Dubai’s Adolescent Swagger: Hope for the Future?

January 5, 2014 at 4:20 pm

As a kid when I walked through the cavernous train stations in Chicago, my dad would tell me that the railroads wanted to display their wealth and economic power by means of the tremendous vaulted ceilings of the  lobbies where we would by a ticket, wait for a train, or simply pass through on our way to a platform.   Similarly the emerging economies of places like China and the UAE have claimed their place on the global stage through the magnificence of their airports.  From the first time I transferred at the Dubai airport on my way to India, the 5-10 story waterfall grabbed my attention.  The airport has the feel of a luxury hotel that is spacious and does not care about wasting space that could be generating revenue by collecting room rents.  As a result, I thought Dubai could be an interesting place to visit. Kathleen, Patrick, Martin and I just spent a few days in Dubai and found it to be a world class city  with the same population of Columbus.  It feels like a Western city.  We went to Wendys and Starbucks and almost stopped at a Coldstone Creamery.  Dubai possesses  an unbelievable collection of real estate that includes:

the world’s tallest building which looks like the Sears Towers on a diet,

the world’s largest mall  which hosts 6 million visitors a month and has a huge indoor aquarium yet feels smaller than the Mall of America,

70 other malls one of which contains a ski slope,

the largest  collection of tallest buildings in the world which I am not sure have sufficient occupancy to pay the financing but innovatively apply the symmetry and aesthetic beauty of Islamic architecture,

a human-made island that is in the form of a palm tree and contains an Atlantis property,

another human-made island that was supposed to mirror the world’s global map.  The earth and sand was dredged for the island, but nothing was developed vertically because of the financial crisis of 2008.

Dubai appears to have recovered from the financial crash.  There are cranes everywhere.  It was also  just announced on November 27 that their last minute entry to host Expo 2020 was approved.   They celebrated New Year’s eve last night with the largest fireworks display to ever occur.  It will be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Dubai leveraged its oil wealth into an economy that may be based on tourism, financial services, and retail in the future.  Oil was discovered in the 60’s and it is projected that it may run out in another 20 years.   This town was literally a historic backwater trading post.  It was a town of 50,000 on a creek that flows into the Persian Gulf as recently as 1960.   Iran is a stone’s throw across the Gulf.   It has now become the shopping capital of the Middle East and has been recognized as the best place to live in the Middle East.  It is a popular tourist destination.  The newspaper indicated that it hotels have almost 90 % occupancy with the bulk of the tourists coming from India, the UK and Germany. The weather is beautiful now.  Reminds me of Florida with no humidity, Arizona, or SoCal.

The real estate development has been led by a company called Emaar.  Its chairperson is a senior advisor to the Prime Minister of UAE.  This company also developed Boulder Hills where I play golf in Hyderabad.  The course is great, but the promised 5 star hotel and residential community have not been completed.  There are 5 unfinished residential towers for which  some of my golf mates have lost their deposits.  The whole project is tied up in the court system.  Apparently some of the local government officials undervalued the land, received plots of land and in general have abused the public trust.  But I digress…

We never met anyone in Dubai from Dubai.  Apparently the citizens of Dubai receive a lump sum payment from the government when they marry and a monthly pension thereafter.  What will happen when the oil money runs out?  Reminds me of Caesar’s quote about the key to retaining power is to keep the people happy by providing bread and circuses.

The work force is primarily from South Asia and comes from Pakistan, India, the Philippines.  All but one of our cabbies was from Pakistan. They were all extremely friendly.   Given the challenges that we have as a country with Pakistan,  I would never have anticipated their warmth. One of them talked about what an artificial environment Dubai is and how he misses the natural environment of Pakistan.

While it may seem like a  very different topic, we did visit a mosque in Dubai which also was consistent with the Western feel of Dubai.  The mosque had a basic program pitched directly to Western tourists.   The experience did challenge a few of my perceptions or stereotypes.   The 2 female presenters discussed the culture of Islam in a way that would be accessible to Westerners with repeated emphasis that the followers of Islam are peaceful despite what is happening on the world stage.   After questions, one of the presenters  addressed one of the elephants in the room.  She  flat out stated that the suicide bombers and other violent so called representatives of Islam will go to hell.    They are a perversion of Islam.   She may be right, but  I question whether a loving and merciful God will condemn misguided people who are acting out of ignorance when they believe that they are serving the Almighty.

Yet, would not we all like to hear Islamic leaders condemn publically the fundamentalists?  Is there a lack of condemnation because it is a religion of individuals with no sense of boundaries, authority or recognized leadership?    The female presenter did state in response to a question from a Catholic who wondered if a unified structure of the expression of their faith existed.  She responded that they do not believe in a hierarchy.  All Muslims are all equal before God and live individually before God.  Reminds me of Christianity in the US where Protestantism has fractured into innumerable denominations  or “non-denominations” based on any charismatic leader’s  reading of the New Testament.

It is encouraging to see a Middle Eastern city such as Dubai seek to integrate capitalism or Western influences  within their faith tradition or culture.  Hopefully, it is sustainable and provides a hopeful path into the future.