My take

UAE’s mission to Mars and the inspiring new role models

Arab world is best known for producing oil, not major tech achievements or women being in forefront. The UAE intends to amend this impression

UAE’s mission to Mars and the inspiring new role models

Sarah al-Amiri, who led UAE’s Mars mission.

Rahul Singh

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a strange and unusual country. Just the other day, it startled the world by becoming only the fifth country (including India) to successfully put a spacecraft in orbit around Mars, the first Arab nation to do so. The intention of the Mars mission is to try and unravel the mystery of how the Red Planet, which was at one time warm and wet, became dry and cold. The UAE spacecraft was launched on July 19, 2020, and reached its destination on February 10, 2021. Just as striking as the launch itself is the leader of the Mars mission, Sarah al-Amiri, a 33-year-old computer engineer who is also the Minister of State for Advanced Sciences. Not only that, unbelievably, 80 per cent of her team comprises women.

One does not associate the Arab world with women being in the forefront of science and technology. On the contrary, the widespread notion is that in most Islamic countries women have a lower legal status than men, which, to be honest, is true, and that they are virtually treated as second class citizens. The Arab world is best known for producing much of the world’s oil, not for any major scientific or technological achievements. The UAE clearly intends to amend this popular impression of Islam. But before going further, a brief narrative of the spread of Islam is called for.

The faith had its origins in Saudi Arabia. Its founder, Prophet Muhammad, died in 632 AD and within a short period, Islam spread with astonishing speed all over the Middle East and North Africa, even across the Mediterranean into Spain. By 1000 AD, Islam was knocking on the doors of the Indian subcontinent. Later, the faith would spread further East, into Malaysia, Indonesia and parts of China. With Muslims numbering 1.7 billion, one out of four persons in the world belongs to the Islamic faith. Contrary to popular belief, the conversions to Islam over the years in this vast area were not by force, but largely voluntary. Between the 8th and 14th centuries was the Golden Age of Islam, when the Islamic world was at the forefront of disciplines like science, astronomy, medicine, philosophy and theology, while Europe sunk into the Dark Ages. With so much Islamophobia around these days, it is worth recalling Islam’s glorious history.

I spent almost a year in the UAE as editor of one of its leading newspapers. When taking up the assignment, I had no illusions about the kind of freedom of the press I would enjoy, since the respective royal families of the Emirates were basically the ones who ruled the UAE. They made the major decisions. For instance, I would never have been able to carry the recent news about the abduction of the Dubai ruler’s daughter, Princess Latifa, allegedly by Indian commandos on the high seas and her return to captivity in Dubai. This made big international news, but not in Dubai itself. Nor could my publication dare to delve into the underworld money from India and Pakistan flowing unhindered into the UAE. Dubai had a free-wheeling economy, and what would be seen as illegal, even criminal, activity in most countries, was winked at. After all, the smuggling of various goods from the UAE by dhows to the coasts of India and Pakistan had earlier been the basis of Dubai’s prosperity. Once, while at Dubai’s India Club, Dawood’s presence at another table was pointed out to me by my host. If I dared publish any of this, I knew I would be on the first flight back to India! But I was keen to learn something about Islam first-hand. This was a wonderful opportunity. Moreover, the newspaper was very professionally run, with first-rate staff. Though its circulation was low by Indian standards, it attracted plenty of ads, testifying to the buoyant economy. My pay packet was a very generous one. Since there is no income tax in the UAE, as a non-resident Indian, I could send back my entire savings.

The UAE consists of seven Emirates, the best known being Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. Of the total population of a little under 10 million, only 11 per cent are UAE citizens. The rest are what are called “expatriates” (expats), of which Indians constitute 38 per cent, and Bangladeshis and Pakistanis 19 per cent. Abu Dhabi is the only Emirate rich in oil, while Dubai runs almost entirely on trade and business. But, like Singapore, it is an incredibly efficient, clean place, with excellent public transport. And, of course, there are the huge shopping malls.

The UAE attracts Indians like a powerful magnet, from workers lucky enough to get work permits (many get duped), to entrepreneurs and managers. Fortunes are made (and unmade as well) and remittances sent home. Kerala’s prosperity is partly based on Malayalis working in the Gulf. Though it attracts plenty of tourists, the UAE is entirely work-oriented. If you don’t have a job, you cannot stay. There is zero tolerance for any kind of labour agitation, the bane of Kerala. If you need proof that given sufficient incentive and acceptable conditions, Indians are the hardest working and most enterprising people in the world, go to the UAE (the Chinese might dispute that assessment). Though Abu Dhabi and Sharjah are conservative (no alcohol allowed), Dubai is extremely liberal, and tolerant. The hotels and many restaurants serve alcohol. Even Arabs are served it, if they take the precaution of not wearing the traditional dress! Few women wear burqas. Returning to the Golden Age of Islam may be a long way off, but with a UAE spacecraft orbiting Mars, a major step forward has been taken and the right signal sent.

— The writer is a veteran journalist

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