The passing this month of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, who served as ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the United Arab Emirates from November 2004 until his death on May 13, provides an opportunity for reflection.
We should, of course, reflect on the many accomplishments of Sheikh Khalifa’s life and the highlights of his 18 years as president.
But this is also the time to take stock of the unique system of government over which he presided.
Critics around the world are likely to denigrate the UAE as an autocracy, but that amounts to dismissing the historical and cultural significance of the region’s ancient tribal traditions of governance.
In fact, since its founding in 1971 by Sheikh Khalifa’s father and predecessor, Sheikh Zayed, the United Arab Emirates has been a constitutional federation of seven monarchies, the largest of which is Abu Dhabi.
The highest authority in the United Arab Emirates is the Federal Supreme Council, made up of the rulers of the seven emirates, which formulates general policies and approves various federal laws.
From the outset in 1971, the UAE enshrined in its constitution the role of the traditional Shura, or council of advisers, in the form of the Federal National Council, a 40-member advisory body that first sat on 13 February 1972.
At first, FNC members were all nominated by the rulers of the seven emirates, but in 2006 Sheikh Khalifa and the Federal Supreme Council introduced an electoral process in which half of the members would be elected by the citizens. Since then, there have been four elections, the most recent being in October 2019, on the eve of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
No, it’s not a democracy. But the UAE makes no apologies for its system of government and neither should it. It is clear that no democracy anywhere can hope to emulate the vision, growth and transformation of the UAE since its founding just 50 years ago.
Sheikh Khalifa was 23 when his father became the first president of the newly formed United Arab Emirates in 1971. After studying the art of leadership alongside his father, he was 57 when in 2004 he was called to follow in his footsteps.
The UAE’s achievements under the leadership of Sheikh Khalifa have been detailed elsewhere. But one, in particular, exemplifies not only its foresight, but also the ability of the UAE’s unique system of governance to respond quickly to events in a way that few other forms of government could hope to do.
The rapid growth of the UAE economy and its population has not been without challenges. One of the main tests for the country’s planners has been to stay ahead of the increased demand for electricity and water, the production of which in the arid UAE is expensive and, relying on fossil fuels , contributes to climate change.
The solution was announced in 2008: Abu Dhabi would build nuclear power generators, and it is.
Overcoming international concerns, construction of the Barakah nuclear power plant began in 2012, the first two reactors put online in 2021 and 2022two more will follow in 2023 and, when completed, the plant will generate 25% of the country’s electricity needs.
Contrast that with the situation in the UK, where the government also hopes to generate 25% of the country’s electricity from nuclear power.
Currently 15% of the UK’s electricity comes from nuclear, but most existing reactors will be retired by the end of the decade. The government therefore plans to build several new factories by 2050. But these plans face opposition at every stage.
Ahead of us is the prospect of years of costly and time-consuming political wrangling and legal challenges, bad for the UK economy and bad for the UK’s efforts to meet its climate change commitments.
To some extent, democracy, if seen as an opportunity to take into account the will of an electorate, is an illusion, especially in a first-past-the-post electoral system like that of the United Kingdom.
Worse still, democratic systems of government are designed to operate short-sighted and combative; politicians tend to do and say what they think will get them re-elected, which is not always necessarily what is best for the country.
And when a Trump follows an Obama and a Biden follows a Trump, a lot of the time is spent simply unpacking the accomplishments of the previous administration.
In countries like the UAE, on the other hand, executive decisions are made, orders are given and things are done, for the benefit of the whole country and its people, while the body politic adapts with agility to changing pressures. and the challenges that beset every economy.
It is this flexible and responsive system that explains the rapid and astonishing transformation of the UAE over the the last 50 years.
It worked well under Sheikh Zayed, it worked well under Sheikh Khalifa and no doubt it will continue to work well under his successor, his brother Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed.
The UAE is already ranked among the best countries in the world to live and work. As part of a centenary program introduced in 2017, focusing on “education, economy, government development and community cohesion”, on its 100th birthday in 2071, it aims to dominate these rankings.