IN 2004, one man stood firm in urging Arab leaders to introduce reforms within their states. Memorably, he advised them to “change or you will be changed eventually.” Six years later, a wave of national uprisings swept across the Arab world toppling several regimes, along with leaders who had refused to acknowledge the needs and demands of their own people.
That same man is now urging his regional counterparts to invest in innovation in the hope of building a better and more stable future for their countries.
Sitting in the quiet majlis or communal resting area of his farm, in the heart of Dubai’s desert, Sheikh Mohammed is anything but an ordinary man. With decades of experience steering his country towards safety under his belt, his actions and words have had an enduring impact on people in his Emirate, but also further afield throughout the Middle East.
He is also a leader who has taken matters into his own hands, traversing the region to meet, advise and attempt to find common ground with other leaders, in an effort to avert impending conflicts.
In such a context, Sheikh Mohammed spoke for the first time on the record of his meeting with Iraq’s former president, the late Saddam Hussein.
“Let [ALLOW] me tell you a story that I haven’t shared before. Prior to the invasion of Iraq, we in the UAE saw the region standing on the brink of a disaster,” he began.
The event Sheikh Mohammed refers to is the disaster he had envisaged and would prove to be the beginning of the Arab region’s “deterioration”, as he put it. It started with the invasion of Iraq and dissolution of the Iraqi army. That, according to Sheikh Mohammed, allowed some leeway for intolerant ideas to flourish, alongside fragmented politics, sectarian groups and militias who fed upon the region’s spiralling chaos and terrorism.
In an attempt to spare Iraq and the region an impending tragedy, Sheikh Mohammed recounts his own decision to head to Iraq and meet with Saddam Hussein, where he presented him with a blunt snapshot of the future.
“I went there to offer him advice from a person who loves Iraq, its people and values its stability. I sat down with Saddam for about five hours. [The discussion we had] was frank, but also charged. Saddam left the meeting four times, returned, ordered Iraqi tea, and then we continued the conversation,” the Sheikh said.
It became clear that Sheikh Mohammed’s attempts to reason with Hussein “had fallen on deaf ears”.
It is a common mistake among some Arab leaders to listen to their own voice,” instead of a friend’s advice, Sheikh Mohammed said.
Sheikh Mohammed reiterated a similar comment about Libya’s late president Muammar Qaddafi, saying he “did not want to listen to advice, or benefit from experience.”
“I wish Saddam [HAD TAKEN] the advice of those who loved Iraq and its people; he would have spared this region countless tragedies in the chaos and decline that followed.”
Saddam was toppled in the 2003 invasion carried by a U.S. led coalition and was executed in 2006 following a lengthy trial.
Saddam, said Sheikh Mohammed, was only knowledgeable about Iraq, but when it came to international affairs, he lacked the tools and vision, and “wasn’t realistic.”
Sheikh Mohammed said he had made it clear to Saddam that concession would be required to maintain the international political balance and save Iraq. He further pledged that the UAE would provide its “full support to Saddam in the event that he made such concessions”.
But Saddam was “was absent, so to speak,” explained Sheikh Mohammed. To the Emirati ruler, the invasion of Kuwait may be considered the “greatest example” of the kind of mistakes that a leader can commit when unfamiliar with foreign relations and careless with its nuances and realities.
“Saddam’s international dealings were not rooted in political reality… he did not have sufficient wisdom to listen to the advice of friends. Such mistakes have set our nations back by decades,” said Sheikh Mohammed.
With the fall of Iraq and the dissolution of the Iraqi army, the Arab world’s deterioration had begun, according to the Sheikh, who is also the UAE’s defense minister. That opened the doors to the rise of “intolerant ideas, fragmented politics, sectarian groups and militias” he says, that soon established a path towards chaos and terrorism.
Perhaps this alertness to the consequences of war explains why the ruler is so adamant to foster a culture of tolerance, support, education and encourage openness amongst people and countries.
One effort that illustrates this is Sheikh Mohammed’s recently touted Global Initiatives Program, which includes about 28 development and humanitarian organizations under one umbrella and bolsters future plans to focus on developing the Arab world. The program is expected to invest some 600 million AED ($164 million) to promote a culture of tolerance, a move that is much needed in the Arab world today.
