The United Arab Emirates celebrated its 37th birthday this week. On December 2, 1971, the founding fathers of this country signed a constitution that transformed it from a loose confederation of British protectorates known as the Trucial States into one nation, unified under a common flag and with a single preeminent leader--a man named Sheikh Zayed, the UAE's national hero--at its helm. The nearly four decades since that day have seen the UAE grow from a sleepy desert trading post with a fledgling oil industry and a political system weakened by tribal infighting and colonial interference into a fully modern country of 4.6 million with a sophisticated system of governance, a diversified economy, well-maintained highways, and stores stocked with everything from organic cereal to Nike sneakers. In record speed, a nation of tent-dwelling nomads was transformed into a nation of businessmen and visionaries that has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. Truly this country’s history has been exceptional.
Like the United States in its halcyon days of immigrant-fueled prosperity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the UAE provides unrivaled opportunity for employment for workers of all backgrounds. Even in the midst of the current financial crisis that has paralyzed the job market in much of the rest of the globe, companies here are continuing to hire, cushioned by years of oil profits and buoyed by the confidence of a people that believes it can do anything. The coming year will tell how well the UAE is able to weather this storm, and some predict that it is only a matter of time before Dubai, with its multibillion-dollar real estate projects financed on the promises of a booming property market that no longer exists, suffers the same catastrophic credit bust that hit Iceland last month. But after 37 years of making the impossible possible--man-made islands shaped like the seven continents, the world’s tallest building, a ski slope in a mall, a hotel built around an aquarium inhabited by a live shark--it is understandable why the Dubai government shrugs off these predictions with such apparent lack of concern.
The brazen materialism and love of money and status displayed by many native Emiratis make the UAE an easy target for critical Westerners like myself, who were brought up to view obvious displays of wealth as gauche and to believe that the best successes are cloaked in humility. But still, looking at what this nation has accomplished in so short a time, there is much here that is worthy of admiration.