The UAE stands firm in its commitment to respecting diversity at home and abroad.
Internationally, the Middle East is often cast in the role of the strident fundamentalist, isolated from change and unwilling to welcome outsiders. Of course, such opinion ignores not only the nuances at play throughout the region, but also the very real commitment to tolerance championed by the UAE. As the first country in the world to create a formal Charter of Tolerance, Coexistence and Peace, the UAE seeks to re-cast the Middle East in the play of international relations.
As the home of a massive expatriate community from over 200 nations, the UAE shows a unique expertise in balancing national identity with tolerance. The UAE constitution establishes Islam as the state religion, but also guarantees freedom of religious worship, so long as there is no conflict with public policy. The recent Anti-Discrimination Law forbids discrimination based on religion, caste, doctrine, race, colour, or ethnic origin as well as actions or speech meant to stoke hatred based on religion. Regarding the contents of the new Charter, “The Tolerance, Coexistence and Peace Charter will contain the most important terms for domestic and international laws related to tolerance, peace, coexistence and harmony on the one hand, and the denunciation of hate, racism, extremism, and terrorism on the other,” says Sheikha Lubna Bint Khalid Al Qasimi, the world’s first Minister of State for Tolerance.
Though the Charter’s creation is to be saluted, the real test of its effectiveness will be in its implementation. The newly created National Programme for Tolerance will work with local, federal, and
international organisations to promote tolerance, and fight extremism and radicalism. The Tolerance Thinkers Council will develop and guide the Programme’s initiatives as well as review and revise existing UAE laws to promote tolerance and combat discrimination, hatred, and extremism. The UAE government has expressed its commitment to upholding the Charter via the creation of a new Cabinet position for the Minister of State for Tolerance, the debut of a new tolerance hand sign and, more importantly for the global stage, high profile meetings and discussions with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Vatican, and launching the Sawab Centre with the United States to promote moderate voices on social media.
The UAE’s embrace of tolerance is laudable, especially when the current international scene demands the entire region conform to a well- worn script. Tolerance alone, though, can only carry the UAE so far. The country’s large expatriate workforce – at least 80% of UAE residents are not UAE citizens – rely on work visas, provided by employers, to reside in the UAE. With no permanent residency option, UAE residents must depend upon their employers’ sponsorship to remain in the country.
As the UAE seeks to turn the page on the narrative of tolerance in the Middle East, the international community should take note – typecasting no longer holds true in the region. However, as the UAE develops its role as a pioneer for tolerance, its own agenda would be well served by reviewing the position of expatriates at home as well.