As UAE celebrates 51 years of independence, President MBZ is creating the most dynamic economy in the Arab world and a magnet for investors
Evangelical investors should look closely at becoming involved in the Emirati boom
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by Joel C. Rosenberg | December 2, 2022
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, then-president of the United Arab Emirates (Photo: Wiktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto)
Few leaders I have met are more intriguing, influential, or innovative than Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates.
Widely known by his initials, MBZ, he is the powerful son of the UAE’s modern founder, the beloved and visionary Sheikh Zayed, who passed away in 2004.
MBZ shuns the spotlight, rarely gives interviews and almost never gives speeches. He prefers to operate behind the scenes. But is most definitely the man driving its reforms and its meteoric rise in the Gulf region.
He and his team are creating the most dynamic economy in the Arab world, which has become a magnet for investors.
Indeed, Evangelical investors should look closely at becoming involved in the Emirati boom.
A SNAPSHOT OF THE EMIRATI ECONOMY
With a population just under 10 million people, the oil-rich UAE is one of the wealthiest countries in the region.
Its gross domestic product in 2019 was about $420 billion.
It has the largest sovereign wealth fund in the Arab world, worth upwards of $700 billion.
Having long recognized that its petroleum reserves are a finite asset, however, the Emirates have been systematically and quite effectively diversifying their economy away from oil dependency. Indeed, the oil and gas sectors now account for only about one-third of GDP.
Plunging oil prices over the past decade hit the country hard, stalling growth and forcing leadership to accelerate their diversification plans.
The COVID-19 pandemic was also devastating, all but shutting down the country’s thriving aviation hub and heavy tourist traffic.
But with COVID mostly in the past and oil prices now hovering around $81 a barrel, the UAE is back on a strong growth path.
MBZ: A REFORMER ON A MISSION
All the while, MBZ — a moderate Muslim with a passion to expand freedom and opportunity for his people while vigorously opposing the Iranian regime and radical Islamism in all its forms—has been working closely with the emirs of Dubai and other regions of the country to rack up one impressive accomplishment after another.
For example, just since 2014, the UAE has become the first Arab state in the Gulf region to achieve the following milestones:
Developed a space program and launched an unmanned mission to Mars, a probe named Al Amal (Arabic for hope).
Built a safe, legal, nonmilitary, internationally monitored, and noncontroversial nuclear power industry.
Opened a world-class art, history, and cultural museum—the billion-dollar Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Opened a high-tech counterterrorism war room to track and counteract violent and extremist messages on TV, radio, print, and social media in real time.
Welcomed two Delegations of Evangelical Christian leaders to the Gulf region – one in October 2018 and another in April of this year – that I was honored to lead.
Hosted Roman Catholic Pope Francis not only for a state visit but also to hold a public Mass, attended by 150,000 people.
Signed a formal peace treaty with the State of Israel—the first Arab state to do so since Jordan in 1994.
Purchased a squadron of F-35 stealth fighter jets, America’s most advanced military aircraft.
MBZ: DETERMINED TO PROTECT HIS COUNTRY FROM THREATS
If the last point seems contradictory to the others, that is not how MBZ sees it.
One evening during Ramadan several years ago, he asked his dinner guests – a variety of diplomats, intellectuals, journalists and fellow sheikhs – the following question.
“What if the UAE was attacked in its own backyard? What if Abu Dhabi is targeted by military action from a big, hostile country with regional ambitions and, at the same time, the enemy moved its agents to wreak havoc inside the country? What should be our reaction? What would be the right decision?”
He listened carefully to each of the answers, then bluntly gave his own assessment: “We will pound the capital of the enemy without hesitation, and we will eliminate the agents in the blink of an eye, and we will protect our homeland.”
THE STORY BEHIND THE UAE’S RISE TO LIBERTY AND PROSPERITY
One of the youngest of the Gulf States, the UAE received its independence from Britain in December 1971.
Once a collection of sleepy fishing villages ruled by seven tribal leaders, it became a unified country through the visionary efforts and sheer grit of its founder Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
The discovery of oil in the 1950s was a boon, but the sheikh wanted more—and he soon put the Emirates on a path to flourishing beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.
By the end of 2001, after 30 years under the sheikh’s leadership, the UAE’s economy was 36 times larger than it had been in 1971.
In 2001, the population of the UAE was 3.3 million, but 87% were not native Emiratis. Most were foreign workers hired to develop and run the oil industry, build cities and some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers from scratch. Others were to operate the many hotels, apartment complexes, malls and restaurants that were popping up all over.
Along with the unique economy and demographics of the seven emirates, the sheikh capitalized on traditional values of hospitality and openness to other cultures, nationalities – and even religions – to make the UAE a special place in the Gulf region.
