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Dubai's Internet City concept comes into its own

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-07-25

DUBAI - From his glass-walled office in the building that he shares with MasterCard, Dr Omar Bin Sulaiman sees a tranquil scene. There's a small lake in his backyard, ringed by neatly trimmed hedges from which rise gently sloping lawns. The glass exteriors of neighbouring edifices reflect the tranquility. Soon, if Dr Sulaiman has his way, such vistas will be replicated in India, Pakistan, Iran, Malta, New Zealand, South Africa and the Central Asian states of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

The United States-educated Dr Sulaiman is Chief Executive Officer of Dubai's Internet City, a sprawling campus that houses some of the world's best-known information technology brands. Microsoft is here, of course. So is Oracle. And Hewlett-Packard. Dell, Siemens, IBM, Logica, Canon, Cisco, Sun Microsystems, and Sony Ericsson are lodged in their own glistening buildings, too.

These companies together employ nearly 20,000 people from 185 countries on this bucolic campus built on the scalding sands of the United Arab Emirates. Together they constitute the world's largest IT free zone from where these companies re-export their information and communications technology not only to the Middle East but also to Asia, Africa and elsewhere. Their location in Dubai enables them to target a regional population of 1.8 billion people in some 50 countries with a combined GDP of US$1.6 trillion.

Internet City, among other superlatives, contains the biggest Internet Protocol (IP) telephony systems in the world. Indeed, so rapidly has Internet City developed in the three years since its inception that Dr Sulaiman is now exporting the concept.

"Dubai Internet City has evolved into a very strong brand of its own and it is now looking at partnering with other countries to set up satellite business campuses there," he told The Straits Times in an interview. "The experience of building Dubai Internet City has given it considerable expertise in creating and managing planned knowledge-industry clusters. So we're now exporting knowledge and our know-how to countries that are specifically requesting us to share our experiences with them."

It is tempting to view at least part of Dr Sulaiman's statement with some skepticism. Why would India, already the world's biggest incubator of software programmers, want an upstart like Dubai to set up Internet Cities? Don't indigenous Indian IT companies like Wipro and Infosys have their own campuses in booming cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad?

"Look, we're not trying to eat their pie," Dr Sulaiman said, with a smile. "We're just trying to make the regional IT pie bigger. Our ambition is clear: We want to be knowledge-campus providers globally. Our Internet City concept involves bringing together international companies on one campus. This concept is unique to Dubai, and we feel that the synergy it generates can be economically and technologically useful in many other countries."

That means Dubai, clearly, will be investing some of its own resources in the Internet City campuses in poorer places like India, as well as finding private-sector partners to develop the projects. It signed memoranda of understanding with Pakistan and Iran for Internet City campuses. Two Indian towns that Dr Sulaiman declined to identify have also taken steps to explore joint cooperation on Internet Cities with Dubai's assistance. Talks are also being held with a couple of South-east Asian countries.

"We are being facilitators, we're creating an environment for success," he said. That means, for example, that companies that choose to be part of an Internet City get tax breaks for 50 years; it means that power and sanitation facilities are assured; it means that rents will be relatively modest - ranging between US$25,000 and US$100,000 annually, depending on the size of the premises that a company occupies. It means that safety on the campus will be guaranteed through the deployment of state-of-the-art security systems. And it means that the design of Internet City campus would never result in overcrowded conditions.

How Dubai assembles all these elements under the rubric of its Internet City is now being examined as a case study at Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government, also at Harvard. The Dubai experience is also being studied at the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland. Not long ago, World Bank officials told Dr Sulaiman that Dubai's experience might be replicated in developing countries that have fallen behind in the international globalisation drive.

"But we aren't saying that our experience at Internet City should be transplanted in its entirety," Dr Sulaiman said. "We are saying, however, that we would customize solutions to suit each country's culture and sensibility. Still, could we serve as a model for others? The answer is, yes. We've developed the skill of learning fast from others, and then implementing ideas even faster."

Implicit in what he says, of course, is the recognition that globalization and its accompanying technological advances have created an increasingly common world culture, at least in the field of economic development. It is a recognition that Dr Sulaiman's boss, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum - Dubai's Crown Prince and Defence Minister of the U.A.E. - recently articulated: "Fortunate countries must share their experiences so that the less fortunate ones can achieve greater progress."

Sheikh Mohammed, of course, is an icon here in Dubai because he's widely credited with providing the ideas and energy for the emirate's transformation from a sleepy trading port into an international city - all in the last 30 years. His pictures are festooned on almost every building - except here in Internet City.

And why would that be so? Perhaps because Internet City is emerging as a model of a new type of global community, one that relies less on worshipful hagiography than on smart production and a healthy bottom line. Besides, companies like Microsoft and Oracle already have their own icons - their founders.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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