By Pranay Gupte
(Published in Khaleej Times, November 10, 2010)
President Barack Obama of the United States spoke fulsomely about shared values between his country and India of tolerance and cultural understanding, and of sustainable economic development during his three-day visit to this week. But he could just as well have been talking about the United Arab Emirates.
Of course, the demographic scales are different. The ethnicities are different. And the political ecosystem is different. Still, there are few countries in the world that have so consistently demonstrated a tolerance of universal faiths, and of ready understanding of other cultures. Small though the UAE is in terms of population, its large-heartedness is laudable; indeed, it would be no hyperbole to suggest that this is among the most open societies in the world.
Take Dubai. It has 220 different nationalities that have traditionally lived in harmony in a city-state with a benign, people-focused government system, even if it isn’t along the conventional lines of Washington or Westminster.
Or take Abu Dhabi. The majlis gatherings hosted by various royal sheikhs are a microcosm of the global community. People of different tongues and wide aspirations turn up not only to pay their respects to the hosts but also to mingle freely with one another. From this mix flows a collective energy, an aggregate of ambitions that would be hard to find in too many other places.
I speak of the UAE’s traditions of tolerance and understanding not only because President Obama made a point of highlighting those enduring values in India. Ironically, people from South Asia have long settled in the UAE and in other Gulf countries, benefiting from the openness of Arab societies and from the warmth of the welcome extended to them.
I speak of the UAE’s traditions because I briefly wrestled with the idea of returning to my home in New York after having spent the last four years here. New York, like the UAE – and like Mumbai, where I was born and raised – is multicultural, a city of diversity, a metropolis that invites newcomers and new ideas to replenish its creative and commercial cores.
But what’s missing in New York is the tangible warmth and hospitality of the UAE. What’s missing is the reflexive assumption that newcomers will want to participate in the ongoing task of nation building. New York, after all, was founded as a trading post by the Dutch in 1624; the federation of the UAE was established in December 1971. New York is a “completed” city; cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi are still works in progress.
Their relative chronological newness feed the imperative to be wide open to progressive ideas for economic growth and social development. And although the UAE is firmly anchored in Islamic culture, religion here is a matter of benevolent personal faith and family values. Where else in the world would you see adherents of virtually every religion being allowed to observe their precepts and philosophies? There is no thought control in the UAE; no requirement that the state religion be the only one can be practiced in the open.
This is an important point. During the ghastly financial crisis that originated in America in 2007 and spread virally around the world, leaving few lands untouched, some in the foreign media – especially in the West – painted woeful pictures of this country, particularly of Dubai. The lines between fiction and falsities were blurred, let alone those between truth and reality. The “financial crisis” became a code for characterizing the UAE – and especially Dubai – as a land whose zenith had been reached and which was now careening toward a catastrophe.
Those who spun such things, or broadcast them, neglected to take into account a vital element that an open society fosters – resilience. They failed to note that resilience in turn engenders a special can-do spirit. Dubai amply demonstrated these characteristics, which is why it – as His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, said recently – “Dubai is back.”
A closer analysis suggests that Dubai never went away. The indomitable spirit fostered by the families such as the Al Maktoums of Dubai and the Al Nahyans of Abu Dhabi could not possibly desert the people of this land in a crisis, however severe. For an outsider like myself, this is something not only to note but also to applaud with enormous enthusiasm.
That’s why I’m still in Dubai, and not in New York.
(Pranay Gupte, a US national, is a veteran journalist and author. His next book, on India and the Gulf, will be published in Spring 2011. He is currently working on his memoirs of more than four decades in international journalism.)