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?

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