In Europe and the Americas, federations can be more of an exercise in crisis control and disaster management than examples of clean, efficient, technologically proficient management of people and resources toward the benefit of the greater public good.
According to this metric, the most effective federations in the world are the UAE and Switzerland, two countries with far more in common than may first strike the eye. For centuries, Switzerland developed as a bastion of peaceful neutrality in a sea of rivaling powers: its extraordinary wealth after centuries of peaceful development and coexistence among far more violent and unstable neighbors is the most forceful testament to this.
Much the same can be said of the UAE, an oasis of smart governance, peaceful cohabitation, tolerance, innovation, and ingenuity in the midst of muddied international waters.
The federal government of the UAE was founded in 1971 under the extraordinary prescience of the leader of Abu Dhabi, the renowned Sheikh Zayed, who was quick to seize the moment of independence from Britain and propose a federation with his counterpart (and brother-in-law) in Dubai, Sheikh Rashid.
At their famed meeting in the desert at Argoub El Sedira in the winter of 1968, they had already laid the basis for the future United Arab Emirates. In 1971, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, and Fujairah immediately joined the union. In February 1972, it was Ras Al Khaimah’s turn.
A question of luck and leadership determined a great deal of the Emirates’ early development, for neither the discovery of oil nor the departure of the British would have been worth a Lebanese lira without the visionary guidance of Zayed and Rashid.
The practically seamless transition for all seven Emirates into a unified and universally well-developed federation over the following decades is a tribute to the legacy left by Sheikh Zayed, inaugural president of the UAE from 1971 until his death in 2004. For ensuring the cash- and carbon-poor northern emirates were given lucrative subsidies to develop in step with Abu Dhabi, the most carbon-rich emirate, and Dubai, the savvy commercial entrepí´t, was hardly pre-ordained.
Rather, it took farsighted leadership, which Sheikh Zayed had in no short measure, to transform the minor fishing and pearling outpost into one of the world’s leading commercial, cultural, financial, and increasingly, knowledge-based research centers.
As the most recent budget reveals, the UAE’s federal government has not only shown itself fiscally prudent but also socially sound. When details of the federal budget for 2018-2021 were released in November, two important things stood out: not only did the government perfectly balance its budget, with AED51.38 billion in expenditure to equal the same in revenues, it spent far more progressively than many of the world’s most advanced economies.
Earmarking AED26.3 billion to social development programs, some 43.5% of the entire federal budget, the UAE is far outspending other developed nations in ensuring its citizens enjoy some of the highest development and living standards on the planet. Compare this to social welfare expenditure in France (31.5% in 2016), the second-highest in the world, Finland (30.8%), the third, or Belgium (29%), the fourth—not to mention those further down the list such as the US (19.3%), and the numbers speak for themselves.
Figures for education expenditure were equally revealing. Devoting some AED10.4 billion to teaching the youth of the UAE over the same period, some 17.1% of the federal budget, the government once again showed its money to be much more than where its mouth was.
Compare this to similar spending rates on education in countries like the US (6.2%), UK (5.7%), and Japan (3.6%)—or the global average of merely 4.9%—and once again the federal government of the UAE reveals a long-term prescience and frame of mind that many governments the world over would do well to mimic.
As part of the government’s broader educational push, in December it launched the Mohammad Bin Rashid Centre for Accelerated Research (MBRCAR), a huge joint scientific research initiative that includes a financial grant for a research community of some 3,000 scientists to carry out new and groundbreaking work in the field of space science and technology.
In a concerted bid to find urgent solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems, one of MBRCAR’s primary tasks will be to boost the speed and efficiency with which scientific research is carried out and in the process increase the speed with which findings are made by 10, reduce the cost of research by 70%, and accelerate the scientific research process by 50%. The three biggest areas of research in the immediate future will focus on life support and transport technologies and better construction techniques.
A far more ambitious offshoot of MBRCAR is the Mohammad Bin Rashid Global Space Challenge (MBRGSC), a huge concerted effort to fund “the first and only global platform for funding unconventional solutions… to unlock the future of space settlement.” Apart from the UAE’s twin UAE Mars City and the Mars 2117 Project space programs, the first of which will construct a simulated human settlement on Mars in the Emirati desert and the second of which aims to put a human settlement on Mars by the year 2117, Sheikh Mohammad also launched the UAE’s first Astronaut program. This will select, train, and prepare four Emirati astronauts well enough to be able to visit and help man the International Space Station within the next five years.
Without a moment to lose, the federal government is not only facing some of the biggest challenges at home and in the region, but also for humanity at large. Nearly three generations after the federation’s founding, Abu Dhabi, the Emirates’ capital, remains the master strategist and diplomatic ringleader while accounting for 85% of the country’s land mass and 94% of its oil reserves (the bulk of which lie in the offshore Zakum oilfield), some 92.2 billion barrels. In terms of natural resources, Dubai comes in a distant second with 4 billion barrels, while Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah have 1.5 billion and 100 million, respectively.
Yet, whatever their disparities in natural endowments are more than made up for in good governance and equitable power-sharing structures.
Abu Dhabi is at the center of the UAE, with its ruler always acting as President of the UAE. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan is the President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, while Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, is also a significant figure and active on the diplomatic scene. Dubai’s Ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, acts as the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE. In his role as PM, Sheikh Mohammed is in charge of forming the Federal Cabinet, and has surprised in the past, appointing Shamma Al Mazrui, the youngest government minister in the world at 22, as the Minister of State for Youth Affairs, and creating the Ministry of Happiness.
In October 2017, he surprised again, creating three new ministries, appointing 27-year-old Omar bin Sultan Al Olama as Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, 30-year-old Sara Al Amiri as Minister of State for Advanced Sciences, and Mariam Al Muhairi as Minister of State for Food Security. The Cabinet is the executive branch of the federation, and handles all internal and external affairs related to the federation.
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