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Learning all About Safety from the UAE

Published on: January 2011​
Genre: International Politics​ Category: Op eds​
I remember vividly a phone call from an old friend two years ago before I moved here. I told him he should visit. All the great things he would see. Oh no, he replied, I couldn’t do that. Expense, long flight, no problem. This 6 foot 4 able-bodied man tells me he can’t come here because it’s too dangerous. Rather uncharitably, perhaps, I began to laugh.

But "John," I said, you live in Cleveland, a US city known to have a murder rate that is not exactly unremarkable. I proceeded to explain to him the actual facts about danger in the Middle East, particularly the Gulf. He was unimpressed. Unfortunately, many people feel safer clinging to stereotypes than confronting reality when it does not conform to their world view.

The recent shootings in Tucson, Arizona, in the US, that killed a judge and five others and seriously wounded a US congresswoman have reignited the age-old gun control debate in the United States. This debate also highlights the extent to which a) another aspect of American’s stereotyping of this region involves danger perception and b) “security” in the Gulf (and the Middle East) is always spoken about in the context of threats from outside. A big part of the reason why people find Dubai safe is that we do not have guns anywhere because of intelligent choices made by government leaders. This is equally important to threats faced from outside the UAE, for on a day to day basis; personal security is an invaluable part of the entire "security" package.

These inter-related issues have several parts. First of all, why are guns such a bad idea? After all, it’s not the only way people can die. Second why do Americans (and other people for that matter) misperceive risk? And, finally, what policy choices could leaders make to work on changing perceptions?

First, the gun issue. I won’t get into all of the arguments and statistics here, but the basic problem with guns is the international pattern is that when guns are more available, more homicides occur. Studies within the US have come to similar conclusions when comparing availability of guns across states and the murder rate. It’s just easier to kill someone with a gun. To kill someone with a knife or to strangle him requires more sophistication. When someone is intoxicated or angry or otherwise not thinking straight, a gun is easily picked up and fired and then it’s too late. The other party is dead.

In the UAE, certainly, there are other factors that contribute to safety. However, the absence of guns prevents any violent event, whether it’s a robbery of a store or a fight between bootleggers that occasionally occurs, from becoming either common or significantly likely to end in several murders. If guns were to be available, then because the “bad guys” would have guns, people would want guns for self protection, which would only mean everyone is less safe. Hopefully the UAE’s leaders will continue the wise path of banning guns here.

Now to the matter of the strange perceptions of many Americans. For simplicity let’s focus on the Gulf. What might cause Americans or anyone else for that matter, to misperceive risk, in particular the risk of living in the Gulf or travelling here? I think two things are going on. On the one hand, we have an obvious rather extreme form of bias against all things Muslim that is particular to the US as we have seen from unfortunate events. Certainly, these prejudices exist in other countries, but there is something unique about its character in the US that requires attention from policy leaders.

In addition to a predisposition toward an anti-Muslim bias, Americans are also falling prey to what we call a cognitive bias when they misperceive the level of danger in the Gulf. From research in my area of study we know a lot about how people process information. People tend to remember things that are most vivid and assume that those events are representative of what is most likely to occur. In other words, due to the way the media covers the Middle East, if people see things blowing up and soldiers patrolling and they aren’t particularly bright and only watch headlines, they may a) assume that this bombing represents a frequent event, wherever it is and b) not distinguish between whether the location is in the Gulf or some other country because for them, the “Middle East” is one big giant thing and they just know its general direction, and they may decide they should just avoid the region entirely.

On the face of it, of course, my argument may seem completely ridiculous. How could someone think the UAE is more dangerous than New York City or Chicago? To us, of course, this is obviously factually inaccurate. But we’re not one of the millions of Americans who vote and potentially put people in office who continually make horrible policy decisions regarding the Middle East. The solution to these misperceptions is not a simple one and involves a concerted effort on the part of leaders in the region to find ways to educate the American public on aspects of the UAE that have nothing to do with defense or security and to help bridge understanding that will only come with Americans know more about how Muslims actually live their lives. The UAE has a history of leadership on many issues, and this could be another chance for it to establish itself as a sort of cultural diplomat. Fear generates prejudice and fear often comes from the unknown.

Susan Crotty is Assistant Professor at Dubai School of Government. She teaches Management and Research Methods.

This article was originally published in The Khaleej Times. It can be accessed here.

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