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A day for celebration, appreciation and reflection

Drawn from the generation privileged to have witnessed the transition of the United Arab Emirates from one of the little-known Trucial States under British administration, when our lives were fraught with daily struggles to survive, each National Day my heart swells with pride at my country’s astonishing achievements. 
From small and uncertain beginnings, the seven emirates combated myriad trials and tribulations to emerge as a living template of modernity, peace and prosperity, riding high on the world’s stage in almost every field.
Like many others before it, this 45th National Day is celebrated with carnivals, firework displays and concerts enjoyed by nationals, expats and visitors who flock to our shores. The atmosphere during this long weekend is electric with sheer happiness. The smile count is at its highest, punctuated with the laughter of children, including that of my own beloved grandkids.
But more than that, it is an opportunity for us sons of the soil to reflect and give thanks to God for our blessings, and to the pioneers who inspired us to dream the “impossible” dream of independence from a foreign power.
As a boy, I did not dare to dream of anything beyond owning a small shop so I could take care of my parents and siblings. My childhood fantasies centered on living in a real house with electricity and running water. 
Not in my wildest imagination did I visualize the blossoming of my hometown Dubai into a dynamic, futuristic metropolis providing endless opportunities for all its citizens, or being recognized globally as a nation of firsts, where excellence is not only prized but is the overriding goal of both government and people.
The union, marked by the first unfurling of the UAE’s pan-Arab red, green, white and black flag on Dec. 2, 1971, was crafted by men born in an unforgiving desert environment where water and food were scarce, and cooling shade even scarcer. 
They shared their brackish well-water with their camels; they were disciplined, hardworking, honorable, and ever loyal to their tribes and the women and children depending on them. Belief in God’s benevolence sustained them through thick and thin.
The fathers of the UAE, Abu Dhabi’s late ruler Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and Dubai’s late ruler Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, were the prime drivers behind the unification of seven emirates.
They were visionaries ahead of their time, and with their hands locked together they spearheaded a revolution in economic growth, creating a solid foundation that their sons, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, have built on so successfully with the rulers of Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras Al-Khaimah and Umm Al-Quwain.
They stand together, support each other, and have been rewarded by the genuine, deep respect, affection and trust of their people. Their generosity extends beyond borders, ready to support other countries when in need.
From the beginning, our leaders have exemplified such qualities as loyalty, determination and innovation. Emiratis know, without a shadow of a doubt, that their wellbeing lies at the heart of every decision they take. The connection between UAE nationals and their leaders is an unbreakable bond solidified over many generations, providing continuity of purpose. Put simply, we are all members of the same Emirati family.
Western-style democracy is often touted as a system all countries should aspire to, and is sometimes used as a pretext to invade others. But how many democratic heads of state can claimed to be loved? How many put country before their own career paths? You only have to look at Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria to assess how democracy is working for those long-suffering people. The same can be said for the US, whose presidential election is overshadowed by claims of fraud necessitating recounts.
I have long stressed the importance of unity between all Gulf states. The formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council was a landmark step in that direction, and it is my fervent hope that the proposed economic, diplomatic and military union will reach fruition. Together we are strong. Together we can defend our lands. The close relationship between the UAE and Saudi Arabia remains one of the GCC’s prime pillars.
I take this opportunity to salute King Salman and his team for their commitment to our Saudi brothers and sisters, for their courageous efforts to help our region’s trouble-spots regain their equilibrium, and for their stance in fending off belligerent regional actors and terrorist plots. The king’s decisiveness has encouraged the leaderships of smaller states to coalesce behind him for the betterment of all.
Saudi Arabia is now a regional leader able to adapt to changing geopolitical and economic circumstances, one that protects not only our faith and Arab culture, but also defends the interests of other loyal Arab nations.
With God’s help, the UAE will continue on its upward path together with its people’s brethren in Saudi Arabia and in all Gulf states. United we will stand tall as never before!
• Khalaf Ahmad Al-Habtoor is a prominent UAE businessman and public figure. He is renowned for his views on international political affairs; his philanthropic activity; his efforts to promote peace; and he has long acted as an unofficial ambassador for his country abroad.