“This region is my region. Its people are my brothers and sisters, and its history is the basis of my identity … Therefore it is not on my agenda, it is my agenda. It defines all of my work and most of my initiatives,” Sheikh Mohammed said.
The program includes plans to cover basic needs such as food, medicine, and relief, as well as disseminating knowledge, with the aim of educating 20 million children. Some 50,000 young entrepreneurs will also be trained under the initiative, with the hope of creating half a million new job opportunities. The Global Initiative Program is also expected to provide innovation incubators to support 5,000 Arab researchers and innovators. And that’s just the beginning, according to Sheikh Mohammed, who promised to announce “bigger initiatives” soon.
The Sheikh’s eyes dance with warmth when he speaks of new initiatives that are set to yet again enhance the standard of living in his country. But it is also possible to detect a sense of sadness and concern.
“I don’t use humanitarian initiatives for any political or economic purpose” he said.
“We do it because we believe that those who turn their backs on the suffering of others also turn their backs on their own humanity,” Sheikh Mohammed said, adding that “religion, sect, and ethnicity have no bearing whatsoever” on “the emirate’s work”.
A committed philanthropist and a welfare advocate, Sheikh Mohammed, stressed that the UAE has always worked hard for the stability of this region and upheld its historic responsibility to all the people in the Arab world.
“What is, happening in our region is painful and has my fullest attention” Sheikh Mohammed said, adding that the Arab region is undergoing a “historic test” and is at a fork in the road; the region can be led by hatred and ignorance, where indifferent governments lead their countries towards a bleak future; or led by a future that promises knowledge, human security and development.
Between 2010 and 2012 a revolutionary wave, better known as the Arab spring, took over several countries forcing leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen out of power. Today that Arab spring has turned into an Arab winter with fighting across Libya, Yemen and Syria taking the form of a long and deadly civil war.
“This region will either resume its leadership, or become uninhabitable and see its people flee to neighboring continents in search of a decent life,” he said.
Few would argue that it is not easy to be a leader in such a unquiet region. His task is more than to steer his country and people away from landmines such as intolerance, aggression or hatred.
For Sheikh Mohammed, focusing on creating job opportunities, providing adequate infrastructure and supporting innovation remains his main focus.
The Middle East has seen tens of millions of its residents become refugees or internally displaced; so “it is imperative to give people hope”, he said.
“Future generations will have no mercy if we fail to create hope and opportunity,” he added. “Tolerance comes from education, knowledge and reading. Education is the key: I have never doubted that the future starts in school.”
Throughout history, “tolerant nations and peoples are the ones that progress the furthest… the U.S. leads the rest of the world in so many areas because of its openness and its ability to attract the best minds from around the globe,” said Sheikh Mohammed.
The UAE Cabinet endorsed the country’s federal budget on Sunday, estimated at 48.5 billion AED, with a projected zero deficit.
“Our priorities in the 2016 budget will be geared towards social development, education and health,” Sheikh Mohammed said.
More than 50 percent of the budget is allocated to education, social development, public services, and health.
But building a successful nation for future generations is not merely a matter of bolstering education and tolerance, he believes. Countries need the rule of law without oppression, proper infrastructure and the provision of equal opportunities for all. After all, that is what brings in investors, supports innovators, and boosts the economy, as the Sheikh sees it.
With the rule of law and equal opportunities for all, Dubai is nurturing the necessary ecosystem essential for investments and the economy. Governments, according to the ruler, should provide a sound infrastructure and legislative framework without controlling or dominating who has the right to benefit from access.
“Governments in our region need to review their roles and create an [adequate] environment for the private sector, service providers and investors. They should focus on empowering people, not using power against them,” he said.
Citing Dubai’s flagship carrier Emirates Airline as an example, Sheikh Mohammed, who launched the carrier over 30 years ago, asserted that he had refused to provide government support to the airline, leaving it to compete over open skies with other carriers in the market. The reason, as Sheikh Mohammed puts it, is because with competition, Emirates “would focus on quality,” and the result, it appears, is a world class carrier with others trailing behind.
