Dubai, Asharq Al-Awsat- In his first interview with an Arab newspaper since becoming Vice President of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed Bin-Rashid Al-Maktoum, ruler of Dubai talks to Asharq Al-Awsat on the latest Domestic and Regional Developments.
The following is the text of the interview:
(Asharq Al-Awsat) It has been almost 100 days since your government was formed, how would you evaluate its achievements thus far?
(Sheikh Mohammed) I am extremely comfortable with what has been achieved. We have a comprehensive vision and specific goals, and we know where we are headed. All procedures and arrangements are proceeding on course.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Your vision for Dubai has been known for years, and your successes in implementing it is there for everyone to see, but what is your vision for the federation?
(Sheikh Mohammed) My vision for the federation is that of all officials and citizens — progress in the growth and human development march in order to raise the UAE to the status of advanced countries and guarantee its sons the prosperity, luxury, and happiness they aspire. This was the vision of the founding fathers – Sheikh Zayid, Sheikh Rashid, and their brothers the rulers of the emirates – and is the vision of His Highness Sheikh Khalifah, who highlighted this vision in the national work program that he proposed last December and was later endorsed by the Supreme Federation Council. What is important in terms of this vision is the clear statement of goals and the foresight to choose between the available alternatives, as well as the plans, programs, projects, and work mechanisms needed to achieve these goal, but what is most important of all is of course the implementation of the plans and programs as fast as possible and with superb quality.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What are your priorities in the realization of this vision?
(Sheikh Mohammed) All areas of national work are equally important, but in the development process, be it in the UAE or any other country, it is the government that leads development. The government is the locomotive pulling development forward, and, if you will have it, it is the bulldozer that opens roads and paves them. Therefore, the modernization of government performance and the administrative restructuring, legislative reform, and human development it requires are of added importance to the government.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What has been done in the area of upgrading government performance?
(Sheikh Mohammed) The first step was the creation of a ministerial portfolio for updating government performance and until this ministry presents a modernization plan in the near future, we have taken out lots of bureaucratic red tape: We dissolved tens of ministerial committees that were no longer necessary, expanded the financial and administrative powers of ministries, changed the nature of ministerial work, and lessened the burdens of routine management on ministers to give them more time to spearhead ministerial work in terms of planning and following up on the implementation of plans, modernizing performance, and improving services. One of the important measures was the formation of the Ministerial Services Council from the ministers heading service ministries, whose job is to increase the efficiency of service project implementation and provide a comprehensive framework for the implementation of any project.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Some of those monitoring the UAE’s federal experience have noted a decline in the role federal institutions play in the economic, constructional, and social development process, as opposed to a rise in the duties of local bodies. How will your government achieve complementation between the local and federal roles, and were your recent field visits meant to give the federal role a boost?
(Sheikh Mohammed) The word retreat is not accurate. Some of our brothers who speak about retreat forget that the UAE is a complex state and not a simple one, meaning that it consists of a number of provinces and not just one. In a complex state, meaning a union or a federation, roles are divided up among federal and local parties but within the framework of complementation. What is needed is for this complementation to be sponsored, developed, and deepened, and this is clearly being done in the UAE. If some think otherwise, then they are mistaken. I know some are talking about competition in the UAE, yes, there is competition in some projects and initiatives, but is a competition within the framework of the federation, and I feel it is beneficial because competition is a key element of progress. If you do not function in a competitive atmosphere then you will not improve and innovate, and even if you do manage to make progress, it will be slow, and you will find yourself lagging behind others. We in the UAE look forward to competing at a global level, and we view competition at local and regional levels as added motivation to acquire the ability to compete at a global level.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) But growth levels in the UAE are inconsistent; you must have noticed that during your recent field visits?
(Sheikh Mohammed) Inconsistencies in growth patterns are a normal thing and are minimal in the UAE. Inconsistencies exist in single-province states, let alone multi-provincial ones. I do not wish to draw examples from the developing world, so let us take the United States: California, New York, and others have higher growth rates than Nebraska, Dakota, Arkansas, and others, and California’s economy alone is among the world’s 10 largest economies.
No country in the world can achieve equal growth in all its areas. A country proves itself by achieving balanced growth as a key condition for nearing equal growth, and we in the UAE have achieved balanced growth throughout the country, where the infrastructure network is complete and modern, where services, education, health, and social facilities are in abundance, where employment opportunities are open to all UAE nationals, and where development projects are underway in all the emirates. At the end of the day, all that is in Abu Dhabi and Dubai belongs to the entire UAE — this is the tangible reality.