Though Sheikh Zayed was born and raised a Muslim, he was not a radical.
Unlike his Saudi neighbors, he had no interest in building a kingdom that isolated itself from the rest of the world—nor could he afford to.
Both to survive and to thrive, Sheikh Zayed believed the UAE had to become known as a place of openness, tolerance and inclusion.
And that is exactly what my Evangelical colleagues and I found when we arrived.
THE UAE WELCOMES ITS FIRST-EVER EVANGELICAL DELEGATION
Our first group landed in Abu Dhabi on the evening of Oct. 26, 2018. Over the next four days, we met with an intriguing group of senior government officials, clergymen and leaders in the war against violent extremism.
Our meeting at the royal palace with MBZ began at 1 p.m. on Oct. 29. It was scheduled to last 30 minutes, but we talked for more than two hours.
MBZ is a tall, lanky man with kind brown eyes, a warm smile and a thin beard and mustache.
He greeted us wearing a crisp white thawb—the traditional cotton robe worn by most Emirati men—black sandals, and a white headdress wrapped with a thick black cord.
We expected the meeting to be held in a large, formal hall, but instead he asked us to join him in a small parlor.
MBZ sat in a gilded chair. I was seated directly to his left, and the others were seated up close as well, on thick, maroon upholstered couches. No other Arab leader we had met with had created so intimate a setting or sat so close to us.
Joining us were several members of the then-crown prince’s inner circle, including Dr. Ali Rashid Al Nuaimi, chairman of the Hedayah Center, who had briefed us on the UAE’s impressive efforts to wage an ideological and theological war against the extremists; Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of Abu Dhabi’s Executive Affairs Authority; and Mohamed Mubarak Al Mazrouei, the undersecretary of the Crown Prince Court of Abu Dhabi.
We were served cups of steaming hot coffee and tea, and MBZ took our questions—dozens of them—covering his views on everything from the Iranian regime and the Iran nuclear deal to the implications of the Arab Spring and the threat of radical Islamism to the future of religious freedom and pluralism not only in the UAE but throughout the Arab Muslim world.
He held court in a classic Gulf Arab tradition known as a majlis, in which an emir converses with his subjects or guests.
The ground rules were such that I am not at liberty to share with you the details of our conversation.
However, the palace released a photograph to the media, along with a short video of our meeting.
It also released a statement, explaining to the press that the crown prince had “received a U.S. Evangelical Christian delegation led by Joel Rosenberg,” and emphasized the crown prince’s determination to promote “peaceful coexistence” between religions and to “uproot the scourge of terrorism, extremism, fanaticism and hatred.”
MBZ: THE FIRST ARAB LEADER TO MAKE PEACE WITH ISRAEL IN A GENERATION
Since our return from the UAE in 2018, I have been careful not to reveal the most important part of that extraordinary meeting.
But now it can be told.
Because we were meeting with the leader of an Arab country that did not yet have a peace agreement with Israel, we decided as a group ahead of time that I should make the following three points in my remarks.
First, we wanted the crown prince to know that because Evangelical Christians study and believe the teachings of the entire Bible—both Old and New Testaments—we love Israel and the Jewish people and are committed to their security and prosperity. This is not a political position, I explained, but a theological one. It is, therefore, a deeply held conviction and not one from which we can be swayed.
Second, we are commanded by the Lord Jesus Christ to love our neighbors. This means that along with our love for the people of Israel, we also love the Palestinian people and all Arab and Muslim people. We wanted to make it clear that just because we love Israel does not mean we hate those who oppose her. God loves both sides, I explained, and we are commanded to do the same.
Third, I noted that, in Psalm 122:6, we are commanded to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” Millions of Christians around the world, and certainly in America, take that verse literally and seriously. “And as we pray daily for peace,” I said, “we are looking to see who will be the next Arab leader to step forward and make peace with Israel, even if the Palestinian leadership is not yet ready.”
I explained that we had not come with a detailed peace plan in mind. We were not trying to lobby him to embrace a certain plan. We just wanted him to know our hearts, our desire for peace, and our biblical convictions and to take his measure on the topic.
To our astonishment, the crown prince leaned forward and said, “Joel, I am ready to make peace with Israel.”
Almost exactly two years later – in September 2020 – he did just that.
MBZ became the first Arab leader in a generation to make peace with Israel by negotiating and agreeing to the historic Abraham Accords.
Evangelical faith and business leaders should keep a close eye on this man and the country he leads.
Pray for him, his family, and his nation.
Visit the UAE and see for yourself the modern miracle that is unfolding.
And actively consider becoming involved in the UAE’s future.
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