Bastions of international reportage have taken turns to describe the UAE’s multi-pronged ambitions recently. In February, The Washington Post said the UAE’s plan to build a new city on Mars was anchored in practicality. In an October op-ed piece, The Guardian highlighted the UAE’s coherent foreign policy in context of its unapologetic fight against Daesh and other radical Islamists in the Middle East. Last month, reporting from the Dubai Air Show, the BBC summed it up this way: “One thing you can’t accuse the UAE of lacking is vision.”
The attention has been unstinting but well deserved. In November, Bill Gates thanked His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, for hosting a major disease summit, and matching his own pledge of $20 million (Dh73.4 million) towards a $100 million fund to tackle diseases such as river blindness and elephantiasis. After being awarded the UAE’s Order of the Federation, Gates tweeted to the Crown Prince: “Your partnership has been instrumental in the fight to eradicate polio. I look forward to continuing our work.”
Just around then, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) ranked the UAE second among 131 countries for economic intellect, in the first Global Knowledge Index, a collaboration between the UNDP, Unesco, The World Bank and Dubai-based Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Knowledge Foundation. Jamal Bin Huwaireb, CEO of the Foundation, made an explanatory statement about the 2nd rank, at Dubai’s Knowledge Summit: “Most people in the UAE were illiterate in 1981,” he said, “but illiteracy is almost non-existent today — within only four decades.”
What may seem like a lavish potpourri of praise for dissimilar projects, is in fact, a tribute to this small nation’s systemic, studied, and sustainable approach to prowess. It is also a key legacy of the country’s first president and founding father, the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan who selflessly dedicated his life to improve the welfare and well-being of his people — and several others in the world — by championing a range of causes, and urging the nation to follow suit.
A year before he passed away in 2004, Shaikh Zayed spoke voluminously about what the country had achieved, and more importantly, what needed to be done. “We celebrate the wide-ranging and all-encompassing achievements that have been made, and these extend beyond our imagination and our dreams. That which our dear country enjoys today in terms of prosperity, security and stability is the fruit of the patience and perseverance that we have all displayed,” he said in his address on the UAE’s 32nd National Day.
He made a clarion call to safeguard and elevate the esteem that the UAE enjoys among the rest of the world. “I appeal to you young men and women of the Emirates, to do all that you can to preserve and to cherish it,” he said, “so that you and your children may continue to enjoy its fruits. Spare no effort to work with all of your powers.”
In response and in homage, the government of the UAE has been unstinting in its efforts to propel the nation and its people to greater glory, and this is being evidenced across varied spheres.
For instance, in September, when the government announced a series of wide-ranging initiatives for national development, the numbers were staggering: no less than 120 initiatives were launched across 30 sectors. Presided over by His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed, and over 450 officials, the meeting discussed laws, legislation, services and strategic plans towards achieving the national vision, UAE 2021.
During the two-day event, Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed emphasised that all goals reflect Shaikh Zayed’s vision for the future. “Today, we seek a prosperous UAE for our future generations, building our nation as one of the best countries in the world. This was always Zayed’s desire.”
The big announcement made during the event is a model illustration of the UAE’s far-thinking vision. Mars Scientific City, it was announced, will simulate living conditions on Mars at a fully self-sufficient 1.9 million square metre research centre that will be built in the desert to the tune of Dh500 million.
Although the UAE only formed its space agency in 2014, the proposal to launch a Mars probe by 2020 will make it the first Arab nation to lead a space mission. New research plans are underway for space agriculture, or how food may be grown on the red planet.
While these galactic ambitions will take a few years for fruition, plans closer to the ground will take off more quickly. By 2020, Dubai will have a 20km-long prototype of the Elon Musk-inspired Hyperloop transportation system operating at a speed of 1,200km/h, renderings of which were unveiled at September’s London Design Festival. Construction of the multibillion dollar, high-tech transport system will reduce the 150km trip between Dubai and Abu Dhabi to a mere 12 minutes.
Last year, when the Roads and Transport Authority signed the deal with US firm Hyperloop One, it became a global first that is best explained in the words of Hyperloop’s CEO, Rob Lloyd: “The leaders of the UAE understand that transportation is the new broadband, with the power to transform life.”
This is in addition to several new transport systems that are already operational or being constructed. The Etihad Rail network, which is being built in phases, will not only link the principal centres of population and industry in the UAE, but also form a vital part of a larger regional rail network that will catalyse economic growth and sustained social development.
