. She agreed they most definitely are already. But she said most efforts in this regard are behind the scenes and that she couldn't elaborate. She added that the UAE had to be strategic about their methods of improving the region. 
"Arab culture is super sensitive about others telling us what to do." (A point the US will learn the hard way.) "Instead, the UAE says, 'Here is what we've done, look at how successful it has been. Maybe you'd be interested in trying it."
In no way does the UAE think it is perfect. Mrs. Al Hashemy admits:

"Are we democratic? Hell no! And there is a long way to go to be more democratic. But we are aware of this and working to address it."
 But she insists that they are a model for the region. 

"Dubai is seen as very welcoming and successful on the 'Arab street.'"
From my visit here, I can see why. Myself and many of my colleagues on the trip mentioned we could see ourselves moving here. We felt very comfortable in this country. Maybe I'll start editing my resume. ;)

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