UAE turns 50 as a regional power

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UAE turns 50 as a regional power

The United Arab Emirates turns 50 this Thursday (2) in full expansion of its regional power, a project that reflects the consolidation of one of the most paradoxical points in the entire Middle East.

This coastal strip on the Arabian peninsula, the approximate size of Pernambuco, has always been squeezed between the aridity of the desert at its back and the possibilities that the Persian Gulf offered it: until the 19th century, piracy and trade; then pearls and oil; and now, business, logistics and tourism.

The result is an unusual combination of religious tolerance and political intolerance, a futuristic backdrop of Dubai’s impossible skyscrapers and the ubiquity of sand on every patch of ground that isn’t covered by human intervention.

This action is played by an almost invisible army of poorer workers from Asian countries, as evidenced by the Pakistani Mahmoud, 32. He, who now drives a fleet car that serves private customers and Uber racing, arrived in Dubai in 2014 to work in construction.

“I earned the equivalent of $1,500 [R$ 8,5 mil, na cotação atual] a month. It was little, so I sent almost everything to my family and lived off the construction company, which accommodated us in sheds and gave us food twice a day. Now things are better, I earn twice as much, sometimes three,” he says, asking for reservations about his last name.

Not that the salary covers the exorbitant costs that are presented to visitors and residents of central areas, exposed to a true luxury outdoor mall, although it is sufficient for basic survival. If gasoline is obviously cheap, around R$ 4 a liter, a 500 ml beer costs up to R$ 80.

On the wide, manicured boulevards of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, here and there it is possible to see potential Mahmouds, fleeing the blazing sun under overpasses during work breaks. And there are works: an estimated one third of the world’s heavy construction cranes are in the Emirates.

A casual observer would notice that most of the shiny buildings rising everywhere seem to be part of a housing bubble. According to Nakheel, the second largest developer in Dubai, famous for building the artificial island in the shape of a palm tree, Palm Jumeirah, no.

The company claims that its main projects’ occupancy rate is close to 100 percent, but it doesn’t say how much of that goes for investment — wealthy Russians and Indians are avid Dubai regulars.

The effort shows the concern of the Emirates in leaving behind oil, a unifying factor in the country after it was processed in Abu Dhabi in the 1960s. services that pull the economy.

But despite being the architectural star with the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, it only represents 25% of the UAE’s US$ 410 billion annual GDP. The capital, Abu Dhabi, accounts for 60%, almost all coming from hydrocarbons. The other States add up the rest of the economic production.

For all the hype about sustainable technologies, the scale of the UAE’s theme park-to-rich tourist artifice challenges the notion that petrodollars will fund a greener economy. Even lesser-known emirates like Sharjah are immersed in air conditioners even at bus stops.

The focus on services has sought to place the country in the position of a commercial hub between the Middle East, India and Europe, with ramifications as far as Latin America. Its main airlines, Emirates and Etihad, play the role of global ambassadors.

“We have the best conditions for setting up companies in the world. Here there are no taxes, whereas in Singapore they are 22%,” stated the president of the Abu Dhabi Global Market free zone, Mark Cutis.

The fact that the whole country works like a big company, with the government dominating or participating in all the projects, curiously seems to favor the opening to foreigners. On the other hand, scrutiny of business practices is increasing, with accusations of opacity and monopolies.

Even Brazil is positioned there. In November, a delegation from the São Paulo government led by the InvestSP agency closed local partnerships, such as with the logistics giant DP World. On the other hand, local funds invest heavily here. With or without limitations ahead, nothing seems to stop the emirs’ stubbornness. Today, the Emirates is such an active regional power that it has left the shadow of the mother of all Gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia, seeking its own agenda.

“The Emirates is the most flexible and pragmatic, though sometimes unpredictable, country in the Middle East. This is evident when looking at its approach to the problems in Syria and Yemen,” says Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.

In the case of Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship, which has been in civil war since 2011, Abu Dhabi initially supported anti-regime rebels. It then helped fund the Russian military presence that helped stabilize the conflict in favor of the government. Now, he is looking for an accommodation with his former rival.

Last month, it took advantage of the huge Expo Dubai 2020 world fair to promote ministerial meetings with the Syrians, and its foreign minister visited Damascus. The US protested, but in a protocol, as they hardly knew about the arrangement.

Good relations with the Americans, who maintain an air base in the country, however, did not prevent Abu Dhabi from being accused of letting China build a military installation inside a port area there — which was denied. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is another constant partner.

In Yemen, they went to war against pro-Iran rebels with the Saudis, but two years ago they left the conflict and are working to end it. At the same time, their differences with Riyadh on the conduct of oil price policy escalated. “Abu Dhabi’s success in rehabilitating the Assad regime and helping to end the conflict will make the Emirates the most significant Arab regional power,” says Khashan.

In the crosshairs, muscle to face the dreaded Iran on the other side of the gulf: the peace agreement with Israel, last year, brought economic gains along with the prospect of a broad front against the Shiite ayatollahs.

The price of this proactivity, in addition to the questionable working conditions for the Mahmouds in their economy, is also reflected in domestic politics.

The paradox is tremendous. Although there are different degrees of liberality of customs in the emirates — with the traditionalist Sharjah not accepting with good eyes the tourists in short clothes who wander through Dubai, for example —, in general the country is more open than Saudi Arabia or Iran .

This is because the official Sunni school of monarchies is the more tolerant Maliki. There are classes on acceptance of Western customs and respect for other religions in schools. At the same time, scandals in customs, such as the princess of Dubai kept in private prison, are still on the agenda.

On the other hand, this has antagonized the government over the years with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which had a strong presence in the region until it was declared illegal in 1994, which paved the way for more pronounced political repression, which caught not only radical Islamists. , but any dissenting agent.

“In terms of economic structure and social discipline, it is one of the most advanced countries in the world. Politically, the UAE is incredibly repressive, considering any change an existential threat to the regime,” says Khashan.

He cites jails for political prisoners in appalling desert conditions and the extreme vigilance that marks the country — try to take a photograph near a military area to find out how fast local police are. Something very different from the country that presents itself to the world at the glittering Expo, which cost US$ 34.6 billion.

With all this, the fiftieth anniversary of the independence of the United Kingdom Emirates, to which the seven small kingdoms have been tributaries since the 19th century, marks a fascinating — and somewhat frightening — political and social experiment, unique in its characteristics.

Journalist Igor Gielow traveled at the invitation of InvestSP

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