After implementing the first driverless metro system in the world in 2009, Dubai is now pursuing the Autonomous Air Taxi (AAT), the world’s first self-flying drone taxi service, which held its maiden test flight recently. This fleet of flying taxis may be joined by larger and more powerful passenger-carrying drones. The largest, a 600kg airborne police ambulance, was demonstrated by Abu Dhabi Police recently as part of its 40-year plan for safety and security, alongside hydrogen-run patrol vehicles and the world’s first 3D-printed police station. Dubai is already home to the world’s first fully-functional 3D-printed building, The Office of the Future,
which caters to the Dubai Future Foundation.
Apart from attempting to revolutionise transportation, one of the strongest symbols of the UAE’s efforts at transformation is its ardent pursuit of clean and sustainable energy. Pioneering projects such as Abu Dhabi’s Shams 1 solar plant and Dubai’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park epitomise the country’s astounding leap from complete reliance on oil to realities of the future when fossil fuels will play a negligible role. While Abu Dhabi is soon expected to generate electricity from nuclear stations, the UAE is generously pitching in around the world, helping other countries construct solar, wind and river power plants.
Besides investing billions of dirhams in power plants, the UAE is also at the forefront of research on the technology that underpins solar power. Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute recently concluded a project to design and fabricate an ultra-thin nanocomposite solar absorber with tiny nanoparticles of silver embedded in silicon dioxide, which allows it to absorb almost all sunlight and thereby maximise solar thermal energy conversion.
The Masdar Institute has also filed a patent to increase rainfall and supplement water security in the country, as one of the first in the world to use nanotechnology to enhance the ability of cloud seeding materials. Another groundbreaking nanoparticle research project, developed by scientists at the Trabolsi Research Group at NYU Abu Dhabi, can change how drug delivery systems are used in the treatment of cancer.
NYU Abu Dhabi is one among numerous local iterations of renowned international institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, University Paris-Sorbonne, New York Film Academy and London Court of International Arbitration.
Symbols of soft power
Even as the UAE is propelling into the future with demonstrations of vision and innovation, it continues to make major investments in soft power such as hosting the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency and the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, and the scheduled hosting of the World Expo 2020 in Dubai.
Steady investments in commercial, intellectual and cultural infrastructure have helped the UAE rise to an unprecedented position of prominence in the world. Dubai has long positioned itself as a tourist destination with attention-grabbing projects as Palm Jumeirah, Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa. Sharjah has firmly established itself as the culture and literature capital of the region. Abu Dhabi has steadily invested in museums, the fulcrum of which forms the newly opened Louvre Abu Dhabi.
It was Shaikh Zayed himself who established the 87sq km Sir Bani Yas wildlife reserve and bird sanctuary in 1977, which over the decades has been hailed for conservation work and ecological investment. The island was recently in the news for two reasons: it will soon welcome luxury cruise ships as the only dedicated cruise stopover beach in the region, while archaeologists at a dig site found evidence to support the existence of a 4,000-year-old trading post on the island.
Shaikh Zayed was undoubtedly the principal architect of the UAE, and some of the most tangible tributes to him form parts of everyday paths to progress in the country. The 842-metre-long Shaikh Zayed Bridge in Abu Dhabi, designed by the late Zaha Hadid as a series of undulating sand dunes, is considered one the most intricate ever constructed. Shaikh Zayed Road in Dubai is part of the larger 560km E11 highway that runs the length of the country, from the Al Ghuwaifat border post with Saudi Arabia to Al Jeer, the border with Oman.
A bridge over the Dubai Water Canal was also named Tolerance Bridge recently, in tribute to the legacy of the late president. Addressing citizens, Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid said: “We are all the sons of Zayed who don’t only carry his name and keenness for the nation but are also inspired by his values, ethics, tolerance and love of all people.”
Shaikh Mohammad also spoke volubly about his personal relationship with Shaikh Zayed — that of a father and son, teacher and student — from whom he learnt to treat all people and appreciate them equally. “The most that we are proud of is not our high-rise buildings or wide streets, neither our mega markets, but the UAE’s tolerance,” he stated.
“We are immensely proud that our country is home to all people of various backgrounds, who live and work to build a better future for their children without fear, fanaticism, hate or racial discrimination.” n