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UAE seeks ‘new dawn’ for Arab world with nuclear and space program

  • August 07, 2020

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is forging ahead in the field of science and technology. In July of this year, it became the first Arab state to start a space program when it launched the Hope orbiter to Mars. And in August, the federal monarchy fired up its first nuclear power plant. The emir of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who serves as the UAE’s vice president, praised it as the “Arab world’s first peaceful nuclear power plant.”

Highly symbolic projects

These technological feats reflect the UAE’s new aspirations as a regional power, says Cinzia Bianco, an expert on the politics of the Arabian Peninsula at the European Council for Foreign Relations.  

Read more:  UAE launches Arab world’s first nuclear power plant

The country’s space program and nuclear power plant are intended to signal that small states, too, can dream big and develop, says Bianco. “It wants to send a signal to Arab states and the global community,” she says.

The space program and nuclear reactor carry huge symbolic significance for the UAE and are intended to link back to the impressive historical achievements of the Islamic world. This thinking is manifested in a report by the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), which states that “[t]his new phase draws inspiration from the past, when Arabs were leaders in all fields of science, pioneering the early theories of space, physics and astronomy, when most other medieval societies were marred by stagnation.”

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who serves as the UAE’s vice president, is concerned about a secure long-term energy supply

According to the ECSSR, this will ring in a new dawn for the Arab world, “in which limitless ambition and determination, coupled with cooperation and tolerance, will once more benefit humanity.”

Energy security

But the UAE is not just seeking to lead a renaissance in the Arab world. Its nuclear power program is also born of a highly pragmatic consideration, namely to ensure a reliable energy source for the future, says Sara Bazoobandi of Washington’s Arab Gulf States Institute.

Read more:  The facts on Hope: The UAE’s Mars mission ‘Al-Amal’

For many years, the UAE has been readying 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 established the Mubadala Development Company in 2002 to invest worldwide in technologies of the future, including renewable energies. “The UAE’s political leadership is well aware that transitioning from an oil-based to a knowledge-based economy is key,” Bazoobandi says.

The under-construction Barakah nuclear power plant in Abu Dhabi's Western desert

The nuclear power plant is intended to signal that small states, too, 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 underscoring the UAE’s ambitions, she says. However although it was launched in 2006, the project is still nowhere 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, Russia, China and the EU, can currently afford a costly Mars program. The UAE has essentially 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 show that despite being a small country, it is a significant one in terms of civilization,” says Bianco. “It wants to portray itself as a new middle power.”

However, the UAE wants to cooperate wherever possible. It plans to share all Mars research with any interested parties, according to the ECSSR. This knowledge will be made available and shared in the interest of all humanity in order to improve everyone’s quality of life, the ECSSR says.

Preparations in Abu Dhabi for the recent launch to Mars

Preparations in Abu Dhabi for the recent launch to Mars

Fostering national identity

Becoming a regional power, however, requires national unity. The UAE’s leadership has therefore launched a number of initiatives promoting awareness of the country’s history and fostering national customs and traditions. Special historical museums, as well as festivals and national day parades, have been established for this purpose, according to the the US think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In an assessment published in February 2019, the think tank found that the above-mentioned measures were aimed at boosting national unity in view of the fact that “[t]he traditional social pact no longer seems able to ensure loyalty and cohesion.” It added that the UAE’s growing military expenditures were further bolstering “patriotic feelings.”

Soft power over military might

However, the small UAE, with its population of just 10 million, has limited foreign policy clout on the international stage, especially seeing as foreign nationals with work permits far outnumber native-born Emiratis. Neighboring Saudi Arabia, which has some 44 million citizens, wields far greater international power.

A student walking through the narrow streets on the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology campus

Masdar City is an artificial urban space created in the desert which relies largely on renewable energy

Sara Bazoobandi says the UAE’s small size has an impact on its political style. “The UAE is willing to take risks, but unlike Saudi Arabia, it is increasingly building on soft power,” she says. The country prioritizes diplomacy, she says, as it knows that this is an effective way of exerting long-term influence.

This is evident in the UAE’s relationship towards Iran, Saudi Arabia’s biggest adversary. For a long time, the UAE took part in the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, who had conquered large parts of the country.

Recently, however, the UAE has increasingly withdrawn from the fighting and sought dialogue with Iran. In August, both countries’ foreign ministers held a video call to discuss the coronavirus pandemic and other regional issues.

Dismal human rights record

The UAE is increasingly focusing on this kind of diplomacy, says Cinzia Bianco. Nevertheless, Abu Dhabi also continues to flex its military muscles, for instance in Libya, where it is backing renegade general Khalifa Haftar, who is also supported by Russia and Egypt. The internationally recognized Tripoli-based government, in turn, is receiving military assistance from Turkey.

However, the glitz and glam of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which so often dazzles foreign visitors, many of them from the West, ought not to distract from the UAE’s poor human rights record and deficits in the area of press freedom. In the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom report, the UAE was ranked in 131st place – out of 180.

  • Louvre Abu Dhabi (Louvre Abu Dhabi/Mohamed Somji)

    The spectacular architecture of the Louvre Abu Dhabi

    An icon of Abu Dhabi

    The Louvre museum in the capital city of the United Arab Emirates opens to visitors on November 11. The museum complex features priceless works of art, including pieces on loan from its Parisian namesake and other French museums, as well as regional treasures from numerous civilizations and religions that have flourished throughout history in the Middle East.

  • Louvre Abu Dhabi Kunst Museum Model (AP)

    The spectacular architecture of the Louvre Abu Dhabi

    An expensive project

    In 2007, the governments of France and the UAE agreed upon a 30-year-long partnership leading to the Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi. The branded gallery is estimated to be worth $1.1 billion (€919 million), with the rights to the name alone said to cost some $520 million. The museum is set in Saadiyat Island Cultural District, which aspires to be the world’s largest cultural complex.

  • Louvre Abu Dhabi (Louvre Abu Dhabi/Mohamed Somji)

    The spectacular architecture of the Louvre Abu Dhabi

    A decade in the works

    The building was designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. The main building’s silvery dome allows light to flow through it, mimicking the sunlight that streams through palm fronds. The pools of water also liken the cultural complex to a desert oasis. The museum project took around 10 years to complete, and the opening ceremony was pushed back from 2012 due to construction delays.

  • Louvre Abu Dhabi (Louvre Abu Dhabi/Mohamed Somji)

    The spectacular architecture of the Louvre Abu Dhabi

    ‘See humanity in a new light’

    The slogan of the new Louvre highlights the architecture’s play with light while simultaneously paying tribute to the museum’s stated mission to focus “on what unites us: the stories of human creativity that transcend individual cultures of civilizations, time or places.” Along with a permanent collection, four temporary shows per year will showcase exhibits from ancient to current times.

  • Louvre Abu Dhabi (Louvre Abu Dhabi/Mohamed Somji)

    The spectacular architecture of the Louvre Abu Dhabi

    Cultural cooperation or sell out?

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  • Louvre Abu Dhabi (Louvre Abu Dhabi/Mohamed Somji)

    The spectacular architecture of the Louvre Abu Dhabi

    A grand opening celebration

    A regular priced ticket to enter the museum costs 60 UAE dirham (around $16). The museum is open every day except Mondays. Many items on display will be in Abu Dhabi for the first time, including works by Vincent Van Gogh, Leonardo Da Vinci and Paul Gauguin. The first four opening days will also feature world music stars, dance events, workshops and family activities.

    Author: Cristina Burack


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