10 July 2021

The UAE as a Knowledge Network by Lara Setrakian

I remember stepping into the UAE for the first time on September 15, 2007.  I was on assignment covering Iran and the Arab world for ABC News. In my first dispatch I compared Dubai to the Star Wars Cantina: you could encounter a universe of people here, of all types and backgrounds. It was a place to meet and understand the world.

The UAE is where I spent the formative years of my professional life. It made many things possible – above all, access to the region’s stories, with an ability to stay in touch in real-time with what was happening in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and other hotbeds of the daily news cycle. In comparison, writing about these same places from London or New York felt wildly disconnected.

We were firmly in the post 9/11 era. For a generation of us in our 20s back then — especially reporters, analysts and young diplomats — the UAE became a critical bridge between what were portrayed to be warring civilisations. But the UAE also meant something special to those of us who grew up in the West, with family and cultural heritage in the Middle East and South Asia. It was a way to re-root oneself in the region. It offered cultural authenticity, echoes of the past with proficiencies of the future. It gave rise to a newfound confidence in being of and from this region. And it just felt good to be back.

Fourteen years after that reporting assignment, in May 2021, my family reestablished residency in the UAE, this time through my husband’s work. Neighbourhoods were much the same, but bigger. Friends were much the same, but older. Many of us now have kids, who experience the country as though everything around them were a given, as if everything built up had always been there.

Having watched the UAE during its rise, I felt connected to the country in a profound way. I showed my daughter the places I lived and worked. I introduced her to my Emirati friends, who welcomed me home — a touching sentiment that I hadn’t expected. When we went up the Burj Khalifa I watched her eyes widen in wonderment at its beauty, then told her how Mommy went to the tippy top while it was under construction. I have earned a fair share of parental “cool” points thanks to Dubai.

It offered cultural authenticity, echoes of the past with proficiencies of the future. It gave rise to a newfound confidence in being of and from this region.

The UAE, while growing rapidly upward and outward, has also grown more expansive and inclusive in its self-conception. When the Dubai Metro launched in 2010 there were billboards that read, “ My City, My Metro.” I remember the astonishment of my expat friends, thinking, “is it really MY city? Am I part of this story?” It marked a new sense of belonging from what they had felt before. A decade later, I don’t think such a billboard would be astonishing now. There is much deeper connection across all those who live here and a clear sense of shared participation in the future.


In the past year I have seen the UAE, literally, from a different angle. Having spent the Covid months doing journalism and development work in Armenia, I’ve been one of the billions of people living within a 4-hour flight radius, sourcing supplies, materials and services from the regional hub that is the UAE. I’ve been on the other side of the transshipment market and  I’ve benefited from the presence of friends and colleagues based in a nearby, time-zone friendly megapolis. The concept of a new Silk Road is no joke; having the UAE hyper connected to global supply chains and professional value chains has made this region a far better place.


With the UAE’s infrastructure mostly built and its civic systems evolving, the country’s greatest season lies ahead. I believe the UAE’s next role will be that of a knowledge hub, a convener and re-exporter of critical expertise. Whatever the UAE is learning about how to manage future challenges, from food systems to 5G, can help the world cope with the complexity of the years to come. Some of that expertise is already resident in the UAE, some of it passes through from the East and West, and some of it is rising in the developing countries nearby. The UAE is the natural place for those people and ideas to intersect.

The knowledge the Emirates can hold is considerable. The networks it can create are unique. The experiential learning it can host would be transformative. With the right learning opportunities in place professionals around the region — from optometrists to environmentalists to engineers — could come back again and again to the UAE, make new friends and colleagues, and share the latest in their field. 


This is already happening, incidentally. I imagine it can be accelerated to deliver a new kind of value and forward momentum for this region and for the world. As someone who cares about global development I hope to see it happen. As someone who has called this country home I’m excited to have seen it start.


This article is part of the “The UAE’s 50” series, featuring stories and journeys of people who call the UAE home. 

Year of the 50th