COMMENT | Most Malaysians know little or nothing about the United Arab Emirates.
What we know about the UAE as it is usually referred to is often a result of a stopover in Dubai or Abu Dhabi when flying on one of the Middle Eastern airlines. Emirates Airline, which is advertised prominently on Arsenal football shirts and which has the club's stadium named after it, and Etihad are both based in the UAE.
The UAE is among the Middle East nations which - thanks to oil and gas wealth - has risen to being among the richest nations in the world, just as these two commodities have made us among the wealthiest in the Asean region.
When news about the UAE makes the headlines, it is usually for two reasons. The first is its wealth. With a GDP per capita estimated at close to US$50,000 or five times ours, the wealth is conspicuously flaunted in its capital, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which stands at 828 metres, is the tallest building on the planet and soars well above the relatively short 452 metres of our Petronas Twin Towers.
Wealth is also highly concentrated in the country, with the Al Nahyan family, one of the six ruling families of the UAE, is reputed to have a fortune of US$150 billion collectively as a family.
The second reason why the UAE makes the news is due to its political system. The nation is often described as an "autocracy" which according to the New York Times has “the sheen of a progressive, modern state".
Despite all the trappings of modernity and gaudy superwealth, the UAE ranks poorly in freedom indices measuring civil liberties and political rights. According to Amnesty International, the authorities arbitrarily restrict the rights to freedom of expression and association, and regularly detain and prosecute government critics, opponents and foreign nationals under criminal defamation and anti-terrorism laws.
Enforced disappearances, unfair trials and torture and other ill-treatment of detainees remain common. Scores of people sentenced after unfair trials remain in prison; they include prisoners of conscience. Women continue to be discriminated against in law and in practice. Migrant workers face exploitation and abuse. The courts continue to impose death sentences.
All of this sounds very familiar to us here, including the way in which our oil wealth has been mismanaged and our human rights record has been going sideways, if not backwards.
Mosque, Mary, Jesus
It is therefore surprising that the latest news on the UAE carries the report that the Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Mosque in Al Mushrif area has been renamed to 'Mariam Umm Eisa' mosque, which translates from Arabic as 'Mary Mother of Jesus'....