Sunday, November 23, 2014

How Dubai caused the Arab awakening

Thomas Friedman

November 21, 2014

Ever since the Arab awakening in late 2010, America has lurched from one policy response to another. We tried decapitation without invasion in Libya; it failed. We tried abdication in Syria; it failed. We tried democratisation in Egypt, endorsing the election of the Muslim Brotherhood; it failed. We tried invasion, occupation, abdication and, now, reintervention in Iraq and, although the jury is still out, only a fool would be optimistic.

Maybe, the beginning of wisdom is admitting that we do not know what we are doing out here and, more importantly, that we do not have the will to invest in overwhelming force for the time it would take to reshape any of these places — and, even if we did, it is not clear that it would work.

So if the Middle East is a region we can neither fix nor ignore, what is left? I’m for “containment” and “amplification”. How so? Where there is disorder — Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya — collaborate with regional forces to contain it, which is basically what we are doing today. I just hope we do not get in more deeply.

Where there is imposed order — Egypt and Algeria — work quietly with the government to try to make that order more decent, just, inclusive and legitimate. Where there is order and decency — Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon,Kurdistan and the United Arab Emirates — do everything to amplify it, so it becomes more consensual and sustainable. And where there is order, decency and democracy — Tunisia — give it as much money as it asks for, (which we have not done).

But never forget: We can only amplify what they do. When change starts or depends on our staying power, it is not self-sustaining — the most important value in international relations. When it starts with them, it can be self-sustaining. The best example of that is the UAE and its crown jewel — Dubai. I had several conversations on this question: Did Dubai cause the Arab awakening?

Wait. How could it have? The UAE and Dubai are absolute monarchies that tolerate no opposition or real freedom of the press. It is because Dubai, beyond the glitz, glass and real-estate booms and busts, has become the Manhattan of the Arab world — a place where young Arabs from across the region can come to realise their potential in the arts, business, media, education and technology start-ups (with world-class firms), and in their culture, language, religious milieu, food preferences, music and clothing.


As more young Arabs went to Dubai or viewed it on TV from afar, more and more asked: “Why don’t we have that in my Arab country?” Former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said to me: “People know what it means to be a citizen everywhere now.” It was one thing for young Egyptians to observe the success of Singapore or Brazil and compare it with their flagging country.

But, when Dubai showed that Arabs could build a Singapore, where young Arabs could realise their potential, Dubai became politically subversive. Across the region, you heard the question: “Even if we can’t have democracy, why can’t we at least have Dubai?”

“Dubai is the capital of the Arab Spring — the real revolution started here,” argued Mr Mazen Nahawi, 39, a Palestinian who founded News Group International, a media-monitoring company in Dubai.

The Arab awakening “did not start because they wanted freedom and democracy”. “It started in the mind of the average (Arab), who saw the evidence in Dubai that we could do things that are hard and do them world class (such as Dubai Ports and Emirates airline), with a high level of performance in corporate and government sectors ... and with a lot of tolerance. ... And they compared that with the reality and rhetoric of the Arab military regimes (they were living under).”

There is a UAE government-funded incubator called “twofour54”, which is aimed at sparking an Arabic media and entertainment industry. I always try to visit. In 2008, it was incubating 15 companies. Today, it has 311, with filmmakers, artists and “starter-uppers” coming from every Arab country and South Asia.

“Al Jazeera gave Arabs a window to the world and Dubai proved it could be done here,” added Mr Nahawi.

When you see someone like you succeeding next door while your society is not, it becomes political. In April, ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller released its third Arab youth survey, finding that “for the third year running, the UAE remains the most popular country to live in and the country Arab youth would most like their country to emulate”. The UAE got 39 per cent, while the United States got 21 per cent.

The point: It has to start with them. The best we can do is amplify.

Australian counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, who served with the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, told me: “Just like there is a spark of life in a physical body, there has to be a spark of legitimacy and coherence in a body politic. And, if it is not there, trying to substitute for it is like putting a cadaver on a slab and harnessing a lightning bolt to it to bring it back to life. You end up with Dr Frankenstein. You can animate a corpse and make it walk and talk but, sooner or later, it’s going to go rogue ... When you don’t have local leadership, invading does not make things better; it makes them worse.”


About the author: Thomas Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at The New York Times.

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