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Exporting expertise from Dubai

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-08-04

DUBAI - Since the formal end of the colonial age in the 1960s - which is to say when most of the former colonies of European powers obtained their independence - one key question has figured prominently in those international circles where sustainable development is both an issue and a concern.

That question: What does it take to transform backward, undeveloped economies into modern entities of prosperity for their people, social justice and environmental security?

In the last five or six decades since countries like India, Ghana and others embarked on their high adventure of indigenous economic development, that question was addressed mostly through one of three ways:

(a) An overwhelming number of poor countries - almost 100 of the 135 nations of the so-called Third World - chose state sponsored economic prescriptions in which bureaucracies determined the sectors in which investment would be made. Many of these countries wound up becoming failed states, their societies riddled with corruption, venal politics and abysmal health, education and employment opportunities for everyday people.
(b) A few countries chose a mix of socialist and capitalist policies. There weren't many successes here either, for local politicians and bureaucrats were unwilling to subject their policies to the rigorous test of the marketplace.
(c) Then there were countries like Singapore that embraced the concept of a totally open economy, inviting foreign capital and talent to mix with local entrepreneurship in a bid to accelerate development. Such states constitute the few success story of post-colonial contemporary history.

Here in Dubai, one of the seven regions that form the United Arab Emirates, the Singapore model was successfully adopted. That resulted in an international city with a thriving economy, urban safety, and wide use of technological facilities in everyday life.

Now Dubai is taking its development record one step further: it is exporting its experience.

What's being taken abroad to countries like India, Pakistan, Iran, Malta, New Zealand, South Africa and the Central Asian states of the erstwhile Soviet Union, is the concept of the "Internet City." Under deals signed recently by Dubai with some of these countries, large campuses will be built to house some of the world's best-known technology brands - like Microsoft, Oracle, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Siemens, IBM, Logica, Canon, Cisco, Sun Microsystems, and Sony.

The central objective of the Internet City, here in Dubai and soon in the countries cited above, is to establish tax-free economic zones. International brands produce their goods and re-export them to nearby regional markets. In Dubai, for example, foreign companies together employ nearly 20,000 people from 185 countries on a 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.

"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," Dr Oman Bin Sulaiman 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. "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. 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 University. The Dubai experience is 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. The notion of replicability - that the experience of one developing region can be customized for another, perhaps faraway one - is one whose time has come.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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