Abu Dhabi, Misunderstood By Many, Emerging As Philanthropic Capital Of The Middle East


By Trevor Neilson

Many people's understanding of the Middle East is rooted in problems. For the casual observer, the problems in Iraq and the daily tragedy unfolding in Syria represent the trajectory of the entire region.

But on the contrary, despite the challenges of the region, something is quietly unfolding in Abu Dhabi that has the potential to fundamentally change the course of many of the world's biggest problems, and make a lasting impact in the world.

Led by the President and Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Abu Dhabi has become the philanthropic capital of the Middle East, and one of the most important philanthropic centers of the world. Despite all of this, Abu Dhabi and the UAE have recently undergone a wave of criticism about how they are handling a small group of dissidents intent on causing social unrest in one of the most peaceful and prosperous places in the region and a friend and ally of the US and the UK.

Recent articles have criticized the United Arab Emirates for its crackdown on members of the Al Islah society in Abu Dhabi, which is a group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the very same Muslim Brotherhood that Mohammed Morsi, the new leader of Egypt, is politically affiliated with.

As a candidate, Morsi was the candidate campaigned for a democratic Egypt run by a newly elected government. What we now know has developed is a regime that seems to be even more authoritarian than that of his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. Morsi has claimed vast dictatorial powers including sole legislative authority, barred judges from striking down any of his laws, and his supporters have been dispatched to attack his political opponents. Do we really want to promote
similar developments in the UAE?

An article recently published in the Guardian in the UK, "the UAE's Descent into Oppression." The article describes the efforts of the UAE's government to contain the Al Islah and Muslim Brotherhood movements within its borders and goes on to criticize the ruling Nahyan family.

Many articles followed this first article, which was written by Nasser al Tenjii. Nowhere in the article does he indicate, or does the Guardian tell us, that he has been the leader of the Al Islah movement in the UAE. Can you imagine if the Guardian printed an article written by a government official of the UAE and not letting the reader know that the writer is actually affiliated with the government?

Beyond the obvious journalistic principle that a writer should be identified, this article and those that followed it reflect a startling double standard; why would anyone in the UK expect the UAE to not monitor and contain radical groups within its borders? If the UK itself were to adopt this approach can one imagine the devastating consequences?

It seems that Abu Dhabi's wealth makes it a target for half-baked criticism. One wonders if the journalistic community would have any interest at all in Abu Dhabi if it weren't for the fact that it is a wealthy nation? What that wealth has also done is quietly make it the philanthropic capital of the region. Dramatic things are occurring there that are improving the lives of those who live in Abu Dhabi, but also around the world.

Health
Few issues challenge and inspire the public health community more than polio eradication. Polio is a horrific disease, crippling and often killing those who contract it. The good news is that safe and effective vaccines are available, and the world has made dramatic progress in eradicating polio, working to immunize children until transmission stops and the disease has been eradicated. Only a few thousand cases remain worldwide.

In 2011, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed donated US$50 million to UNICEF and the World Health Organization to deliver polio vaccines in Afghanistan and Pakistan, two of only four countries on earth where the disease still exists.

Bill Gates himself noted the importance of the donation saying "The Crown Prince made a significant commitment to partner with us on polio," "All the areas that still remain [with polio] are Muslim areas, so having the right credibility that vaccination is a good thing is super important."

Thanks in large part to this gift polio may become the second disease the world has eradicated.

Education
World class higher education is thriving in Abu Dhabi, with a spirit of openness unparalleled in the Arab world.

One example is NYU Abu Dhabi, a research university with a fully integrated liberal arts and science curriculum. Enabled by the latest technology, all of the resources of NYU's campus in New York are available on the Abu Dhabi campus.

Contrary to stereotypes about the region, every single classroom, laboratory, library, and student center, are fully co-educational. There are separate student residences for men and women.
On one recent day the spirit of openness was exemplified by a university sponsored debate focused on topics like; "Facebook does more harm than good" and "governments should not hold people criminally liable for the posts they make online," and "people who are on social networking are entitled to privacy." The controversial topics provoked a lively debate, expanding the horizons of all involved.

Humanitarian Relief
The most active conflict of the Darfur region of Sudan has subsided, but the horror of what took place there is still felt by the millions who have been displaced. While most of the world's attention has moved on to other things, Abu Dhabi continues to help, and recently announced a commitment to build 60,000 permanent homes for refugees who were uprooted by the conflict. Two small cities will be built, each accommodating 30,000 people, with schools, clinics, wells, and other necessities.

Arts and Culture
Soon there may be no more impressive collection of arts and cultural institutions anywhere in the world than will exist in the Saadiyat Cultural District in Abu Dhabi. The island already, or will soon, include the Zayed National Museum, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Louvre Abu Dhabi, and a world class performing arts center.

In construction projects of this scale, it is critical to insure that workers are treated fairly, an issue which has been a problem in the past. Saadiyat is serving as a model for how construction workers should be treated and housed in the region.. The Saadiyat Construction Village has been built to house 20,000 workers employed by contractors during the construction phase and independent monitoring is being provided by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

This proactive approach has led to the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), the master developer of Saadiyat, being profiled in a report published by Pearl Initiative a non-profit associated with the United Nations Office for Partnerships that seeks to "create a corporate culture of accountability and transparency in the Arab world." The Pearl Initiative Series on Corporate Good Practice singled out the Saadiyat project and its development team for their progressive, responsible policies.

Simply put, Saadiyat Cultural District will soon be the artistic and cultural center of the Middle East.
The arts in Abu Dhabi are being invested in and promoted with an emphasis on how they can be transformative, both for the country but also the region and the world.

Environment
What could an energy producing nation do to help improve the environment? How about building the greenest city in the world, a city purely fueled by renewable resources? Masdar City, about ten miles to the southeast of Abu Dhabi, will be the first city in the world to be powered exclusively by the sun and wind. Hundreds of "cleantech" technologies are being pioneered here, among them a personal rapid transit system that will replace the automobile.

While others talk about the need to diversify our energy supply, Abu Dhabi is doing something about it, testing technologies that will someday be a part of all of our lives.

They don't talk about it much--and seem to go out of their way not to brag--but Abu Dhabi has slowly but surely become the philanthropic capital of the middle east. Despite uninformed, and hypocritical criticism, Abu Dhabi has emerged as a powerful force for good in the world. Hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent in the true spirit of the Greek word "philanthropia"--"for the love of humanity." In the process, tired stereotypes are being destroyed, and millions of lives are being changed for the better.

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post