Sheikh Khalifa’s long-lasting legacy in Afghanistan
The Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan residential township in the Afghan capital of Kabul stands tall as a symbol of the late UAE leader’s love for Afghanistan and its people. Back in 2010, when I was director of planning and policy at the Afghan Ministry of Urban Development Affairs, I had some involvement in the project during its early stages. It involved frequent communication and coordination with the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development. We mainly focused on the terms and conditions and modalities for the design and implementation. I resigned from the ministry in mid-2011 while the project was still being negotiated.
Due to the high rate of urbanization, rural-urban migration and rapid economic growth in the wake of the new Afghan government taking charge in 2002, Afghan cities, especially Kabul, faced severe housing shortages, with demand far exceeding supply. The situation caused an exponential increase in housing costs, both rental and purchase. While the upper and middle classes in Kabul were able to rent or purchase decent housing, most of the city’s population could not afford to and they often ended up in slums.
A timely initiative by the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development to finance a housing scheme in Kabul was a great gesture of goodwill. The project had been envisioned to provide affordable housing to low-income civil servants. Unfortunately a good number of the housing units ended up going to those working in the presidential palace and others close to former President Hamid Karzai and his associates. Surprisingly, some members of parliament and high-level government officials were also given housing units as favors or political bribes. This may be very typical of Afghan politics but it attracted criticism from the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development, which had hoped the project would benefit the neediest civil servants.
Despite the injustices in the distribution of the apartments, the project did set an example for other countries on investing in Afghanistan’s housing sector. And some low-income civil servants did benefit from the scheme. Later, in 2015, the government of China announced a similar housing scheme for low-income civil servants, followed by the government of Qatar.
When Sheikh Khalifa inherited his charismatic father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan’s political capital by becoming UAE president in 2004, he faced multiple challenges. He needed support from the political establishment, the people of the UAE and the international community. He was able to gain the confidence of each of these. He followed in the footsteps of his father by continuing the UAE’s journey of progress, development and success.
Afghans have a long association with the UAE as investors, businesspeople, visitors and workers, in addition to warm feelings of affection for the country’s government and people. They have positively contributed to the UAE’s economic development and progress and are a beautiful addition to its diverse cultural landscape. During Sheikh Khalifa’s tenure as UAE president, relations between Afghanistan and the UAE grew further in terms of trade, connectivity and political engagement.
He followed in the footsteps of his father by continuing the UAE’s journey of progress, development and success.
Unfortunately, successive governments in Afghanistan have not been able to reap the full potential of the country’s relationship with the UAE. Continued political instability that eventually led to the complete collapse of the government last August is partially to blame for the unfavorable circumstances that hamper the further enhancement of ties.
During the past several decades, the UAE has acted as a virtual bridge between Afghanistan and much of the rest of the world. Most of Afghanistan’s air traffic transits through Dubai. The UAE is like a second home for most of the Afghan business community and those seeking skilled and unskilled employment. Afghan-UAE ties have stood the test of time, as they are not only government-to-government but also most importantly people-to-people, drawing on the mutual respect and love between two great nations.
Afghans fondly remember the late Sheikh Khalifa and hope that Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan will follow in the footsteps of his late brother and visionary father by further strengthening the Afghanistan-UAE partnership of trust and friendship.
- Ajmal Shams is Vice-President of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party and is based in Kabul. He was a deputy minister in the former Afghan government. Twitter: @ajmshams