You might have based your question on some of what you read in newspapers. With all due respect for the media, most of what is being said is exaggerated, and their portrayal of some rural areas and facilities is not overly accurate. Yes, there are certain shortcomings and needs, but you cannot generalize. What read in newspapers about shortcomings and needs was not what I saw during my field visits. At any rate, we want all the sons of the UAE to receive the best services, enjoy all the requirements of a dignified life, and live in stability and bliss.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) In December 2005, President Sheikh Khalifah Bin-Zayid al-Nuhayyan launched an initiative to modernize the parliamentary experience in the UAE and boost participation in political life. What executive steps will your government take in this respect, and how long will this process last?
(Sheikh Mohammed) We created for the first time ever a Ministry of National Federation Council Affairs. This embodies the importance the government places on the council and its role, past and future. As for the experience’s modernization, it was outlined by his highness the president and endorsed by the Supreme Federation Council. Executive steps are being planned, and implementation will be very soon.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Some fear that the increase in your duties at the federal level might lead to a decline in your recognized role in the boom Dubai is witnessing. To what extent could your role in leading the modernization process in Dubai be effected by your new federal duties?
(Sheikh Mohammed) Do not worry, it will not be affected. We have a vision; we know what our goals are and we know where we are headed. We have plans, work schedules, and performance indicators. Among the key elements of our vision is the nurturing of leaderships, work teams, and leaders for the second and third lines and so forth. In Dubai, I rely on a taskforce which I direct, oversee, encourage, and hold accountable for results. In the federal government, the Cabinet is the taskforce, and the ministers lead work in their ministers and create work teams in ministries. Each ministry will have a work plan, work schedules, and specific productivity goals and standards.
In the past, I noted that one of the biggest problems in our Arab world is the weakness, rather backwardness, of management. One of the reasons for this backwardness is the preoccupation of leaders with details and marginal issues, the rise of cliques instead of teams, and the failure to take responsibility for decisions, or rather yet, fear or hesitation to take the right decision at the right time. The job of a leader is to lead, not to manage the current situation – leadership is to move forward, change, develop, rectify, hold accountable, reward, and take responsibility.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The demographic imbalance has always been a fixation for political life in the UAE, how will you deal with this problem, and is it true that you are about to suggest unorthodox solutions, and if so, what are the main aspects of these solutions?
(Sheikh Mohammed) The demographic imbalance is the result of several factors that accumulated over the past 35 years and there is no quick fix. The solution lies at the end of two parallel paths: The first involves the entry of more citizens to the labor market — this is indeed happening year after year and about 400,000 citizens will enter the labor market in the next 10 years – while the second involves pressing forth with the economic restructuring process. The UAE’s economy is witnessing a transition from a conventional economy that depends on intense unskilled labor to one that depends on knowledge, advanced technology, and skilled labor. We are aware of the reality surrounding us and have started expanding and intensifying our efforts to prepare and train our sons and daughters, who will be an elite group that private sector companies compete over.
As for your question on unorthodox solutions, there are no orthodox and unorthodox solutions, there are appropriate solutions, but if you were referring to expanding the naturalization process, then I must say that we in the UAE have a naturalization law, and that it governs this matter.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) There is constant talk about the problems with education in the UAE, and education councils have been set up in Dubai and Abu Dhabi; is this a prelude to a new strategy for managing the educational system in the UAE?
(Sheikh Mohammed) Yes, we do have a problem. Our educational system is not as modern as the rest of the country even though the Education Ministry’s budget is the highest among all ministries and constitutes 36 percent of the federal government’s budget. The average expenditure on a student attending a public school is just as high as expenditure in advanced countries. The UAE boasts one of the world’s highest ratios of students to educational and administrative staff — there are 12 students to every teacher and administrative employee. The problem is in the educational system’s management, but work is underway to modernize this management. As for the education councils, they feed the education process in the country and are meant to complement the ministry’s efforts, not replace it. We do, as a matter of fact, have a new management strategy, one in which the ministry’s efforts complement those of the councils.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What is this strategy?
