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Feature on HRH Prince Michael of Kent

Published by Current on 2009-04-20

His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent is very upbeat about Dubai. Indeed during a presentation given to him Wednesday by Dr. Nasser Al Saidi, chief economist of the Dubai International Finance Center, the latter was struck by the incisiveness of the prince’s questions, and by how positive he felt about the city-state and, indeed, by the economic progress of the United Arab Emirates.

“I’ve been coming here for more than eight years,” Prince Michael later said in an interview over lunch. “I’ve always been intrigued and heartened by the vision of Dubai’s rulers – and by how Dubai has gone about implementing that vision of economic growth and a livable city.”

That is not to say that he doesn’t recognize the fact that global financial difficulties have washed on to Dubai’s shores. “Perhaps the perception of Dubai among some people – specially in the foreign media – is not what it used to be,” the tall, hirsute prince said. “It’s very easy to criticize Dubai for its success. So when things seem to slow down, that criticism is magnified. But I find it very encouraging to come here, however. In fact, I find it a pleasure to be here.”

The pleasure was evident during a two-day visit that included presiding at an auction for the Prince of Wales Humanitarian Charity, and The Red Crescent, and tours of the celebrated GEMS schools and of City Hospital. He is a first cousin of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, son of King George V and Queen Mary, and a godson of US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

British royalty is often perceived as phlegmatic and aloof. But Prince Michael came as close to exuding bonhomie as bluebloods might allow themselves. In the company of Sunny Varkey, chairman of the Varkey Group – which runs GEMS – he was positively beaming.

So what explained that good cheer, beyond the fact that Britain and the UAE have longstanding historical, education, trade and health-care ties?

“I’m impressed by the quality of education that’s offered here,” the 67-year-old Prince Michael said, as he went around GEMS’s Wellington School, escorted by one of Sunny Varkey’s sons, Jay, a graduate of the University of Edinburgh. “Coming from Great Britain, where we are currently facing some well publicized challenges in some aspects of our school system, it’s a huge pleasure to see how well schools are run in Dubai, how committed the teachers are, and how eager to learn the students can be. The international dimension of these schools is extraordinary.”

The prince asked questions of students, he asked questions of their teachers, and he asked questions of some parents who happened to be on the premises. They seemed surprised that a member of royalty would want to listen more than lecture. There was a technical reason why Prince Michael peppered them with so many questions, of course – he’s been a longtime patron of GEMS. And education has been a lifelong cause for him, ever since his days at Eton and Sandhurst.

“It’s a tribute to Dubai how well it has sustained its multicultural nature,” Prince Michael said. “This is a city with a young and dynamic population. It has clearly recognized that education is the key to greater productivity, and to strengthening Dubai’s place in the world community as a truly global city.”

His comments must have surely heartened Sunny Varkey, who hosted the lunch at the Capital Club. His comments also seemed to resonate well with several local luminaries such as John McGaw, chief executive for the Middle East and Asia of Killik & Co., the London-based securities firm, and his wife Eva, who is active in social causes and who represents the investment company Golden Oryx in the UAE. In fact, the McGaws showed Prince Michael around the sprawling DIFC complex, taking the opportunity to guide him to the Killik office, where Mr McGaw’s colleagues, Kashif Arbab and Layla Makdsi, could scarcely stop beaming.

But perhaps more than Prince Michael’s comments, it was his questions that offered an insight into how he assessed the places that he visits. What do the statistics mean, and how are they gathered? Are the figures verifiable? What are the comparative growth rates of Dubai’s economy in terms of specific time periods? How has the recent policy mix of a fiscal stimulus, monetary-policy easing and increased liquidity helped? How do educational and financial programs actually benefit everyday people?

The prince concentrates deeply when the answers are forthcoming, while his private secretary, Nicholas Chance – formerly with the Financial Times – adds his own questions, and takes notes. Prince Michael visits several countries each year in behalf of more than 100 charities with which he’s involved as president or patron, also represents “Best of British,” an enterprise aimed at furthering British commercial and tourism interests internationally.

During these visits, he obviously projects the archetypical British personality, one that embodies dignity and a canny sense of the world. Which is why it seemed only natural to ask Prince Michael what more Dubai should be doing to becalm international investors’ nerves about its domestic financial situation.

“You would want to encourage the world to come and see Dubai,” he said. “The further you live from Dubai, the more likely it is that you’d believe the myths and mischievous propaganda about Dubai. The more exaggerated Dubai’s problems may seem to you. But if you visit this place, then you can see for yourself that life goes on, that Dubai is vibrant, that the place has a strong infrastructure and a strong regulatory environment, that its vitality is very much here.

“You would want more professionals to come here to live and work, people with no axe to grind,” Prince Michael continued. “After all, Dubai has a diversified economy, and it needs to continue building on a very strong foundation that its rulers have created. In every sense of the term, Dubai is an international city for the new millennium. So it would be in Dubai’s best interests to promote that image. The world should really know more about this place.”

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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