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Unified in diversity

In celebration of the Year of Tolerance, we take a look at local initiatives championed this year to promote acceptance for all

With over 200 nationalities living peacefully together in the seven emirates, it is only fitting that 2019 should be declared the UAE’s Year of Tolerance. People from all over the world, hailing from different faiths and cultures, call the emirates their home. This makes the UAE the ideal example of a tolerant nation.

HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, said it was a logical continuation of the Year of Zayed and expressed that instilling the values of peace and tolerance carries on the legacy of the late founding father. It comes on the back of many initiatives already taking place, including the World Tolerance Summit. The event was held in November last year in Dubai and world leaders supporting the message of harmony were in attendance.

At the time, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of the Emirate of Dubai, posted on social media: “Tolerance is synonymous with the UAE. It is a fundamental value of our people and an essential element for our development and prosperity in the future.” At the summit, HE Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahayan, Minister of Tolerance, announced that the UAE was launching the Global Tolerance Alliance, which would see the country co-ordinate with individuals and organisations internationally to promote peace. The ghaf tree was chosen as a symbol of the Year of Tolerance because of the great significance the tree bears in the UAE’s cultural heritage. For the early Bedouin tribes, the ghaf tree served as a meeting point for community gatherings and discussions. This was seen as a manifestation of communication and solidarity.

One of the biggest markers of the Year of Tolerance so far was the visit of Pope Francis in February. The pontiff spoke to an audience of around 180,000 people at Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi; his opening words: “peace be with you”. This historic moment also marked the first papal visit to the region. Soon after, the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 followed. Although the event was planned long before the Year of Tolerance was announced, it was a sign to the world of the UAE’s promotion of inclusivity and rights for all. More than 7,000 athletes from 170 countries registered to compete in 24 summer sports, along with 2,500 coaches and 20,000 volunteers. It was the first-ever Special Olympics World Games held in the Middle East or North Africa.

Embracing religious tolerance, 2019 will also see construction begin on the region’s first traditional Hindu stone temple, believed to open in 2020. The development on the 13.7-acre plot of land at Abu Mureikha is a sign of allegiance with the country’s Indian population, one of the largest expatriate communities in the UAE. Earlier last month, the oldest Christian site discovered on Abu Dhabi’s Sir Bani Yas Island in 1992 was opened to the public by the Minister of Tolerance and the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi Chairman HE Mohammad Khalifa Al Mubarak in the presence of a number of priests and archaeological experts. The church and monastery date back to the seventh and eighth centuries along with , among other remains found on the site including courtyard homes and pottery items.

As the earliest known evidence of Christianity in the emirates, it sheds light on the UAE’s culturally diverse heritage and long-standing values of tolerance and acceptance of other faiths. The Year of Tolerance revolves around seven main pillars including tolerance in the community, in education, at the workplace, in culture, in policies and legislation, in the media and the UAE’s own model of tolerance. Embodying gender equality, in December last year, the president passed a decree stating that for the 2019 elections, women must comprise 50 percent of the UAE’s Federal National Council. Currently, there is a 20 percent body of women among the council’s 40 seats.

The move won praise from UN Women, which supported the policy and recognised its far-reaching message for the future of Emirati women. Continuing the Year of Tolerance, the country will see a wealth of new measures, including educational programmes that first began in 2018 such as Champions of Tolerance, a project to empower students as leaders of the movement towards greater inclusion, thus laying the groundwork for initiatives to follow in the years to come. 

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