First, let me say that this Exchange was one of the most unique and fascinating activities that I probably will ever have the chance to participate in. I am so grateful to the Emirates Foundation, Joanna Lynch, and our host, the His Highness the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, for allowing me to participate as Truman Scholar in this program.

That being said, I am excited to be back in America. I was honestly quite exhausted physically from the travel and full schedule as well as mentally from continuous contemplation and internal questioning on everything that I observed. As I sat down to write a summary of the trip, I had every intentions of discussing the two of the items that concerned me the most: development in the UAE and their government that owns/runs EVERYTHING. I then noticed the posts by Scott and Kurt, so please read those and know that I agree full-heartedly with their comments.

Having been back for a few days, I have had time to reflect on what has been the most meaningful take-aways from the trip. Obviously, I have made new friendships that span the globe. I feel that I learned so much from both groups. The Emiratis were open in sharing their culture and country with us while being willing to withstand our intense questioning about everything. While our cultures, beliefs, values, and priorities do not always line up, I realized that these people and this nation has the potential to emerge as a strong ally for us in such a volatile region. I am not saying that there are not issues that need to be worked on, but their moderate stances and progressive plans make them a potential partner for us on facilitating peace and establishing more diplomatic relationships and commerce in the Middle East. I was amazed to see their interest in US affairs and politics.

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I generally try to stay away from clichés, statements repeated so often that their meaning is pulverized and they are stripped of any relevance. However, the meshing of two groups of people together in a social experiment that seeks to encourage cultural understanding materialized into a tale of two journeys so intertwined, yet continents apart; literally and metaphorically crashing head-on in a way that bolts participants into their discomfort-zones.

I have made it a habit to try and set definitional boundaries to who I am and how I relate to the surrounding environment. It eases the way in which I can grapple with notions of identity and representation. Yet the thing with those labels, with those personal parameters is that because of their self-imposed nature, they are often fragile, fluid and easily swayed by the ebb and flow of something more substantial. That is largely what the Exchange was, a challenge in which I would test out the extent to which I am comfortable in my own skin and the degree at which I feel I have constructed an identity that has no cracks. Alas, in that endeavor, it seems I have failed miserably. Which is not a cause for depression or pity, one’s identity is a living, breathing, aging, evolving organ. If it is truly comprehensive then it will confidently address the challenges brought on to it by other more critical and intelligent minds, the fact that we recognize the fluidity of our conceptions is indeed a cause for celebration. We are yet to reach that impenetrable level of insufferable self-indulgence. That we have scaled beyond the rigidity of self-imposed limitations means that we have acknowledged the mutability of our own existence, the dynamic nature of being. Being in all of its varieties, an existence that is sometimes governed by a series of random events that demand, and not only invite, some serious introspective self-reflection.
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I have just unpacked my loot from the Exchange.  On my bed sits a USB-powered, flexiplastic-bladed fan from Dubai e-government, pens from the Dubai International Finance Centre, which has its own legal system to serve the needs of its resident businesses, and a (feels like) twenty-pound, wooden book from the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, covered in glorious photos and vaguely creepy-sounding quotations from Sheikh Zayed.   As I look  at this cargo, spanning our ten days in the Emirates, I have to wonder,  what the hell just happened?

Geologic bloody good fortune.   To me it’s an open question whether the Emirate’s oil reserves, which ultimately make it everything it now is, are really a blessing or a curse.  Regardless, it’s clear that oil has catapulted a nation that prior to 1962 had little in the way of anything into arguably the most dynamic place in the entire Middle East-North African region.   It’s hard not to be somewhat impressed: the Emirates has ambitions of a scale increasingly rare elsewhere, and, even more rare, the money to maybe pull it off.  Less obviously, the Emirates provides capital, relative tolerance and resources to entrepreneurial classes from South Asia and throughout the Middle East-North African region, raising the fortunes of many a merchant family.

But against those positives stand huge negatives, and above all some great unanswered questions.  The negatives include harsh treatment of foreign laborers, the status of women, the immunity of the ruling classes (see last week’s torture allegations), and the hugely unsustainable lifestyle lived by most Emiratis, which apart from producing one of the world’s highest per-capita carbon footprints also includes free housing and utilities, luxuries that would be impossible to sustain were it not for the country’s reserves of black gold.

