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Why Dubai? What cynic pessimists think

It’s a modern day take on the classic Aesop’s fable of sour grapes, but Dubai-bashing remains a disturbingly popular pastime

Khalid Abdulla-Janahi

Published: Updated:

It’s a modern day take on the classic Aesop’s fable of sour grapes, but Dubai-bashing remains a disturbingly popular pastime, particularly among us GCC-ians (Khaleejees in Arabic). I understand why, of course, but perhaps we need to look past the jealousy and envy to try and understand how, and more importantly why, Dubai has proved to be the single exception to the otherwise standard GCC norms.

When, as a child, I first visited Dubai in 1969 there was nothing but the creek. There were very few people, and a small souq. I visited again a year later, and it was pretty much still the same thing – but when I went back in the 1980s after university, it had already begun its transformation into a world capital. Today, the Dubai skyline competes with the best in the world – and every time you visit, there is something new.

Interestingly, Dubai’s dramatic success story was written using the only three natural resources they ever had: the sun, the sea and the desert; coupled with leadership and a vision.

Parallel to Dubai’s dramatic growth, however, armies of cynic pessimists also began to grow both in other states of the United Arab Emirates, and across the oil rich nations of the GCC. The growing armies of naysayers insisted it was all a bubble on the verge of collapse. I’ve been hearing these same doomsday prophesies since the 1980’s – and, to be honest, I’m very surprised they are still singing that same lame tune.

I would have thought that the 2008 global financial crisis, its immediate and very dramatic impact on Dubai and the equally dramatic recovery, would have forever silenced even the loudest critics.

Dubai’s dramatic success story was written using the only three natural resources they ever had: the sun, the sea and the desert, coupled with leadership and a vision

Khalid Abdulla-Janahi

Dubai, at the time the only part of the Arab world that was also part of the real world, was immediately impacted by the financial crisis. Across the region, “told-you-so” crackling spread like wildfire with many almost eager to point out Dubai’s imminent collapse.
Not only did that collapse never happen, but only a few years later, Dubai was back in full swing – and by wining Expo 2020, proved it was back with a vengeance.

Yet so-called elite across the GCC continue their petty Dubai-bashing with some complaining that it is run like a corporate entity, not a country, and others still insisting it’s all a bubble waiting to burst. We even have those who try to dismiss Dubai’s dramatic achievements because, being man-made, they are “not real.”

Imitation as flattery

Despite all the Dubai-bashing however, many places in the GCC (including other states in the United Arab Emirates) have tried to imitate, even replicate, the Dubai success story. They’ve all, predictably, had very little or no luck.

Perhaps they should stop trying to play copy-cat and focus, instead, on trying to understand how a place with such limited resources could write such an impressive success story. Rather than spending untold millions trying to imitate Dubai, perhaps we need to start thinking strategically for a change.

The Dubai bubble is a myth. We need to peek past the massive green monster and take an objective look at why Dubai has been so successful.
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Khalid Abdulla-Janahi was elected Vice Chairman of WEF’s Arab Business Council (2003 to 2007). He was also the Co-Chair of WEF’s Global Agenda Council on the Middle East up to 2011. He is the Group Chief Executive of Dar Al Maal Al Islami, a Chairman of Solidarity Group Holding and the Chairman of Naseej. Khalid is based in Geneva.

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