(Sheikh Mohammed) You will find out in due time, but it will transform schools as we know them into attractions for students, and curricula into means of expanding knowledge and encouraging research, analysis, and thought. It will restore the teaching profession’s high reputation and reinstate the teacher’s respect and stature. The days of dictating, memorizing, reprimanding, and saying are long gone. A school’s primary objective is to teach students how to learn, acquire knowledge, think, search, and have the ability to choose between the available and possible alternatives. A school’s mission is to graduate students who believe that education must go on so long as there is life, and that knowledge is renewable. The inventions that were registered in the past 20 years are equivalent in number to all human inventions since the start of history. The process of modernizing education is not an easy one, but we are determined to succeed, and we will set an educational example to be followed.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) One of the issues being circulated is the modernization of laws and legislations, what is the UAE Government’s plan in this respect, and what are the main laws that will be amended?
(Sheikh Mohammed) Each law that needs amendment will be amended. Laws regulating trade must accommodate our membership in the World Trade Organization and must observe a timeline that safeguards the interests of the homeland and the citizens. Laws regulating legal procedures, court decorum, and law suits must accommodate all local and international developments. Can the law that regulates commercial transactions ignore e-commerce, emails, and electronic signatures? The laws regulating stock markets also need to be modernized, and so do the labor and the printing and publication laws.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The UAE is negotiating a free trade agreement with the United States, are we to expect a political price for this agreement when considering the talk of US conditions with respect to the amendment of labor laws and the granting of freedoms to form political gatherings?
(Sheikh Mohammed) The UAE will not pay a political price for any trade agreements with the United States or others.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The Iranian nuclear dossier is at the center of the international community’s attention. To what extent has the Arabian Gulf’s interference in this matter affected relations with Iran, and do you believe it will affect prospects of a peaceful solution for the issue of the three UAE islands (Iran is occupying) – Tunb al-Kubra, Tunb al-Sughra, and Abu Musa?
(Sheikh Mohammed) Our position on the Iranian nuclear file stems from our known and declared position that the Middle East region should be purged of weapons of mass destruction. We continue to call for the peaceful resolution of this file and other regional files through negotiations and within the framework of international legitimacy. As for the islands, the nuclear issue has no effect on our determination to resolve the islands issue peacefully.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) But GCC countries have expressed concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions?
(Sheikh Mohammed) This concern is legitimate given the existence of Iranian (nuclear) installations on the Arabian Gulf’s east coast, just opposite of the Arab countries occupying the gulf’s west coast. Any radioactive leak will, God forbid, have a negative impact on the region, and the Chernobyl disaster is still fresh in our minds and its effects can still be seen.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What are your expectations for joint-GCC work in the coming period when considering the improved flow of capital and investment between GCC countries?
(Sheikh Mohammed) I am optimistic about the future of gulf cooperation, and my optimism grows with every increase in economic cooperation in the gulf region, and with every increase in the private sector’s contribution to this cooperation. The rise in the flow of investments and investors and the surge in joint projects between GCC countries are among the benefits of the GCC. We want to speed up cooperation. We want to see a joint gulf market. We want more joint ventures among public sector companies. We want gulf cooperation to extend to the rest of the Arab world. We want to see a joint Arab market. We want to see more joint ventures among Arab private sector companies.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Iraq is still a bleeding wound in the Arab body in general, and in the Arabian Gulf’s side in particular; what do you see in Iraq’s future, and what effect do you think the situation there will have on the region’s countries?
(Sheikh Mohammed) The situation in Iraq is dangerous and open to all possibilities. We are counting on our brothers the Iraqis and on the wisdom of their leadership to prevent Iraq from slipping into a dark tunnel that leads to the unknown. If the Iraqis do not help themselves, then no foreign assistance will do them any good. Iraq is a country of diverse races, religions, and sects, and there is no alternative to an agreement among the major components of the Iraqi people on a single vision and a national program for rebuilding Iraq, regaining its independence, and guaranteeing its territorial integrity. I am optimistic because of the wisdom of the sons of Iraq, and I hope the Iraqi Government’s formation points the way to peace in Iraq and the region.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The Palestinian Government that was formed by Hamas following its victory in the legislative elections is under international pressures and a financial siege, how will you deal with this movement?
(Sheikh Mohammed) Our position is clear and nonnegotiable: We will support our Palestinian brothers regardless of the nature of the authority leading them. The UAE is present in the Gaza Strip and West Bank through the continued presence of the UAE Red Crescent and through the direct implementation of large projects like Zayid City, Sheikh Khalifah City, and others in Janin, Jerusalem, and other Palestinian cities. At any rate, we respect the Palestinian people’s choices and we will deal with their legitimate representatives whoever they may be.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The latest Arab summit failed to rise to the level of the hot events unfolding in the Arab world from Iraq all the way to Palestine, Lebanon, and Darfur, and honestly, people no longer wager on Arab summits. How long will summits remain in this state?