This has, he says “encouraged everyone to invest freely in Dubai and in an environment of justice and equal opportunity.”
Diversifying a country’s source of income is also a key factor to building a successful and able nation, he continues, which would be capable of providing the best services to its people without having to worry about deficits.
“I am bothered when people talk about the oil prices and ignore the bigger picture; [for instance] the need to steer our economies away from the turbulence and fluctuations of oil,” said Sheikh Mohammed. He stressed that it was imperative for governments in this region to treat the post-oil economy as a matter of survival – not as an option for development and growth.
He explained it “would be a mistake to wager the future of our countries and our people on [an oil pool] since undoubtedly the day will come when the pool dries [up] or when oil is no longer a crucial global commodity.”
It would also be a mistake to link the future of our people, and generations to come, with fluctuations in oil prices and financial markets, he added.
There is reason for concern. Although the UAE is currently ranked sixth in the world for its proven oil reserves and fifth in terms of its natural gas deposits, the future is uncertain. The country has attempted to move towards a diversified economy in recent years. But Dubai’s oil reserves are a mere fraction of the country’s total hydrocarbon reserves. Dubai’s non-oil foreign trade jumped three percent in the first quarter of 2015, hitting 331 billion AED ($90.4 billion). The emirate’s non-oil foreign trade scored a staggering 1.331 trillion AED in 2014.
Mindful of the need Sheikh Mohammed urged regional oil-reliant governments to act fast and work on diversifying their sources of revenue.
“We need to overhaul our legislative and economic systems and principles to reduce the dependence on oil,” he said, suggesting more innovative means such as investing in future sectors such as renewable energy. Another idea with which the ruler is clearly taken, is a strong foundation for digital economies that can produce “the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple, and Uber right here in our own region.”
Addressing economic challenges and market volatility, Sheikh Mohammed, said the current market’s uncertainty wasn’t the problem. “The duty of governments is to anticipate the future and prepare ahead. What matters is figuring out which sectors will lead the world’s economy in the years to come, and ensuring that [they] are part of these sectors.
With that Sheikh Mohammed expected that the global economy for the coming decade years will be very different to the last one.
“Who would have thought that ten years ago, a company such as Apple would be much larger than 100-year-old oil companies? A company like Uber is a world leader in transport yet has no fleet, and no drivers. It is valued at more than £50 billion [$7.67 billion], yet is only a few years old. The world economy is going through economic transformations that need to be understood and built upon.”
If governments are not to alert to the challenges they face, they “will lag behind…its no secret that the governments of the United States and Europe together spend more than $250 billion annually on research and development to stay ahead”
For Sheikh Mohammed, investing in the future, in non-tangible assets such as minds, and in innovative sectors “is what will give future generations the chance to dream big.”
Young Arabs who are confronted by life’s harsh realities “are hungry for a project that can restore our cultural confidence, a project that can bring back hope to this region,” he said.
This offers some insight into his decision to launch the “Hope Probe” that he announced earlier in May. The UAE’s new space agency seeks to launch a mission to Mars which “will be carrying the hopes of the country and the region,” Sheikh Mohammed had said when he explained the name at the launch.
When asked if he really needed to reach Mars, or it was just a stunt to announce to the world: “Hey, we’re here!”, the ruler’s response was clear. “The mission to Mars is another investment in our people because through this project we will produce hundreds of engineers, scientists and researchers specializing in space sciences and advanced technology.”
The unmanned probe is expected to travel some 200 days crossing 60 million kilometres to reach the red planet.
The mission has 75 Emirati scientists and engineers working to make the mission a success, and place the UAE as the first Arab country to venture outer space to Mars.
On the cost of the project, Sheikh Mohammed said during the launch that it was not the cost that mattered, but rather the investment.
“We see this not as an Emirati project, but as an Arab one. We need such projects to prove to the world that Arabs are capable of resuming their role as a world civilization, that we are capable of contributing to the development of human knowledge, the we are able to compete globally to reach Mars, and that all of this can be done by Emirati engineers. That is an important milestone in restoring confidence in our civilization,” Sheikh Mohammed said with a wry smile. It was as if he could already conjure the future image of the probe’s adventure.