2019 was the ‘Year of Tolerance’ in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). For us as Emiratis, it was a statement of how we embrace tolerance, and have always seen tolerance as one of the founding precepts that makes our country unique.
It is too easily forgotten that the United Arab Emirates only came into being in 1971 as a federation of small, independent states linked by old familial ties. These so-called Trucial States may have been closely linked by ties reaching back many generations but, like many families, relations were sometimes turbulent and even intolerant of each other.
The British departure from the Gulf in 1971 was abrupt, requiring radical and bold action by the founding Rulers of the UAE swiftly to forge a stable and progressive new nation. It is fair to say that without a generous dose of tolerance, the project to unite these small and previously separate territories under a single national flag, with all the apparatus of a modern state, would simply not have worked.
Tolerance courses through our veins. It is certainly no passing whim. The UAE welcomes residents from more than 200 different countries and supports their diversity of faiths through 44 Christian churches, two Hindu temples and a synagogue. Indeed, the UAE’s Year of Tolerance, and the establishment in 2016 of our Ministry of Tolerance, should be understood as the manifestation of a series of important lessons we have learned in the nearly half-century since out founding.
So what did we learn from the Year of Tolerance? I believe that we reinforced our own recognition of the importance of peaceful coexistence. We touched the hearts of our citizens, our expatriate friends and our visitors. At no time was this more evident than during the historic visit of Pope Francis last February. For many outside observers it seemed incredible that the Holy Father was being so warmly and enthusiastically received in an overtly Muslim country. Pope Francis himself observed that this was the most important visit he had made since he became Pontiff five years ago.
‘The Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together’, which was co-signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Dr Ahmed el-Tayeb, represented not only a milestone in relations between Christianity and Islam but also sent an important message about the centrality of faith for all human fraternity An important and practical outcome from the Document on Human Fraternity was the initiative to establish ‘The Abrahamic Family House’ – three interlinked buildings being developed on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, housing a mosque, a church and a synagogue – a physical manifestation of the UAE’s commitment to reconciling people of all faiths in pursuit of universal peace.
Although the Year of Tolerance has ended, tolerance will continue at the heart of the UAE’s polity as we move into the 2020s and beyond. We believe that it is central to keeping the UAE the peaceful, welcoming and stable country it has become; a model that other countries seek to emulate, not just in accepting that multiculturalism enables fluid societies to work better together and to prosper, but also that embracing differences between peoples enables us to celebrate diversity and creates space for new ideas and different approaches to doing things.
As I reflect on the experience of the past 12 months, one of my personal highlights was participating in a Forum at the Bussola Institute in Brussels last June that set out to explore ‘The Values that Bind Us’. Bussola brought together a diverse group of Europeans and people from the Gulf, many of whom had personal experience of promoting tolerance with the goal of overcoming societal divisions and eliminating interfaith disagreements.
I was especially struck by a couple of thoughts that seemed to transcend the geography of difference. The first was a comment by the former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, who powerfully expressed her view that intolerance is not an attitude that a child is born with. After many years seeking to heal the societal and political divisions on the island of Ireland, President McAleese declared: “Children are blank sheets. They have to be taught intolerance.” This strikes me as an important and universal truth that emphasises the responsibility that parents and early years’ schooling have to play in making societies more tolerant of each other and encourages us to celebrate our differences, and not to spurn them.
The second observation that struck me that day was made by France’s former Prime Minister, Francois Fillon. Winding up the Bussola Forum he observed: “We Europeans have no lessons in tolerance to give to the rest of the world. Our history has too often been of complete intolerance: imposing our faith on our colonial empires and even burning people to death for their religious beliefs.” As I listened to this, I was strongly reminded that tolerance and intolerance are age-old issues that have shaped societal development for millennia; not always for the better.
While 2019 may have been the UAE’s Year of Tolerance, we believe that it is state of mind that transcends time. 2019 has reminded us that tolerance is one the keys to a society that is at peace with itself. Tolerance enables and encourages strong economies and creates environments in which confidence and happiness flourish. I believe this is why the search for shared values can overcome religious intolerance and help to build more peaceful and fulfilled societies. As His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed emphasised when he welcomed Pope Francis to the UAE: “This historic visit to the UAE sends a message to the whole world that the Arab region, the centre of the three monotheistic faiths, whose people have lived in harmony and peace for centuries, is unlike the often invoked image of extremism and terrorism. Rather, the Arab region comprises millions of people who believe in coexistence and dialogue and renounce violence and extremism and who are opening up to the world and willing to engage with it.”