But these challenges seem to me less important than some fundamental questions about the UAE’s approach to nationhood.  Can you sustain what’s basically a tribal system of government and patronage in a global economy?  Can you hope to become a knowledge economy (as the government says it does) while refusing to grant citizenship, or the rights thereof, to the expatriates who must build it?  Finally, can the UAE really create a post-oil future out of the desert wastelands?  So far, oil bankrolls everything else.

My bet in answering these questions is no.  Most things about the UAE seemed to me to have a mirage-like quality, and I think there’s much about the place that’s illusory.

This was a unique moment in history to visit the United Arab Emirates.  The world is facing formidable economic challenges unseen in recent years.  A new American president has just entered office.  The UAE itself, less than half a century old, is in the midst of a burgeoning period of economic development.  In this, I am grappling with understanding the UAE’s approach to governance and the Emirati national identity.

One of our Emirati hosts repeated to me twice the view that ‘democracy is the collective wisdom of individual ignorance,’ as if to suggest something negative about democracy. But I would contend that even those Americans that one could label ‘uninformed,’ have a right to a relationship with their government.  And indeed, there have been many empiric examples of the collective wisdom a diverse crowd has in decision-making and problem solving.  Often a group of many (even the uninformed) can yield a better result than even a smaller group of so-called experts.  The speed of our democratic process was also critiqued.  Building consensus around issues certainly does take time, but often is time well spent.  The U.S. government’s authority is derived from a social contract with the people, who retain the ability to change that government as public opinion and values change.  There is an inherent congruency between the governed and the government (the current Obama administration could be seen as a reaction in public value to the previous Bush administration).  I would prefer this social contract, periodic elections, etc. to some of the alternatives.

One alternative is what the UAE currently sports, a theocratic autocracy led by a benevolent dictator.  Of course, it is relatively easier to like a dictator when that dictator is benevolent, and the UAE is fortunate.  But the world has seen dictatorships in the Middle East and elsewhere that have been anything but benign.  I would take my somewhat sluggish democracy to the gamble of a ‘good’ dictatorship any day.  I appreciate the UAE’s Federal National Council (FNC), an advisory body that can recommend but not make laws, however until the FNC has legislative authority it is symbolic more than it is functional.  I love the system of American government; the ideals we strive for yet sometimes fail to meet, but the fervor and conviction that we have to try.  The American identity is built upon diversity, opportunity, and freedom.

Americans place value on our political institutions (congress, the presidency, supreme court, etc.) rather than the individuals occupying those positions.  President Obama still has rock star appeal, but that may be just reactionary enthusiasm to the past 8 years of American leadership. President Obama will be judged based on what he does and how he does it.  As such, it is hard for me to comprehend the pure love of one person like Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the UAE. Complicating this love is a national identity that seems vacuous – tied up in a leader who is no longer living and a tenuous balance between Emirati nationals and non-nationals, who are helping develop the young country but are disenfranchised and, based on our personal conversations while in the UAE, do not feel like a part of the culture.

It is not clear to me where the UAE will be by 2030, a year that has seemingly arbitrary importance in their growth projections, or if they really know where they want to be.  Their masterplans for everything from the economy to urban planning have Orwellian undertones.   They are employing a development principle predicated upon future demand – “if we build it they will come.”

But what if they build it and no one comes?  What, then, will become of the UAE?  And who will the Emiratis be?

Grain of Salt:  I wrote this at 4:30 AM after spending three hours in the ER and an hour in the police station because I could not sleep.  It was written on Wednesday morning and edited today.  Obviously I’m not an expert on the economic or political situation of Dubai, these are only my personal observations from my experience.

I am sitting on the balcony of our five-star hotel in Dubai listening to the 24-hour construction crew work through the night.  The hotel I’m in was built by non-citizen laborers from Pakistan, India, and the Philippines all so that I could take a shower that feels like a waterfall and sit on the balcony writing on my laptop and wearing hotel slippers.  The view would be impressive if this were a real city, a city constructed on organic and natural premises.  As it is, I find it upsetting to see all the street lights in the empty and broken residential areas and the commercial towers dark with un-rented space.  And yet they build through the night, lighting up unfinished towers like beacons of a hopeful future in the Dubai skyline.* It makes me wonder if you can build confidence out of concrete and shiny board rooms.  To me it seems like an economic theater performance more than a genuine development.

It’s 4:32 AM and I just got home from the Police Station.

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