The UAE’s hacks for international prominence

The UAE seems to be making a sincere attempt to whitewash itself, according to a New York Times report on September 1, by hosting the COP28 climate talks. This is both unsurprising and fascinating – both because we’ve seen this in the local cosmopolitan self-image the country has sought to build. This is perhaps most overt with Dubai, but Abu Dhabi and Sharjah as well: while the former, with its surfeit of tourist attractions, seems keen to appear to be from the future, as they say, all three cities have been erected on a migrant labour force, especially from the Indian subcontinent, that is otherwise kept hidden from sight. The country is also the personal fiefdom of the emirs of each emirate and has no interest or room for critical dialogues on most matters of any import – a point that the newspaper’s report also makes:

“That’s the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the U.A.E. acting as host of the annual global climate conference,” said Devin Kenney, who researches the United Arab Emirates for Amnesty International. “How are you supposed to have a serious discussion about a critical problem for all humanity in a country where critical discussion is illegal?”

As far as taking responsibility for major events to launder one’s international reputation goes, the UAE’s previous attempt was its Mars mission. In July 2020, the country ‘launched’ a probe named ‘Hope’ to the red planet, which successfully achieved orbital capture in February 2021. Emaratis celebrated the occasion in much the same way Indians had with the Mars Orbiter Mission, and such celebration was probably the mission’s primary objective. The UAE’s spaceflight organisation was actually founded in 2014; the probe was assembled in the University of Colorado, by engineers from the UAE as well as from Arizona State University and the University of California, Berkeley; its ground-segment requirements are being met by NASA and a private entity in Arizona; and it was tested in and launched by Japan, onboard its H-IIA rocket.

‘Hope’ was not a product of the UAE’s space programme because the UAE doesn’t have a space programme the way India, China, Russia, Japan or the US have a space programme. Yet the UAE reaped a reputational windfall out of the exercise, thrusting itself into the ranks of countries that have successfully conducted interplanetary missions, and giving its citizens and ‘permanent residents’ something to cheer about.

Recently, in an opinion article in The Hindu, Jindal School of Government and Public Policy associate professor Rahul Menon used the ‘Hope’ mission as an example of a country with a lower population (and thus relatively lower availability of highly skilled persons in diverse fields) achieving what India, China, etc. had because of state intervention, towards his larger point that such intervention is also capable of yielding desirable outcomes. But the UAE is a red herring in this arena whose state did nothing more than fork out a considerable sum of (what is essentially family) money, fly out some of its best engineers to the US, contract a rocket in Japan, and wait. Seldom having seen the country do better, I bet it’s trying to pull a similar trick with COP28.