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Thu 15 Jun 2017 11:20 AM

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The UAE is becoming more comfortable telling the world what it is thinking

The story of the country over the past 10 years helps explain why Abu Dhabi is prepared to speak out against Doha.

The UAE is becoming more comfortable telling the world what it is thinking

The Middle East is divided into three distinct regions: North Africa, the Levant and the GCC. But one character trait common to all is the preference to solve disputes behind closed doors.

What has helped turn the story of the cutting of ties with Qatar into a global incident rather than a brotherly spat is that four countries have united against a neighbour, and it has happened in a very public manner.

A look back over the past decade, however, reveals that the UAE has become increasingly more comfortable with its position on the world stage as well as in telling its neighbours what it will and will not accept.

With more than 30 churches, three Hindu temples and believers from all of the world’s religions, the UAE is comfortable with all faiths. With more than 25 newspapers in Arabic, English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Tamil and Malayalam, the country is willing to debate issues.

With it being one of the largest foreign aid donors (in terms of percentage of its gross national income), the country is willing to share its wealth. Most people outside the Middle East, however, know very little about the UAE. In fact, in many parts of the world, Dubai is often thought of as the country.

The recent history of the UAE and its comfort level with its growing public persona starts in 2006 with two significant decisions by the government. The first was allowing a limited number of Emiratis to vote for the first time in an election for members of the Federal National Council (FNC). (The FNC is the UAE’s consultative council responsible for debating draft laws and questioning ministers).

The second big announcement at about that time was the decision to move the weekend from Thursday-Friday to Friday-Saturday, aligning it more closely with the rest of the world.

The next year, work began to launch The National, the first English-language newspaper in Abu Dhabi in more than a decade. The broadsheet was introduced, in part, to help tell the story of Abu Dhabi and the UAE. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, attended the launch event to mark its first edition.

Three months later, in July 2008, Yousef Al Otaiba was appointed UAE Ambassador to the US. He had been an advisor to Sheikh Mohammed at the Crown Prince Court. Al Otaiba presented his credentials to George W Bush, who had famously visited the UAE six months earlier. (Famously because Bush’s one-day trip to Dubai was declared a national holiday and the city’s residents were encouraged to stay home so that Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, could personally drive the president around the city. Then, in August, Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed visited Bush at Camp David.

In the span of about 12 months, the UAE had announced to the world that the same old, same old was changing. The country was going to assert itself and create its own path as it moved ahead.

Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

In the summer of 2010, the UAE introduced restrictions on BlackBerry users over fears that encryption technology made it difficult for the government to monitor certain individuals. In the autumn of that year, landing rights in Canada for Emirates and Etihad became a hot topic. As the disagreement escalated, Abu Dhabi introduced visa requirements for Canadians (it was overturned two years later). The message was clear: the UAE was prepared to stand up to anyone.

The war in Syria kicked off in March 2011 and the refugees flooding across the border into Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq were helped by the UAE. Since 2011, when fighting began, the UAE has ponied up nearly $1bn in aid. This is a country not shy about helping those in need, and putting its money where its mouth is.

That same month, the UAE joined the international military operation in Libya. Three years later, Abu Dhabi announced compulsory national service for all Emirati men between the ages of 18 and 30. Three years after that, in March 2014, the UAE - along with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain - withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar in protest of Doha’s support of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. (It took eight months for that issue to be resolved).

In September 2014, Al Otaiba was a guest on the US television show Morning Joe and announced that the UAE’s first female fighter pilot (Major Mariam Al Mansouri) participated in air strikes on militants in Syria.

“I can officially confirm that the UAE strike mission on Monday night was led by female fighter pilot Mariam Al Mansouri,” he said. “I think it’s important for us moderate Arabs, moderate Muslims, to step up and say, ‘this is a threat against us’,” he said. “This is more of a threat to us than it is to ISIL. This is a threat to our country, a threat to our way of life.”

Then, in March 2015, the UAE and other GCC states took part in Saudi-led air strikes on Houthi rebels in Yemen. In May of this year, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed visited the White House. A couple of weeks ago, the Al Jazeera website became inaccessible from IP addresses in the UAE.

Just last week, UAE state minister for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash took to Twitter to tell Qatar what it would need to do to repair the situation. “We need a guaranteed roadmap to rebuild confidence after our covenants were broken.” Gargash accused Doha of turning to “money and media and partisanship and extremism” in a series of tweets on June 6.

Not since Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, head of general security for Dubai and is the former Dubai chief of police, has a UAE official spoken so candidly and so publicly about a political issue. A tweet of Tamim’s about former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh ended up getting him into trouble with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the foreign minister, who chastised him — naturally — on Twitter.

The UAE has become emboldened. The country is more at ease when it comes to sharing its opinions and discussing its demands. As a result, Qatar knows what must be done to change the situation, and that is because Abu Dhabi is not shy about telling Doha exactly what it expects.