(MENAFN- Syndication Bureau) By Jonathan Gornall
The passing this month of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, who served as ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the United Arab Emirates from November 2004 until his death on May 13, offers an opportunity for reflection.
We should, of course, reflect on the many achievements of Sheikh Khalifa’s life, and the highlights of his 18 years as president.
But this is also an appropriate moment to take stock of the unique system of government over which he presided.
Critics in the wider world are apt to denigrate the UAE as an autocracy, but this is to dismiss the historical and cultural significance of the ancient tribal traditions of governance of the region.
In fact, since its foundation in 1971 by Sheikh Khalifa’s father and predecessor, Sheikh Zayed, the UAE has been a constitutional federation of seven monarchies, the largest of which is Abu Dhabi.
The highest authority in the UAE is the Federal Supreme Council, composed of the rulers of the seven emirates, which draws up general policies and approves various federal legislations.
At the very outset in 1971, the UAE enshrined in its constitution the role of the traditional Shura, or council of advisors, in the shape of the Federal National Council, a consultative body with 40 members that first sat on February 13, 1972.
At first, the members of the FNC were all appointed by the rulers of the seven emirates, but in 2006 Sheikh Khalifa and the Federal Supreme Council introduced an electoral process by which half the members would be elected by citizens. Since then, there have been four elections, the most recent taking place in October 2019, on the eve of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
No, this is not a democracy. But the UAE makes no apologies for its system of government, and nor should it. It is clear that no democracy anywhere could hope to emulate the vision, growth, and transformation of the UAE since its foundation a mere 50 years ago.
Sheikh Khalifa was 23 years old when his father became the first president of the newly formed UAE in 1971. Having studied the art of leadership at his father’s shoulder, he was 57 when, in 2004, he was called to follow in his footsteps.
The UAE’s achievements under the leadership of Sheikh Khalifa have been detailed elsewhere. But one in particular illustrates not only his foresight, but also the ability of the UAE’s unique system of governance to respond rapidly to events in a way that few other forms of government could hope to do.
The rapid growth of the UAE’s economy and its population has not been without its challenges. One of the main tests for the country’s planners has been keeping ahead of the increased demand for electricity and water, the production of both of which in the arid UAE is expensive and, relying as it does upon fossil fuels, contributes to climate change.
The solution was announced in 2008: Abu Dhabi would build nuclear power generators – and it has.
Overcoming international concerns, construction of the Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant began in 2012, the first two reactors came online in 2021 and 2022, two more will follow in 2023 and, when complete, the plant will generate 25 percent of the nation’s electricity needs.
Contrast this with the situation in the UK, where the government also hopes to generate 25 percent of the country’s electricity from nuclear power.
Currently, 15 percent of the UK’s electricity comes from nuclear, but most of the existing reactors will be retired by the end of the decade. The government therefore plans to build multiple new plants by 2050. But those plans face opposition at every stage.
Ahead lies the prospect of years of expensive and time-sapping political wrangling and legal challenges, bad for the British economy and bad for the UK’s efforts to meet its climate-change commitments.
To a certain extent, democracy, if taken to be the opportunity for an electorate’s will to be taken into account, is an illusion, especially in a first-past-the-post electoral system such as that in the UK.
Worse, democratic systems of government are designed to operate short-sightedly, and combatively – politicians tend to do and say what they think will get them re-elected, which is not always necessarily what is best for the country.
And, when a Trump follows an Obama, and a Biden follows a Trump, much of the time is spent simply unpicking the achievements of the predecessor administration.
In countries such as the UAE, on the other hand, executive decisions are made, orders are handed down, and stuff gets done, for the benefit of the entire country and its people, while all the while the body politic adapts nimbly to the shifting pressures and challenges that beset every economy.
It is this flexible, reactive system that explains the rapid and astonishing transformation of the UAE over the past 50 years.
It worked well under Sheikh Zayed, it worked well under Sheikh Khalifa, and doubtless it will continue to work well under his successor, his brother Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed.
The UAE is already ranked as being among the best countries in the world in which to live and work. Under a centennial program introduced in 2017, focusing on “education, economy, government development and community cohesion,” by its 100th anniversary in 2071 it intends to top those rankings.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.
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