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Slumdog Millionaire and the Emirates

Published by Current on 2009-03-02

I don’t know how many business leaders in the oil-rich Gulf have seen “Slumdog Millionaire” -- which won the Oscar for Best Film on Sunday night – but they might want to. After all, quite of a few of the business elite of the United Arab Emirates were born or spent their childhoods in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, where much of the movie was shot.

The parents of many of them were traders, or had some commercial dealings with India, and so Mumbai – or Bombay, as the metropolis used to be called – was a natural draw for Emiratis. The late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Dubai’s erstwhile ruler, would often speak warmly of the “Indian connection,” and some of his closest friends were businessmen from the Subcontinent. To this day, the “Indian connection” remains intact – just witness the numbers of laborers, teachers, shopkeepers, bureaucrats, journalists and management types who are peppered all over the seven Emirates.

But it isn’t the history alone that should prompt Emirati leaders to go see “Slumdog Millionaire.” The film, a touching tale of hope and enterprise in the world’s largest slum – Dharavi, a part of Mumbai – echoes a theme that’s long been an integral essence of the Emirati ethos: the will to overcome odds. The very story of the UAE’s rise from a barren desert land into a nation of flourishing cities and world-class infrastructure, lends itself to a movie plot. It’s an improbable story, one that many in the West and elsewhere might scarcely have imagined, let alone predicted.

The main characters in “Slumdog Millionaire” demonstrate a resilience that will surely resonate with Emiratis. It is difficult to conceive of a situation where people born into poverty and reared on despair find it within themselves to transform their lives – not with personal gain in mind but the common good of their community. That’s the Dharavi story.

The movie may be fiction, but you only have to ask women like Bakul Rajni Patel, a social activist in Mumbai, or the veteran actress Shabana Azmi, also an activist whose work on behalf of slum dwellers gained her a seat in India’s parliament, and you will hear story after story of the grit and fortitude of the people of Mumbai’s slums. Movie-going audiences around the world may have been surprised by the depictions of determination in “Slumdog Millionaire,” but for residents of Dharavi will-power is wired into their DNA.

It is also wired into Emiratis. Is the rise of Dubai from the desert any less of an improbable story than that of the success of Dharavi’s entrepreneurs and nongovernmental workers? The UAE has raised an entire modern civilization by detouring around the notion of improbability. It has done so by being resourceful, by being canny about the use of its resources, and by entrusting the task of nation building to men and women animated by the public interest.

These are important points to keep in mind as the UAE – like other nations in the region and around the world – is buffeted by financial maelstroms. “Slumdog Millionaire” illustrates that communities cannot be written off because of the vicissitudes of their economic and social circumstances. Because of the innovative efforts of Bakul Patel and others, Dharavi has hundreds of thriving businesses that generate employment for thousands. Granted, these businesses are unlikely to become mega-corporations in the foreseeable future; but it doesn’t matter. Their very existence injects hope and revenues into the community’s social bloodstream.

Many urban sociologists wrote off Dharavi not too long ago, and some even urged that an area accommodating more than seven million people be demolished in the cause of urban renewal. But the people of Dharavi renewed themselves through a variety of measures such as micro-loans, and by electing incorruptible community leaders. Some of them now even have trading links to Abu Dhabi and Dubai and Sharjah. Who knows – one day, Dharavi may even open a “Slumdog Trading Representation Office” in Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

Of course, one cannot compare Dharavi to the UAE. But it’s all in the realm of perception. Many in the international media and some in global financial circles have already started composing obituaries, if not eulogies, for places such as Dubai.

They are ill-advised to do so. Monday’s announcement that the UAE Central Bank has subscribed to the first tranche – worth US$10 billion – of a US$20 billion bond programme launched by Dubai at once alters the economic environment of this country. It assures that Dubai will never default on its debts. It highlights, most of all, that the UAE can be counted on to devise timely solutions to pressing problems, especially when pushed up against the wall of international skepticism.

“Slumdog UAE,” anyone? You bet. This place will prevail, and it will flourish. Like the residents of Dharavi, it has the will, it has the brains, it has the spirit. And it has history on its side as the UAE rededicates itself to building the future.

(Note: Pranay Gupte is a veteran journalist, author and documentary producer. His new book, “Global Emirates: An Anthology of Tolerance and Enterprise,” will be published next month. A version of this essay appeared February 25, 2009 in The National, Abu Dhabi.)

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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