About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Monday, October 11, 2021

No one size fits all

How Dubai, a city state ruled by an absolute monarch, challenges Western notions of rationalism and individual autonomy

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | I spent the whole of this week in Dubai, the second richest emirate of the United Arab Emirates. It is a city-state that both impresses and intrigues. It lacks all the elements of what we know to be “good governance.” Yet it has been extraordinarily successful in economic transformation and at political stability. This article is therefore a conversation with my friends in the Western intellectual tradition who believe that there is only one route to a good life – liberal democracy and its accompanying regime of rights, other elements of which I will elaborate later.

Dubai has a GDP of $102 billion and an annual budget of about $ 16 billion. Yet only 5% of its GDP is from oil. It depends on a highly diversified economy based on human skill to grow and generate public revenues. So, it has a financial city, a media city, a health city and a tech city. In the last twenty years it has grown at a staggering pace, from a small town to a sprawling metropolis. Its growth has been driven by services, with very little manufacturing. This defies two things: first that economies based on human skill need individual liberty and freedom to succeed; and second that transformation is driven by manufacturing.

Dubai has a population of 3.3 million people of whom only 11.48% are citizens. The rest are migrant workers from all over the world – South Asia (about 45% of the population), the middle east, Africa and Europe. So, it is a melting pot of nearly the entire world. Ordinarily this should be a recipe for social tensions yet the country is largely peaceful and people live harmoniously – no riots or ethnic and racial protests. Where liberal democracies like the USA, UK and France struggle to keep their multiracial societies together, Dubai seems to sail smoothly and seamlessly.

Received wisdom says that to develop a country needs to copy the Western political system of an independent parliament, an independent judiciary, vibrant mass media, a vocal civil society and a multitude of political parties all competing for power and influence. Dubai is a traditional monarchy without elections, and all the above attributes. The traditional ruler, the emir, with a small council of advisors decides what is good for his people. It is even hard to distinguish between the private wealth of its traditional ruler and the public finances of the state of Dubai.

Dubai teaches us that for countries to develop, they do not necessarily have to mimic everything the Western world does. And if they have to borrow from the West, it has to be in their own way, at their own pace and root new ideas in their culture, nourished by their traditions. It is possible that Africa’s endless pursuit of the Western governance ideal explains in large part the source of our crisis. Indeed, even in the West itself, things do not work according to the governance ideal we find in textbook descriptions.

Something intrigued me during the Arab Spring of 2011. There were revolts across most of the Middle East, but largely in republics ruled by presidents i.e. most of their rule was not based on tradition but what Max Weber called rational-legal authority, a Western model – Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Tunisia. With the exception of Bahrain, all the Arab nations ruled by traditional monarchs– Morocco, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait were not affected. Their people are content. There were some protests in Jordan but the king announced reforms and tensions died.

The first suspicion I got was that these republics and their presidents were ruled by men who lacked legitimacy and had come to rely heavily on patronage and the police state to govern. Part of the problem was that many of these rulers had ruled for long (like monarchs) without traditional legitimacy. Libya’s Muammar Gadaffi had previously depended on personal charisma and the claim to being “revolutionary” but this shine hard worn off and they had retreated to patronage and repression to rule.

This is the crisis Africa is facing as well. Our presidents are always insecure because they acquire a lot of power but have little legitimacy. The Kabaka (king) of Buganda, for example, does not need to prove to anyone that he is king. He enjoys traditional legitimacy. But President Yoweri Museveni has to bribe, cajole and coerce to keep Ugandans inline. Of course, legitimacy can also be acquired through electoral victory. But how many Ugandans in villages believe that a leader needs to be elected to be legitimate? Instead, many people look at teachers, policemen and priests as legitimate leaders more than they do with elected officials.

The real issue, however, is Western belief that there is only one moral way to govern society – liberal democracy – and its foundations in individual autonomy giving raise to a regime of rights. Yet many other societies, including Uganda, do not begin with the individual but with the community. This is based on the belief that people are, first and foremost, members of a large entity – an extended family, a clan, tribe or nation. Therefore, this larger entity is more than the sum of individuals who compose it. Such societies have moral concepts of duty, hierarchy, honor, respect, reputation, patriotism etc. that shape how they cooperate.

From this perspective, the Western emphasis on individual autonomy (liberty) i.e. that individuals should pursue their own goals as long as what they do does not harm others, seems selfish and dangerous. I am a believer in the Western idea of individual liberty but I have grown to recognise how it violates some of the most treasured sanctities of our societies. Most Ugandans see emphasis on individual autonomy as weakening our social fabric and destroying our collective cultural institutions.

This lesson sunk in me while passionately defending gay rights. I believe that homosexuals should be free to live as they wish. During the anti-gay law debate, I was faced with multitudes of Ugandans, including my mother, who were repulsed by such a belief. Initially I dismissed them as backward and bigoted until it dawned on me that I was the one trying to impose Western values on my society. The lesson I learnt is that there is no one size that fits all; and societies need to be given time develop according to their own values and beliefs. It is possible that with time, they may change their values. Dubai sinks this lesson home.



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