On this, country’s 40th anniversary, I am consumed with fond personal memories of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, whose determination brought the United Arab Emirates into being. Cementing seven sheikhdoms together was no easy task during an era when rulers were fearful of losing their autonomy and feuds between tribes were far from unusual. But those two great men - both of whom I was privileged to know - were adamant that in unity was strength.
In their wisdom founding fathers forged a plan to transform clusters of fishing villages and small trading towns into modern metropolises that are today the envy of the region. Together they put the UAE on a solid economic foundation and worked to ensure that all Emiratis could stand proud and tall. Together they moulded a federation that has provided with geopolitical clout and has served to protect from those who covet natural resources.
Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid were the highest role models for my generation, not only for their qualities of leadership but also for their remarkable human attributes. They were simple men who contained the seeds of genius; their hands were at the rudder to through decades of change and growth. Today, their patriotism and dignity is a legacy enjoyed by sons and daughters who are respected wherever they travel.
I have often replayed the times I spent with these fine men, in my mind but never more so than during the 2008 economic tsunami that raged across the planet wreaking havoc. Like the US, Europe and elsewhere, the UAE is still feeling its effects and although we have successfully treated wounds, we haven’t fully recovered. But if it were not for the groundwork laid-down by Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid we might not have been able to withstand the fierce wave that swept so many away.
We must also thank ’s fathers and the rulers of the other Gulf States for forming the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and for instituting the Peninsula Shield Force (the GCC’s own rapid reaction force) formed to keep the enviers at bay.
I think of them too each time I witness how many of Arab brothers are being tortured and killed just because they ask for a decent life in an atmosphere of freedom. Our Arab world is falling apart yet Arab leaders hesitate to take any concrete action against those of their fellow presidents and heads of state behaving like brutal dictators just so they can hang on to power and privilege.
Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid would have been appalled were they alive today and I am certain that they would have expected the GCC to take the lead in condemning those in power who have turned their guns on their own people.
During these bitter economic times, Emiratis now look to their leaders to provide citizens with jobs and business opportunities. I believe the swiftest way to reach these goals is for the government to stimulate economic activity with immediate focused investment in infrastructural projects such as roads, bridges, tunnels, power stations, airports, harbours, hospitals, and renewable energy plants.
Now is not the time to allow the wheel of construction to slow as it has in the ’s capital and in the west of the country. Belt-tightening and severe caution may be one answer for countries with high fiscal debt but is not an approach the UAE should take.
When the downturn first hit, both the Chinese and the Australian governments swiftly devoted large sums to new infrastructure - a strategy that successfully kept the spectre of recession at bay as well as boosting investor confidence.
The Australian government, for instance, instantly allocated some US$28 billion (Dhs103 billion) for the construction of new homes and schools and free roofing insulation for 2.7 million homeowners; while local communities were given increased funding for new infrastructure – and small businesses wishing to purchase assets benefitted from a short-term tax reduction.
Likewise, the Chinese government responded to the crisis with a stimulus package. Disregarding the warnings of critics who thought it was a mistake to inject substantial investment into an already overheated economy, the Chinese opened up their fiscal coffers to the tune of US$586 billion (Dhs2,153 billion) to construct railways, metros, and airports - and for the reconstruction of buildings in earthquake-stricken regions. The doom merchants were soon silenced as China’s economic recovery was speedier than other developed countries.
Many top economists advocate stimulus packages with the development of infrastructure at their core. I am particularly impressed with the philosophy of the 2010 recipient of a Nobel Prize in economics Peter Diamond who told Boston’s NPR news station: “There’s so much uncertainty now between the error of doing too little and doing too much. Doing too little seems to me to be a much greater risk.”
He believes investing in public works projects is worth the risk of increasing the deficit. “Governments will never have this kind of opportunity to build telecommunications, transportation and energy infrastructures” as inexpensively, he told The Economist, adding, “These are long-term investments that will pay dividends for generations to come”.
Moreover, the UAE should consider taking other confidence-building measures, besides substantial investment in infrastructure to attract and retain investment, such as:
• The immediate take-over of unfinished/aborted projects by a government agency and the provision of fair compensation to owners who are unable to complete.
• The formation of a statutory body to expeditiously resolve disputes between semi government clients and contractors.
• The promulgation of unambiguous legal rules with regard to residence visas and mortgage financing.
• The honouring of commitments made by semi government or government entities in contracts as is the norm in advanced countries.
• The mandating of government companies to invest in the UAE to benefit nationals, rather than in countries abroad.
We will further need to nurture an investor friendly environment by initiating positive fiscal and financial measures to make the cost of capital cheap by:
• Simplifying capital market regulations to allow more companies access to economic funds.
• Creating guidelines for banks to lend to viable projects, as a catalyst for growth.
• Encouraging investment by developing a stimulus package for ‘New Investments in large construction projects’. Subsidies could include zero interest rate loans, cash incentives, tax-free/special rate status for an initial 15-20 year period and utility subsidies.
Sheikh Rashid famously answered his critics’ doubts with: “If you build it, they will come”. Both he and Sheikh Zayed had the courage to pursue a policy of growth against all the odds. These are the men who put the UAE on the map; they cannot be replaced. We should hold them in hearts not only on National Day but always.
They were giants amongst men, to whom owes a debt that can never be repaid. They were not the sort of men who sought to see their image depicted in statues – although I would like to see monuments of them erected to remind youth how they impacted on all lives - but the very least we can do with the help of the government is to nurture the country they loved so dearly by caring for its people and putting its economy firmly back on track.