Sunday, 28 February 2010

The sacrifice of our troops and a need for civil society

Noam Chomsky believes that post-Second World War capitalism in the United States conspired with the media and fundamentalist religion to devastate civil society. I believe that something similar has happened in the Gulf. In our case, it isn’t because of war but on account of a massive flood of materialism that has affected citizens and residents alike.

The absence of a civil society has not just limited interest in important issues such as the environment, labour rights and energy conservation, but extends to apathy over the fate of Emirati peacekeepers serving in Afghanistan.

Consider this: the number of troops the UAE has in Afgahnistan as a proportion of the UAE population is comparable to America’s commitment. And yet, the American press is by far more active in highlighting the role that their military plays, both positive and negative, than the media in the UAE.

The National broke the silence about the UAE’s troop presence in Afghanistan shortly after the BBC’s Frank Gardner reported it in the spring of 2008, detailing how Emirati troops distributed aid and provided protection for relief workers. In the UAE, it is exceptional when a newspaper reports about our troops; in the US, it is exceptional when a newspaper doesn’t.

Part of the reason for this apathy may be attributed to a less than satisfactory awareness of any debate about the matter within the Federal National Council. Recently, there have been calls for the FNC to emulate the US congress or the British parliament whose deliberations are carried on C-Span and BBC Parliament. This could help bridge the gap between the body and the civil society it represents.

Frankly, the problem as I see it is that Emiratis in general have other matters on their mind. Extreme capitalism may have transformed us into a society where issues such as environmental degradation, migrant and national labour rights, as well the role of the public sector, rarely register as important issues.

Recently, an adviser on Middle Eastern affairs from a European country’s parliament contacted me while on a regional tour. She asked me why, when she encountered Emiratis, they didn’t have an opinion about our commitment in Afghanistan. It was a question I couldn’t answer. I was left wondering if this apathy is due to the local media, or if the media reflects the people’s lack of interest. After all, news about our troops is not only absent in the dozens of newspapers and magazines that are published in the UAE, but also from programmes on radio and television.

Alternatively, is conversation about the issue discouraged? Even if one assumes that to be the case, this does not explain the apathy in majlises and in the blogosphere. Sometimes, during my numerous visits to majlises across the country, certain topics can be overheard, and some result in animated and heated discussion. Sadly, the subject of these heated debates isn’t the welfare of our brave compatriots risking their lives to help others.

Few Emiratis who are not connected with the military have heard the name of Major Ghanem al Mazroui, the commander of UAE forces in Afghanistan. And yet, who among us hasn’t heard of Generals David Petraeus or Stanley McChrystal?

Emiratis who are not affiliated with the military are equally unaware about the number of troops serving in Afghanistan, their mandate and how successful they have been. Will I ever see “I support our troops in Afghanistan” on a bumper sticker? Will I ever hear an Emirati poet chant about their courage? Will I be able to listen to a healthy debate about the issue?

In fact, the very presence of our troops in Afghanistan was authorised under the leadership of the late Sheikh Zayed in 2002, meaning it has been nearly eight years and our media and civil society has yet to awaken from its slumber.

I can’t imagine a more pressing matter to take an interest in than the welfare of our citizens risking their lives for others. Civil society in the UAE, including you and I, have failed them. Could this be the price of extreme capitalism that Mr Chomsky warned us about?

*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday, 28th February 2010

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