Dubai is still a beacon of success

 Hamida Ghafour

  • Last Updated: December 04. 2009 10:56PM UAE / December 4. 2009 6:56PM GMT

Pep Monserrat for The National

In the 1921 silent film The Sheik, Rudolph Valentino plays an Arab who sells women at his gambling table and forces himself on the helpless Englishwoman who has had the misfortune to catch his roving eye. From the obsequious easterner twirling his moustache and casting sly looks in old Hollywood films, to blood-drenched Palestinian terrorists in the late 1990s, the portrayal of Arabs in western popular culture has a long and sorry history.

Last week the stereotypes were dusted off and given a makeover as news that Dubai’s government asked Dubai World’s creditors to extend its loan agreements by six months reverberated around the globe.

The down-on-his-luck Gulf Arab and the most visible symbols of Dubai’s wealth have been lampooned endlessly. There is a sense of schadenfreude in recent headlines in the British press such as “the glitz, the glamour – and now the gloom” and “Dubai: Just deserts” or “Dubai dream is over as the bubble bursts”. 

On reflection, I hope the dream is not over. One important geo-political facet has been largely ignored by the pundits, and it is one that consumes policymakers in Washington and London who remain worried about the religious extremism and economic hardship that ravages much of the region.

It is simply that Dubai remains a beacon of hope, opportunity and stability in the midst of a strife-torn region and, as such, helps stem a descent into extremism among the young. 

Within a 2,000-kilometre radius of Dubai lie Kabul, Islamabad, Baghdad and the Gaza Strip – all cities of despair. Muslim leaders trying to chart a more moderate course through the tangle of insurgency, sectarian conflict and occupation have no easy task. On a visit to America, King Abdullah of Jordan once jokingly remarked that back home he was surrounded by the neighbours from Hell. 

The facts about the lack of progress in the Middle East are depressingly familiar. The region has nearly half of all the refugees on the planet. Data from the World Bank shows the real GDP per capita in Arab countries grew by only 6.4 per cent from 1980 to 2004, which is less than 0.5 per cent annually. Arab countries are less industrialised today than they were in 1970. An estimated 65 million live in poverty. 

Dubai, however, offers hope and opportunity. It is like New York City in the late 19th century, raw and refreshing; attracting the hard-working and the ambitious from all over the Islamic world. The vast majority of its inhabitants are not the 20-something American investment bankers unable to splash out on Gucci luggage, or the British expat facing the prospect of giving up her Jumeirah beach house and returning to work at a supermarket back in Manchester. 

Dubai’s citizens are Arabs, South Asians and Africans. When they arrive the dream does not always match the reality but, as immigrants in the last century who fled famine and oppression felt, the prospect of returning home is usually worse. In Somalia, smugglers taking terrified refugees across the Red Sea tell them upon landing on Yemen’s shores that behind the first mountain is Dubai. 

South Asia’s economies have become dependent on those long queues at the exchange offices in the shopping malls on pay day. Last year South Asian workers sent home an estimated US$66 billion (Dh242bn) in remittances, the vast majority from the Gulf states. In one month alone, March this year, Pakistanis in the Emirates wired $175 million to their families. For India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka cash transfers represent between 4.2 and 11.4 per cent of the country’s entire GDP. 

Those governments do not want their citizens back home either: the prospect of millions of jobless and angry men in rural Pakistan, India or Bangladesh is terrifying. 
The UAE has become a unique experiment in the Islamic world, admired and envied up and down Arab streets in their varying states of decay and chaos. In Kabul, where Afghans have realised via satellite television that a Muslim country can also be thoroughly modern whatever the Taliban say, anything fashionable has the word Dubai attached to it. The “Kabul-Dubai Wedding Hall” was opened with flashing lights and last year a song dedicated to Dubai became a hit. 

In particular, young and ambitious Arabs are drawn here. The youth unemployment rate in the Middle East is 25 per cent, twice the global average. The population of most Muslim-majority countries is overwhelmingly young and single. They lack educational and job opportunities. Young men have the potential to turn to extremist thinking in an attempt to find direction in their lives. “Islam is the solution,” the slogan of religious zealots, has great appeal. By contrast, many of Dubai’s expatriates are married, partly because they can afford to have houses, children and settle down. There are also many single men here, but they arrive with the goal of saving enough money to return home and start families.

The Lebanese once led the region in business acumen but attempts to revive freewheeling 1960s Beirut struggle because of the conflicts with Israel. Instead, single women in Beirut complain bitterly about a lack of eligible bachelors because most have gone to the Emirates to find their fortune.

Egypt is pushing free-market reforms and shrugging off its lumbering, Soviet-inspired bureaucracy, but unemployment among college graduates is almost 10 times that of people with a primary education. In any case, no one can get a job without wasta, a personal connection. 

Dubai is also home to the second-largest community of expat Iranians outside North America, up to 400,000. As Iran’s economy suffers under the weight of sanctions and inflation, Iranians have moved to Dubai to do business away from stifling codes of social behaviour back home. The Dubai International Financial Centre has been populated by glamorous Iranian women, headscarves barely covering their hair, a style very slowly being copied by their daring Gulf Arab sisters. 

How the UAE influences change in the region will be interesting to watch. Saudi Arabia is the undisputed social, political and economic heavyweight in the Arabian peninsula. For a Gulf country to push out of its gravitational field is remarkable. Yet Dubai is only about 800km from Riyadh where women cannot drive and religious police maintain strict social control. 

Yet the kingdom is also trying to open up to the world. At a tourism conference in Dubai in September 2006, one Saudi prince announced that Saudi Arabia was licensing 16 tour operators to issue visas to non-Muslims from Asia and Europe and encourage them to visit the kingdom’s scuba-diving sites. 

The starting base for education in the Muslim world is low. In The Times of London’s ranking of top 200 universities, not a single institution in a Muslim-majority country made the grade. It will take more than a generation to make that change. The fact that 79 per cent of university students in the Emirates are women sends a powerful signal. 
Dubai was once praised for embracing unfettered, free market thinking and rising above the fray of explosive Middle Eastern politics which has kept the region undeveloped. It did not invent consumerism, but to its critics abroad the emirate has become a symbol of its worst excesses. 

Nevertheless, Dubai has achieved what other Arab countries have not been able to do: attract the attention and investment of Western Europe and North America, which are more accustomed to sending aid and armies to this part of the world. 
Let us hope that the Dubai dream is not over and that its beacon continues to shine across the Muslim world. 

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