In the midst of the Mideast’s chaos, one country has become a laboratory for producing exciting new ideas about the future of governance.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is CEO and editor of the FP Group. His latest book, National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear, was published in October 2014.
Sitting on the 51st floor of the Emirates Tower in Dubai, it is possible to imagine you are floating above the Emerald City of Oz. The soaring towers of the city include the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest building), and the architectural darling of the city’s buildings evokes a sense of tomorrow in a way that no city in the “Western world” can rival. In fact, it’s really only this city — and a handful of the modernist urban wonders of China — that suggests the kind of promise, daring, and innovation with the same twisting, glistening vibrancy.
The office that offers this view belongs to Mohammed al-Gergawi, the United Arab Emirates’ minister of cabinet affairs. At 52, Gergawi, who went to college in the United States, is an example of the unique cadre of government innovators who have set the UAE apart from any nation in the Middle East, placing it atop the very small group of the world’s most imaginative and successful governments.
Looking down from his office, Gergawi points to a six-lane highway below that runs as one of the major arteries through Dubai, a road pulsing with late model cars in a city that is now home to the world’s busiest airport, many of its best-known companies, and one of the most remarkably diverse and international communities on the planet. (An estimated 89 percent of UAE residents are noncitizens.)
“I remember when the country was founded, in 1971, traveling down that road. We were driving from Dubai to Abu Dhabi,” Gergawi tells me. “But it was not a paved road back then. We had to travel it in a Land Rover. I was a little boy and sitting in the back seat, and we were bouncing around so I enjoyed that. But it is a reminder. This is a very young country.”
Gergawi, working with the prime minister of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and other members of the country’s senior leadership helped shape the recent government reforms that have prompted much scrutiny and some searing commentaries in the media. Among the features of the reforms was the creation of a new Ministry of Tolerance and a Ministry of Happiness. The minister of youth named in the reforms is 22 years old. The announcements were made by the prime minister via Twitter. He explained the rationale behind them in an article he posted on LinkedIn.
Among the critics was Human Rights Watch researcher Nicholas McGeehan who was quoted by the New York Times as saying, “The Ministry of Happiness sounds sort of Orwellian and sinister given that this is a surveillance state, but it is in line with their quite high self-regard.” Interestingly, I do not know a single Emirati who does not acknowledge that there are many areas in which their country still has work to do in terms of reform. And there is no doubt among the issues that work needs to be done: Freedom of expression is high atop the list. And just as the foreign policy of the UAE’s close allies, like the United States, should be open to serious scrutiny, so too should the collateral consequences of the Emirati intervention in Yemen, for example.
That said, it is rich, hypocritical, and cynical of those critics in the West to adjudge these latest reforms (and the long line of innovations introduced by the Emiratis) as anything more than welcome experiments in a search for producing a successful state in a region that, at least in recent memory, has had a very unfortunate track record in areas of governance. (By way of full disclosure, I was in the UAE to moderate the fifth edition of Foreign Policy’s PeaceGame project, which we host with the support of the Emirati government. That said, the views expressed in this column are mine, independent of that relationship, and I am making every effort to be objective. For just the same reasons, FP’s business relationships should not influence our editorial content positively, and they should also not bias us to deny positive commentary where it is due. At any rate, judge this for yourself. The story of the creativity of Emirati leaders is worthy of consideration regardless of how you may view the overall track record of the country.)
Consider the age of the country: 44 years old. Forty-four years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the United States embraced slavery and conducted a genocidal war against the indigenous people from whom the country was being stolen. Women, the majority of the population, were still 90 years away from getting the vote. Now, 240 years later, the United States is not only still home to grotesque inequities and surpassing injustices, but as surveillance states go, it leads the world. And the U.K. is not far behind. None of this defends the record of the UAE on issues like the rights of guest workers, for example, but it does offer a bracing bit of perspective.
Some four decades after its founding, the recent government reforms included the placement of eight women to the federal cabinet of 29 ministers, including the 22-year-old Minister of Youth Shamma al-Mazrui, who holds degrees from Oxford University and New York University Abu Dhabi. Having a youth minister who can actually relate to young people in a world in which one of the great challenges is millennials’ distrust of institutions is in itself a bold and long-overdue step that other countries would do well to emulate.
