MIDDLE EAST: Emirates, an Arab model
Youssef M. Ibrahim

One of the ironies of history may be that in their quest to reform, smaller Muslim countries may end up as models for Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, and others whose policies of repression impoverish and enslave their people.

Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are two good examples for those Arab ‘ruling lions’ who ‘strike with a fist of steel’ every time someone in opposition demands reform.

For a number of months, obtuse Arab rulers and some of their servile press pundits have screamed that social and economic reforms cannot be imposed by Americans or Europeans. Reform must conform to our ‘Arab and Muslim’ traditions.

We agree that reform cannot be imposed from outside. But where is that reform? Why is it taking so long? Will it ever happen? And while we wait, are those saying that reform can only be gradual aware that time has long gone for the ‘one step forward, two steps backward’ approach.

The call for reform is not just an American or Western request. Just look at what is happening in Palestine: a full-fledged rebellion against Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.

Once feared, Arafat is watching his leadership and the respect that came with it melt before his eyes. He stands accused by his Palestinian people of corruption and nepotism. Hanan Ashrawi, one of the most respected nationalist voices in Palestine, said that Arafat must relinquish what she described as his “monopoly of power.”

As Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union have shown, nothing lasts forever when people rise in anger, and – this is one hell of an angry Arab world – collapse can come at the blink of an eye.

The summer has begun, and with it the long procession of Arab rulers and businessmen escaping to luxurious vacation homes in Europe, Lebanon, and elsewhere. They may consider a one-way ticket. This is not just another summer. Politically, things have never been hotter, more confused, or as challenging. What is happening to Arafat can happen to anyone.

To those who do not wish to imitate Western models, why not copy successful Muslim models of evolution?

Could it be that the UAE and Malaysia, and perhaps even little Qatar, are the countries to look at? Let us examine the UAE premise. Take Dubai, for example. And beyond it, of course, the UAE, of which Dubai is the driving engine.

Here is one of the fastest growing city-states in the world – ‘Dubai on the creek’ – with a population of at least 1.4 million that includes a minority of UAE citizens, mixing and living peacefully with an ever growing majority population of expatriates: Indians, Pakistanis, Iranians, Britons, Americans, Egyptians, Jordanians, Palestinians, and others.

Go to the shopping malls, the movies, the restaurants, the hotels, the beaches, and see them all. Each has his or her own space. There is no intrusion. No conflict. Stroll about on a Thursday or Friday in a busy mall for a bit of wonder trip, see the extraordinary mixture of cultures, languages, nationalities and, above all, see acceptance, tolerance, and open-mindedness. Want to see globalization at work? Visit Dubai, and the rest of the UAE.

People running this place have demonstrated minds at work. Planning, executing, and churning out prosperity and civilization is hard work, it means taking risks, making unsure bets. But it is the basic success formula for any society. Instead of religious police, as in Saudi Arabia, running about with a stick to beat you up if your dress code does not meet their approval, there is a live-and-let-live attitude.

The bottom line is, ‘As long as you respect the fundamental Arab character of this nation, we respect you.’

I have spoken to students at the American University of Sharjah. I was astounded by the mix of young women, some dressed in the local black enveloping abaya and others in blue jeans and T-shirts. At first, it really hits you because the contrast is so sharp, but then you notice how ‘seamless’ the university community is. The students speak a number of languages. They are very well educated.

Any one of these youths could put an American, French, English, Saudi, Egyptian, Jordanian, or Chinese student of their age in their pocket, being more sophisticated, better informed, more open to ideas, and part of a multi-ethnic society. They are truly international in a world where everything now is global, not local.

Above all, there are their values. They accept your right to be. Acceptance is a big asset to walk with through life.

As I said, it may turn out that countries such as the UAE can show the Muslim world the way to go. You can become international without relinquishing an inch of your identity.

Youssef M. Ibrahim is a former Middle East correspondent for The New York Times and energy editor of the Wall Street Journal.