Watch the news on any given day and you are likely to have a very grim view of what is happening in the Middle East. Syria is engulfed in chaos. Iraq continues to struggle with horrible violence. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians continues its sad trajectory. On my recent trip to the UAE, I was able to able to see a number of things that left me both hopeful and inspired. As the United States moves from a decade of war in the region to what will hopefully be many decades of peace, the UAE can teach us a lot about the direction the region should go and the people the United States should support.
The UAE is a country of just over 8 million people located in a very tough neighborhood. Understanding the stark differences between the country and its neighbors helps illuminate just how important the country is as a model for the region.
Across the Gulf from the UAE lies Iran. Currently racing to build nuclear weapons, President Ahmadinejad made his goals clear at the United Nations where he reportedly called for the people of Israel to be "wiped from the face of the earth." Since that time he has been one of the most vocal critics of the United States.
And then there is Egypt, whose President Morsi reflected the views of his Muslim Brotherhood when he gave a speech calling on Egyptians to "nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred" for Jewish people. Morsi later went on to refer to the Jewish people as "these bloodsuckers... these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs." This is the same Muslim Brotherhood that is affiliated with the Al Islah movement in the UAE and other countries who share and support Morsi's vision.
In the UAE, there is a very different view of the world, which began with the founding of the nation. The founder of the United Arab Emirates, the late Sheikh Zayed, openly encouraged religious freedom from the start. From the earliest days of the nation he allowed churches to be built and believed that anyone in the UAE should be able to practice their own beliefs. This today is reflected in a state where multiple nationalities and religions live together in the same place.
The Muslim Brotherhood's view of women's equality is similar to their view of religious freedom. When speaking about women's equality, Osama Abou Salama, a professor at Cairo University and an academic leader in the Muslim Brotherhood has reflected their commonly-held view, saying, "A woman takes pleasure in being a follower and finds ease in obeying a husband who loves her."
Following this belief, couples in Egypt are strongly encouraged to participate in premarital classes led by the Brotherhood. In these classes they are asked to sit in the back of the classroom, while the men sit in the front, and are taught that their primary role in life is to remain an obedient wife.
At the government summit I attended, Sheikh Mohammed, the vice president and prime minister of the UAE, shared his views on women's issues, painting a stark contrast to the views of Al Islah and the Muslim Brotherhood.
First, he walked through a series of statistics that that clearly illustrated the status of women in the UAE. Sheikh Mohammed shared that 70 percent of those graduating from schools in the UAE are girls, citing his belief that this was because girls are "more studious" than boys.
He then went on to share that women make up 65 percent of those who serve in the government as a whole, and 85 percent of women in his own office.
Finally he warned the male population of the UAE that if they didn't watch out, women would "take their leadership positions" from them.
While in Abu Dhabi I had the honor of meeting one of these women, Sheikha Lubna Bint Khalid Al Quasimi. Formerly a leader in technology and business, Sheikha Lubna now serves as minister of trade and commerce. She is articulate, charismatic and is one of the most senior female government leaders in the Arab world.
After laughing about each of our experiences in Chico, California where she did her undergraduate studies, I asked her what she thought of the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Islah.
"Look, I was developing software in California in the 1980s," she said. "These groups make no sense to me, or to anyone in the UAE. They are out of touch with the reality of our world, they want to take us backward but we are going forward."
For anyone accustomed to the American form of government, a majlis is almost startling. The word "majlis" means "a place of sitting" in Arabic, and occurs in a large room with seats lining the walls. Several times a week officials and leaders of the UAE come in to a room, sit down, and help members of the public with whatever they need. It's a unique form of democracy with no bureaucracy. There is no need for lobbyists, no waiting lists -- not even someone who checks your identification at the door. On the day I attended there were dozens of people with matters ranging from big (a new agreement between a major corporation and the government) to small (a man who wanted to transfer his daughter from one university to another). If someone has a complaint or desire to express an opinion, they are free to do so.
When it came time for me to speak, I asked the official how the UAE was able to be so progressive in a region not known for progressive values. His answer was simple, yet profound, "From the earliest days we have welcomed anyone who wants to make a contribution to our country."
While the leaders of other countries in the Middle East wage war, repress women, and preach religious hatred, the UAE is at peace with its neighbors, is led by its women and is welcoming of all those who can move it forward as a nation.
Americans can identify with these values. When we see them embodied by a country in the Middle East, we should do all we can to support that country in the hope that it will serve as a model for the region and the world.
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