This content was published on November 30, 2021 – 12:17
Ehab Fouad was a teenager when he took part in the 1971 parade celebrating the birth of the United Arab Emirates, which in fifty years has become one of the richest and most influential countries in the Gulf.
The 64-year-old retired civil engineer vividly remembers that Dec. 2, 1971, when he held a photo of the founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahayan, and saw the country’s flag for the first time.
Fouad, who parades just behind the flag bearer, cries as he remembers this stopover in Abu Dhabi and reflects on the decades to come.
“Fifty years later, I feel special”, says this man of Egyptian origin with a son.
“It was an amazing trip for me and an amazing trip for this country,” says Fouad, who lives with his family in Dubai, one of the country’s seven emirates.
Foreigners make up 90% of the UAE’s population, which fell from 300,000 to 10 million at the birth of the federation, although strict laws prevent most from obtaining citizenship.
With its oil wealth, the former British protectorate has left behind its humble origins of adobe houses and shops and established itself as one of the major players in the Middle East, both economically and politically.
Once a pearl trading hub, Dubai is now a glitzy financial capital, flaunting its towering skyscrapers, including the world’s tallest, the 830-meter Burj Khalifa.
“Some people here used to build their houses with tree branches, then with adobe, and now it’s just mansions and towers,” says Fouad.
– “Active foreign policy” –
Former Sheikh Zayed “believed deeply in Arab nationalism and worked to unite the seven emirates into a single federation”, said Elhma Fakhro, Gulf analyst at the firm International Crisis Group.
“It persists as the only functioning system of federalism in the Arab world,” he added.
Among the world’s major oil producers, the Emirates’ rapid economic growth since the 1970s is closely linked to its oil and gas wealth.
Yet Dubai, with few fossil resources compared to the capital Abu Dhabi, has flourished as a center for finance, transport, tourism and the media.
The Arab world’s second-largest economy after Saudi Arabia also wields growing political influence, occupying space vacated by traditional powers such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria.
Since the Arab Springs of 2011, the increasingly assertive international policy of the United Arab Emirates has included participation in wars such as that in Yemen or medication in various conflicts in the Middle East and Africa.
It has also become a dream destination for many young Arabs fleeing countries in conflict.
“The UAE has long been concerned about its relative vulnerability in a region where it is surrounded by larger and more powerful countries,” Fakhro told AFP.
“His politics after independence were relatively neutral, but since the Arab Spring he has adopted a more militant international policy that aspires to shape events in the region in his favor,” he said.
– Investment magnet –
A fierce opponent of political Islam, the federation has become a kind of guide in this turbulent region.
Last year he took the surprising step of recognizing Israel, shattering decades of Arab consensus that have dogged relations with the Jewish state.
“As a committed regional and international player, we know we have to take even more responsibility for the future direction of our region,” Presidential Advisor Anwar Gargash said.
“We’ve had many vacancies over the past few decades… We can’t sit idly by and watch these vacancies fill up with harmful actors,” he added.
Accusations by human rights groups of violations during its intervention in Yemen or in the persecution of dissidents have not prevented the country from becoming a magnet for investment.
Its authorities have liberalized its laws to attract more investment, calling itself a “zero tax” haven.
The country lifted a ban on non-local ownership, allowing foreigners full control of business ventures, and offered “golden” long-term visas to investors and “outstanding talents” such as artists, doctors, engineers and scientists.
Known in the 19th century as the Trucial States, named after a maritime truce in the face of active piracy in the region, the seven emirates had been a British protectorate since 1892.
But Sheikh Zayed, who ruled Abu Dhabi, the largest and wealthiest of the emirates, saw an opportunity to build a powerful long-term state by uniting its neighbors under one banner.
Thursday’s Golden Jubilee celebrations will include an air show, theater performances, parades, concerts and fireworks.