Dubai Comes of Age

When I look out of the windows of my 25th-floor apartment in Dubai, I see the Persian Gulf shimmering a few blocks away. Cruise ships are parked at the dockyard, and in the blue waters beyond a steady stream of oil-laden tankers head out to quench the world’s thirst for black gold. Closer to me are other skyscrapers, vast shopping centers, and crowded convention complexes. Traffic is practically nonstop day and night.

When I look out of windows, I always say to myself, “Dubai has arrived. Dubai has become the world’s fastest city.”

Not long ago, Dubai won its hard fought bid for World Expo 2020. The quadrennial event will fetch the emirate more than $26 billion in revenues through tourism and corporate sponsorship.

Why did Dubai win? Dubai had it especially difficult: it was the newest of the finalists that competed for the honor: Turkey’s Izmir; Russia’s Ekaterinburg; and Brazil’s Sao Paulo. Its annals of history were comparatively thin. It literally rose from the unforgiving desert of the Gulf in less than three decades, one of seven sheikhdoms of the United Arab Emirates. It had to struggle against an unfair and illiterate perception that most Middle East habitats were short on security and long on volatility.

Still, Dubai was the city that worked best when benchmarks such as transportation, public safety, municipal management, and environmental protection were measured.

In sum: Dubai deserved to win because there’s just no other city in the world like it.

I do not say this lightly. I’ve been traveling the world as a journalist and author for nearly five decades and have visited virtually all the great cities, and many lesser known as well. Singapore was long my favorite because of its smart urban design and livability. That is, until I came to live in Dubai in 2007.

This wasn’t the Dubai I’d first seen in 1971, which wasn’t much more than a fishing village that also happened to trade.

When I came again to Dubai in 2007, it was to work for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai and Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates. His vision for Dubai: “We want to be Number One.”

It doesn’t sound boastful coming from him. Indeed, to anyone looking at Dubai with a refreshed pair of eyes and an open mind it seemed that, if anything, Sheikh Mohammed shouldn’t have been speaking in the future tense. Dubai, in my own view — which was echoed by many in the media — had already become Number One.

Even my home city of New York would be hard pressed to claim that nationals of more than 200 countries and territories lived and worked within its precincts. Of course, its denizens were overwhelmingly from South Asia — especially India and Pakistan — and that richly embroidered the emirate’s social fabric. Dubai had won this pennant of cultural diversity.

It had also won the right to call itself the crossroads of the world. Because of Emirates Airline and a canny system that ensured other major carriers stopped at its superbly smooth airport, Dubai had become a caravanserai. That traffic — more than 30 million passengers annually — brought businessmen aiming to partake of the frenzied deal making that made Dubai bigger, taller and more modern; it also brought tourists who gaped and gasped at this city built on sand dunes.

Indeed, the sand dunes on the outskirts of the metropolis themselves became tourist attractions. And for heaven’s sake, men in white flannels even played cricket in Dubai in a big state-of-the-art stadium (the sport’s governing body, the International Cricket Council, is headquartered in Dubai); you could ski indoors on powdered snow. Big-time art shows and film festivals? Those were there in Dubai, too. Large organizations of professionals from the West held lavish functions.

The world came to Dubai to meet itself. It found in Dubai a magnificent mosaic of universal cultures and beliefs. Christians and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, Jews and Jains — they all found that Dubai applied no restrictions on personal faith. It only asked of visitors and residents alike that they honor local codes and customs.

The world encountered in Dubai a rules-driven society, which wasn’t such a bad thing, after all, given the political chaos and municipal mess of many other global cities.

There were, of course, dissenters — mainly from Western societies who foisted on Dubai criteria of social norms that would be impossible for their own governors to impose in their traditionally liberal milieus. Human-rights activists often singled out the treatment of Indian construction workers; and while there were indeed infractions, the activists overlooked that fact the mistreatment came from private entrepreneurs — the Dubai authorities strictly enforced a law about humane treatment of these workers.

No matter. Dubai worked its way through the noises. It was focused. It was determined. It was ambitious.

I cannot say enough about Dubai’s ambitions. How does a government synthesize its developmental ambitions so that they can be accomplished? Sheikh Mohammed had an elementary formula: Hire the best talent, and encourage young leaders. Empower women. Emphasize the work ethic, and motivate Emiratis to work in behalf of their own future. Create opportunities, and they — nationals and foreigners alike — will deliver.

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