In his superb study Dubai: The Story of the World’s Fastest City, American author and Gulf analyst Jim Krane has two photographs of the highway between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The first taken in 1990 shows a scattering of buildings sitting on either side of a road that slashes through the empty desert that seems to run on forever.
The second photo, taken from the same vantage point in 2009, looks like a futuristic, intergalactic city from the set of a Star Wars movie. The empty desert has disappeared completely, replaced by phalanxes of towering skyscrapers and, in the distance, the tallest building in the world, the 170-storey Burj Dubai.
The photographs are startling, almost disturbing. They serve as a powerful testament to the extraordinary transition of a group of sleepy Gulf statelets into a unified global powerhouse in an astonishingly short period of time.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a tight federation of seven ruling families. Its federal capital is the city of Abu Dhabi which, along with its sister city of Dubai, serves as the commercial heart of the UAE.
These two are the big players in the federation and rather like Germany and France in the European Union, Abu Dhabi and Dubai pretty much call the shots, though an argument could be made that Sharjah, the third largest emirate, plays a quiet second fiddle.
Abu Dhabi, geographically by far the biggest of the emirates, was the first to discover oil in 1962 and it remains the source of almost all of the UAE’s vast hydrocarbon wealth. Dubai struck oil ten years later but recognised very early on that its reserves would not last long and the income generated from oil must be used to create an investment and tourism based economy. Which is exactly what Dubai has done, becoming both a world financial centre and the most popular tourist destination in the region.
The Emir of Sharjah has ruled since 1972, and the emirate mirrors his interests in theatre and history, with a focus on cultural pursuits and academic enterprises. As for the other four northern emirates – Ras Al-Khaimah, Fujairah, Umm Al-Quwain and Ajman – their profile is so low you could be excused for thinking that they are not part of the orchestra at all; but they are there in the background, following assiduously the parts assigned to them.
The song that the ruling families have played has by and large been a pleasing one for their subjects, for the UAE has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. Its citizens live a life of subsidised comfort, from education through to electricity bills.
Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, Dubai’s ruler, told the BBC earlier this year that anyone can pick up their phone and call him should they have a concern. “There is a real deference within the ruling families to public opinion. They really do care what their subjects think of them,” says Jim Krane, now an analyst at Rice University’s Baker Institute.
Apparently that works, as long as what their subjects think of them doesn’t have anything to do with politics or direct criticism of the ruling families. As Shaikh Mohammed put it in that BBC interview, “my vision is to have Dubai as number one and (for it) to be the happiest nation.”
And happy, Dubai and the other emirates appear to be, with good relations with the rest of their Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners, except Qatar, which stands accused of harbouring the Muslim Brotherhood. Earlier this year the UAE joined Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in withdrawing their ambassador from Doha.
Even worrisome Iran seems to cause the UAE less anxiety than it does their Saudi neighbours, due in no small part to excellent bilateral trade arrangements that have existed for decades.
While it is true that the UAE, like the rest of the Gulf, is watching with unease the splintering of Iraq, its leaders have, as with the Israel-Palestine conflict, kept their heads below the ramparts and their views mostly to themselves. All of which appears fine with most Emiratis who seem happy with the way things are, although the UAE song turns much darker when it comes to political Islam.
In a campaign, largely driven by the Abu Dhabi ruler Shaikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyen, the Islamist organisation Al-Islah, often seen as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been declared a terrorist group intent on overthrowing the government.
Dozens of its members were arrested in 2012, subjected to enforced disappearances, denied access to lawyers, allegedly forced to sign confessions under torture and then convicted and given long jail terms.
The resultant outcry from international human rights organisations may have dinted the UAE global brand but it has done nothing to deter the authorities from continuing their clampdown. Although Abu Dhabi led the charge none of the other emirates has challenged the central narrative that Al-Islah poses a real and present danger.
Ironically, the ruling families themselves were not averse to using the organisation in the 1980s when oil prices were flat and there was not as much largesse to dole out to their subjects. According to Krane, “the families made concessions to political Islam.” He described the policy as a “safety valve that allowed people to express their frustration.”
The UAE government enabled Al-Islah, which espouses traditional, conservative Islamic values, to dominate the ministry of education and the school system. In the northern emirates, impoverished in comparison to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Al-Islah made significant gains.
However, by the middle of the 1990s growing unease with Al-Islah caused a rethink. Attitudes that were already increasingly negative crystallised into deep hostility, some would say paranoia, with the emergence of a democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt in 2012.
It was then that the mass arrests of Al-Islah members began in earnest. Many of those arrested were from the northern emirates whose governments offered nary a dissenting public murmur to what was happening to their citizens.
Al-Islah members in exile have denied repeatedly that their organisation has any intention of forcing out the ruling families, but most Emiratis have accepted the government version of events.
Human rights activists in the country are isolated, few in number and fearful of arrest if they are not already in jail. It is a simple fact that, for the vast majority of Emiratis, questioning authority is not an option; either they are not interested or the risks and the consequences for them and their families are too severe.
In that sense the crackdown has served a broader strategic aim, one that the leading members of the Emirati orchestra have played with harsh precision. The theme is unmistakable: dissent will not be tolerated. As security concerns continue to dominate the Gulf and the wider Middle East agenda, it is unlikely that the UAE will change its tune.