Sunday, 21 February 2010

A national vision to prevent a north-south divide

It was refreshing to read earlier this month that the federal Government has outlined a unified vision for this country’s golden jubilee. Before this federal vision was established, planning for the future had been conducted by each emirate on an individual basis, as if we were a group of neighbouring countries and not one nation.

The 4,000-word document that was unveiled on February 6 after a three-day marathon meeting at the Qasr Al Sarab (Mirage Palace) resort in Liwa is a charter for the state of the union in 2021. While such an initiative should be lauded for its emphasis on women’s empowerment and environmental concerns, among other issues, the next step no doubt will be the most challenging – implementation and follow up.

A comparison could be made with Bahrain’s Vision 2030, which was based on specific deliverable points that will make it easier to measure success or failure. The plan envisioned by the island kingdom provided milestones that can be measured against world developmental indices. For instance, the contribution of the small and medium size sector will be measured by the number of jobs that this sector creates along with its contribution to real GDP growth. In Vision 2021, the word entrepreneurship is mentioned nine times, but is accompanied by adjectives and not deliverable goals.

Another issue that I have with Vision 2021 is the fact that it promises nationwide mobility, quality health care and economic growth. The key word here is nationwide. It is fairly obvious that the growth of the UAE has centred around three emirates, from south to north: Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.

Growth in the northern emirates has not met Emiratis’ aspirations. Visiting Umm al Qaiwain for instance, despite its beauty, is a solemn reminder of this fact. Perhaps the Cabinet should convene its next retreat there or in any of the Northern Emirates to display unity and allow the decision-makers to experience various parts of the country firsthand and see for themselves the urgency of the matter.

It would also be encouraging if Vision 2021 included, for instance, a promise that certain federal authorities and institutions would be distributed across the country rather than in the unbalanced concentration we see today. Without such a plan, a resident of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah will find little reason for visiting the Northern Emirates except for a weekend getaway.

Another challenge is the state of education in the country. Once again, the south-north divide is in danger of widening. Because of the relative wealth of some emirates, their local governments are able to invest more than the federal budget on education. The National reported on February 11 that in one emirate there exists two public school curricula, an updated version for wealthier, locally funded public schools and an outdated version for federally funded ones. A plan to reconcile the two failed.

Because of such discrepancies in education, along with differences in health care, infrastructure and job opportunities, it is likely that Emiratis will continue to choose living in the wealthier emirates. Those responsible for the implementation of Vision 2021 must take these issues into consideration and tackle the south-north divide.

Unless there is a solution, northern Emiratis will be doomed to a poorer quality public education and standard of living, while their compatriots in the south go to well-equipped and staffed schools. This vicious circle will lead to graduates from the Northern Emirates employed in low paying work, further deepening the south-north divide.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, I wonder how this vision compares with other plans that have been announced in some emirates.

Here is what I propose to make Vision 2021 closer to becoming a reality. A dedicated follow-up committee made up of representatives from the various emirates should be created to measure the success of Vision 2021’s implementation and report candidly to the Prime Minister on an annual basis. This annual report must be shared with the public to reinforce trust that this document is taken seriously.

Milestones must be set to measure the progress that is achieved. The challenges that plague the UAE’s less developed regions in the Northern Emirates are not too different from those facing much of the Arab world, as detailed by the United Nations Development Programme, the Arab Thought Foundation and our very own Mohammed Bin Rashid Foundation in Dubai.

The experts are available, the capital is available and, as the will seems to be available as well, there is nothing stopping this country’s northern region from making a giant leap forward.

The spirit behind Vision 2021 is noble and should be commended. However, the lack of detail, measurable milestones and follow-up steps may leave much to be desired by the average Emirati.

*This article was first published in The National on Sunday, 21 February 2010

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