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Dubai’s Self-Confidence

Published by Current on 2009-04-17

Dubai is a tiny emirate, one of seven that constitute the 37-year-old federation known as the United Arab Emirates. The city-state, which has a population of about 1.5 million, has vigorously pursued ambitions of being a global city — which is to say, in barely two decades, the ruling Al Maktoum family has helped create out of a small trading port perched at the edge of a harsh, unforgiving desert, a metropolis that houses people from 200 nationalities, one that has become a financial, transportation and commercial hub for the region.
Dubai, in fact, has established a global footprint. Its carrier, Emirates Airline, flies to nearly 150 destinations around the world. A strong infrastructure ?is in place.
The environment is clean, and the streets are safe. Shopping is bountiful, and you could look far and do worse when it comes to prices for both luxury and consumer goods. And although high-end housing — as in New York or London — reached stratospheric heights, it is possible for ?people of even modest incomes to live reasonably well.
And culture? The soul of the city? You’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere such a plethora of art galleries, museums, bookstores, academic forums, and theatrical performances.
It would be no hyperbole to suggest that Dubai is to the new millennium what Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus were in times of antiquity — centres of excellence for knowledge, tolerance and diversity. And Dubai has become such a center while remaining steadfastly anchored in the richest and most benevolent traditions of Islam. There is full freedom of worship in this Muslim state, and there is freedom of speech.
This emirate doesn’t censor publications, and visiting journalists can go where they please. In turn, Dubai expects — as do all polities – that its inhabitants will respect traditions and adhere to the law. All these accomplishments notwithstanding, these are difficult times for Dubai, of course.
Like global cities everywhere, it has been affected by the worldwide financial crisis. Dubai does not deny that reality. Yes, construction has slowed down. Yes, layoffs are occurring. And yes, some residents are moving elsewhere because recessions have a way of spurring geographical mobility. You could say this about New York, you could say this about London, and you could say this about Singapore.
What is noteworthy is that Dubai is dealing affirmatively with its economic reality, and that of the world beyond it whose conditions it cannot control. The emirate’s leaders have generated extensive administrative and structural reforms; these are designed to make governance of local institutions more transparent, and also make more efficient use of resources.
And so, back to the question: Why is it open season on Dubai? Why the untruths and exaggerations in the world press? Why the whispers?
It is tempting to respond with jabs and thrusts. But that isn’t the Dubai way. Dubai’s leaders will accept criticism, and they will heed advice when it’s well informed and well meaning. But they will not be vindictive or vengeful in dealing with what’s being said about Dubai. That’s because Dubai truly believes that its story of tolerance and enterprise speaks for itself. It believes in engendering positive energy.
The efforts made by Dubai’s leaders to develop their nation don’t always fetch the attention and publicity that they deserve. But that’s all right ?with the leadership. They don’t ?necessarily seek headlines here. And that, too, is a special Emirati characteristic — modesty.
That modesty doesn’t mean shirking from the ongoing task of strengthening Emirati society. As the late Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan – the UAE’s founding father—would often say, nation building demands the prudent utilisation of natural resources in the service of economic growth. The Emirati style involves getting things done by quiet agreement. That style may seem ponderous to fast-talking and fast-acting foreigners, but it isn’t inferior by any means to the post-modern management techniques being sculpted in Western business schools.
There is, in fact, even a case to be made that a low-key chat over roasted lamb, saffron rice and nicely brewed tea — known locally as Suleimani chai — can accomplish more by way of conflict resolution than the in-your-face methods advocated by some contemporary Western business gurus.
Perhaps one should add another vital element to that fundamental Emirati characteristic: adaptability, yet adherence to enduring values. Good manners are valued. Politeness is a must. Respect for elders is essential. Honesty is a must. There is remarkable gender parity in professional circles, and not only in the privacy of Emirati homes.
There is also the recognition that a nation’s institutions of economic, educational and social development need to keep up not only with the exigencies of domestic economic development but also the demands of the global ?market place.
There is no longer “out there,” and “us in here.” The UAE’s national ethos highlights a simple, fundamental premise of modern-day nation building: a country’s wealth, especially accruing from its natural resources, must be put in service of economic growth.
To put it another way — perhaps a slightly retrograde but nevertheless quite relevant way — Dubai and the UAE have shown how it’s done, notwithstanding the current financial crisis around the world.
It’s done the old fashioned way — by tapping into the wisdom and traditions of the people of the UAE’s deep deserts. It’s done by adapting appropriately to the demands and requirements of an age of galloping globalisation. It’s done through an intricate system of governance that incorporates social harmony, one that is predicated on the notion of sustained peace in the neighbourhood and sustainable economic development. It’s done through a system under which the rulers of the Emirates genuinely listen to their constituents and subjects.
And so: Let the world say what it will. Dubai believes in its mission to create a sustainable society that’s well integrated into the world community. Dubai has the self-confidence to fulfill that mission.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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