Seventy-plus percent of those enrolled in university in the UAE are women. The country has recently initiated reforms that have dramatically increased the role of women in parliament and required the participation of women on boards. It has many examples of the outstanding performance of its women to cite: from media CEO Noura al-Kaabi, one of FP’s 2013 Global Thinkers, to fighter pilot Maj. Mariam al-Mansouri to the lead scientist on the country’s ambitious project to send a probe to Mars by 2021, Sarah Amiri.
All this in a country where, during the year of its founding in 1971, there were a few dozen residents who had a university degree. But education has become such a priority that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Sorbonne, and NYU have all opened campuses there, as have organizations like the Cleveland Clinic, in part because they believed in the quality of the education and training of the locals on which they would depend. Today, the UAE ranks higher than any other country in the Middle East in educational attainment of all students, 45th in the world.
But by other metrics, the country also does well. The tiny country of 10 million ranks 30th in the world by GDP, according to the World Bank. In the World Economic Forum’s 2015-2016 Global Competitiveness Index, it ranks 17th. The WEF also ranked the country fourth in the world in terms of infrastructure, second on the planet in terms of air transport infrastructure, and first for roads.
According to Mercer’s 2016 Quality of Living rankings, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are not only the two highest ranked cities in the Middle East and North Africa, they also outrank all cities in Latin America and throughout the global south. Which brings us back to the UAE’s recently announced reforms. The idea of a government focused on happiness is not new, of course. The U.S. Declaration of Independence cited its pursuit as one of the country’s founding objectives 240 years ago. Since the 1970s, the people of Bhutan have been seeking to measure and advance their Gross National Happiness. (Bhutan’s prime minister, Tshering Tobgay, gave a particularly inspired talk on this at the most recent TED meetings in Vancouver.) And more recently, the United Nations has led an effort to look for better metrics by which to assess how well governments are meeting the elusive human needs of their people.
This is not something new to the UAE either. Measuring happiness has been a goal of the government for years. In fact, measuring every aspect of the performance of their government has been a goal for years. The UAE was, to my knowledge, the first government in the world to rate — and later to rate in real time — the performance of ministers against key metrics set for them each year. Each day, ministers can look at an iPad that was given to them at their swearing in and see how they are performing versus all the other members of the cabinet in terms of meeting those goals.
The idea behind creating a Ministry of Tolerance is also much older than the ministry itself. The country was founded by its visionary first ruler, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, with principles of tolerance in mind. Educating women and treating them more equitably than any other country in the region was the first evidence of this. But this is a country that is home to many churches and even a synagogue. In part, this dates back to its historic role as a trading center, a role that even today has Dubai as a regular destination of Iranians (despite the tensions between the two countries), Russians (despite their current affinity for the Iranians), Chinese, and representatives of every country on earth. Indeed, the UAE’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, son of the founder, ordered a statue to tolerance — one that literally spelled out the word — placed in front of one of his offices to send a message about what a priority it is.
The same crown prince, one of the most thoughtful world leaders I have ever met, also last year delivered a speech that would have been revolutionary in every other oil-producing country. He declared that it was a goal of the nation to learn to live without oil. The country has already reduced oil as a percentage of its GDP to under 30 percent and is aiming to achieve a level below 20 percent by 2020. That is a radical commitment to diversification of the economy that shows the kind of foresight Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed’s father demonstrated when he set up the world’s first sovereign wealth fund just years after oil was discovered in the country.
Back in Gergawi’s office, he tells me that just 51 floors below where we are standing, the country is erecting a “Museum of the Future.” Gergawi has been placed in charge of future planning for the country. He sees it not just as an important mission but also as an expression of a national character focused on innovation. “Sometimes,” he muses, “I think that in addition to being a growing young country we also view ourselves as a laboratory.”
That attitude is certain to produce failures and controversy. In fact, they are built into the approach. As the country has tried to shift the way government services are delivered to citizens via apps — another area in which it is a world leader — the attitude has been much as it would be in Silicon Valley. Failures are seen as part of the process, something to be accepted as a price that is paid for innovation. At the same time, it is searching the world for best practices that can be embraced, a goal that it has institutionalized by convening for the past four years the most important conference in the world of top leaders discussing issues of national governance. It was coinciding with this event that the most recent round of reforms were announced.
While critics and Emiratis and guests within the country may identify much work that remains to be done, one cannot come away from a visit to the UAE without being impressed with what has been achieved in a remarkably short period of time. Moreover, one cannot help but be struck by the degree to which many leading governments — including ours in the United States — would benefit from a similar commitment to innovation … not to mention one to tolerance and happiness.
Photo credit: Chris Jackson/Getty Images