(Sheikh Mohammed) I am optimistic by nature. Our fate as Arabs is to work and face challenges together. The resources are available and so are the opportunities. If we set aside the many common denominators between us Arabs, then geography alone demands the highest levels of cooperation between Arab countries. When the world deals with us, it places these denominators at the center of its policies, calculations, and plans regardless of the effectiveness of these denominators. We must invest this effectiveness positively and constructively.
I wish Arab leaders would hold two summits a year, one of which would be dedicated to strictly developmental and economic issues. Political affairs and hot issues are extremely important and demand collective Arab positions and policies as well as mechanisms for implementation and review, but what is most important in my opinion is Arab cooperation in economics and development because the developmentally strong and economically successful are politically strong, whereas those who are weak economically and lagging in development are marginalized politically, culturally, and civilization wise. The Arab world’s population will exceed 400 million in 10 years, and the Arab world will have to provide 100 million jobs, how will this enormous challenge be met? Arab countries are supposed to deal with development like a large battle that must be fought and won.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) But development requires stability and resources.
(Sheikh Mohammed) With the exception of Iraq and Palestine, and to a lesser extent Lebanon and Sudan, most Arab countries enjoy a certain amount of stability. Any country where stability is a concern should identify the real reasons for this concern and start fixing them. As for resources, they are available. The most important element in development is human capital. Many of the world’s countries achieved development miracles with insufficient, and in some cases nonexistent, natural resources. Anyone who thinks resources are limited to money and natural wealth will not achieve the least bit of development.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) But the Arab region is being targeted by international forces that interfere directly in Arab affairs, launch reform and change projects, and sometimes use or threaten military force, things that all have a negative impact on stability and development.
(Sheikh Mohammed) When was the Arab region ever not targeted by international forces? The Arab region is the home of the divine religions and great civilizations; its importance stems from its geographic location, natural wealth, culture, and idiosyncrasy. Our status is even more reason to work intensely and consciously on achieving development and progress. People are not tested at times of prosperity; they are tested during times of difficulty and hardship.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) With the large increase in oil prices and the accumulation of its revenues from year to year, can some of this revenue be channeled to other Arab countries?
(Sheikh Mohammed) It is not a question of large and accumulating revenues, but it is one of suitable investment environments in Arab countries. Arab investors definitely prefer to invest in Arab countries, but do all Arab countries offer an encouraging investment environment? Improvements were made in some Arab countries, but they were extremely slow improvements. In my opinion, the size of Arab and non-Arab investments in Arab countries hinges on the improvement of the investment environment, and here I mean stability, legislations, procedures, transparency, and skilled human resources, because the greater the improvements, the greater the flow of investments.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) In the past two years, Dubai embarked on foreign investment initiatives in the Arab region and foreign countries, what is the philosophy behind this approach, and do you have sufficient guarantees that these investments will be safe from a political and legislative perspective?
(Sheikh Mohammed) The international economy is heading toward more mergence, and the UAE’s economy is more in tune with the international economy than most gulf and Arab countries. It is therefore natural for investments to flow in both directions between the UAE and the world’s countries, meaning that the UAE accommodates Arab and foreign investments at the sane tine that UAE governmental and private investments head for Arab and international markets.
As for your question on guarantees that these investments are safe from a political and legal perspective, the guarantees exist in the investments themselves because you do not invest in an environment prone to extreme dangers. If you are referring to the Dubai ports deal in the United States and the opposition it faced from Congress, well, this is an isolated case and enjoys a special status in which numerous considerations intertwine like I earlier said. The solution we adopted protects Dubai World Ports’ rights in P & O’s operations in the United States.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Some of those amazed by the pace of development in Dubai describe what is happening in the emirate as a bubble, how would you respond to them, and how do you circumvent the possible negative effects of the fast pace with which projects are implemented?
(Sheikh Mohammed) Had we listened to this bubble talk we would not have accomplished anything. We heard the word bubble decades ago and every time we finished large project. When the word bubble lost its flavor, we heard the term white elephant, which was used to describe large projects like the Aluminum project, the Jabal Ali Port, the international trade center, the palm tree islands, the Burj al-Arab hotel, and others. By the way, talk of the bubble has spread to the region and accompanies all successful development processes. If you ask those behind this bubble talk what they mean, you would only get bubble answers that have nothing to do with economics, development, education, or reality.