The United Arab Emirates (UAE) advances forward in the field of science and technology. In July of this year, it was the first Arab state to start a space program when it launched the Hope Orbiter to Mars. And in August, the federal monarchy celebrated its first nuclear power plant. The Emir of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who serves as Vice President of the UAE, praised him as “the Arab world’s first peaceful nuclear power plant.”
Highly Symbolic Projects
The technological feats reflect the UAE’s new aspirations as a regional power, says Cinzia Bianco, an expert on the policy of the Arab Peninsula at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Read more: UAE launched the first nuclear power plant of Arab world
The space program and nuclear power plant is intended to signal that even small states can dream big and develop, says Bianco. “She wants to send a signal to Arab countries and the global community,” she said.
The space program and nuclear reactor have a huge symbolic significance for the UAE and are intended to connect to the impressive historical achievements of the Islamic world. The thinking was revealed in a report by the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), which states that “[t]Its new phase draws inspiration from the past, when Arabs were leaders in all fields of science, and pioneered the first theories of space, physics and astronomy, when most other medieval societies disappeared from stagnation.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who serves as vice president of the UAE, is concerned about a secure long-term energy supply
According to the ECSSR, this will mark a new dawn for the Arab world, “in which boundless ambition and determination, combined with cooperation and tolerance, will once again benefit humanity.”
But the UAE is not only seeking to lead a renaissance in the Arab world. Its nuclear power program was also born of a highly pragmatic approach, namely to ensure a reliable energy source for the future, says Sara Bazoobandi of Washington Arabian Gulf State Institute.
Read more: The Facts on Hope: The UAE’s Mars Mission ‘Al-Amal’
For many years, the UAE was ready for the time when fossil fuels run out, says Bazoobandi, who is currently working as an associate at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA) in Hamburg. She says the country founded the Mubadala Development Company in 2002 to invest around the world in technologies of the future, including renewable energy. “The UAE’s political leadership is well aware that the transition from an oil-based to a science-based economy is key,” said Bazoobandi.
The nuclear power plant is intended to signal that too small states can dream big and develop, says Bianco
Masdar City, an artificial urban space created in the desert that is designed to largely rely on renewable energy, is another project emphasizing the ambitions of the UAE. Although it was launched in 2006, the project is still not near near completion.
Joining the big players
These ambitious projects are designed to impress not only the Arab world, but the global community at large, says Cinzia Bianco. Only a handful of actors, including the US. The US, Russia, China and the EU can currently afford an expensive Mars program. The UAE has basically joined the Big League as a junior player in the race to the red planet. “This is a highly ambitious undertaking; the UAE wants to prove that despite being a small country, it is important in terms of civilization,” Bianco said. “It wants to portray itself as a new means of power.”
The UAE wants to cooperate wherever possible. According to the ECSSR, it plans to share all Mars research with any interested parties. The knowledge will be available and shared in the interest of all mankind in order to improve all the quality of life.
Preparations in Abu Dhabi for the recent launch to Mars
Fostering national identity
Becoming a regional power, however, requires national unity. The UAE leadership has therefore launched a number of initiatives that promote awareness of the country’s history and foster national national customs and traditions. Special historical museums, as well as festivals and national day parades, have been established for this purpose, according to the US. It. Think Tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In a review published in February 2019, the think tank found that the above measures were aimed at promoting national unity in view that “.[t]The traditional social contract no longer seems to guarantee loyalty and favoritism. “It added that growing UAE military spending continued to support ‘patriotic sentiments’. “
Soft power over military power
However, the small UAE, with its population of only 10 million, has limited exploration of foreign policy on the international stage, especially since foreign nationals with work permits are much more than native-born emirates. Neighboring Saudi Arabia, which has some 44 million citizens, has much greater international power.
Masdar City is an artificial urban space created in the desert, which is largely relied on renewable energy
Sara Bazoobandi says the small size of the UAE has an impact on his political style. “The UAE is willing to take risks, but unlike Saudi Arabia, it is building more and more on soft power,” she says. The country prioritizes diplomacy, she says, because she knows this is an effective way to exert long-term influence.
This is evident in the UAE’s relationship with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s biggest opponent. For a long time, the UAE participated in the Saudi-led coalition against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, which occupied large parts of the country.
Recently, however, the UAE has increasingly withdrawn from the fighting and sought dialogue with Iran. In August, the foreign ministers of both countries held a video call to discuss the coronavirus pandemic and other regional issues.
Dismal human rights record
The UAE is increasingly focusing on this type of diplomacy, says Cinzia Bianco. Nevertheless, Abu Dhabi also continues to flex his military muscles, for example in Libya, where he supports the renegade General Khalifa Haftar, who is also supported by Russia and Egypt. The internationally recognized Tripoli-based government, in turn, received military assistance from Turkey.
However, the glitz and glam of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which so often blends foreign visitors, many of them from the West, should not distract from the UAE’s poor human rights record and deficits in the area of press freedom. In the latest Reporters Without Borders press release report, the UAE was ranked 131st out of 180.