Viva Las Dubai?
Does the UAE metropolis show the path to economic development?
London on a mild winter's afternoon might feel like a long way
from Dubai, but in late 2006 a particular dimension to
globalization is blurring all such geographical distinctions:
clearly visible from the intercity railway tracks coming into
King's Cross mainline station is the glittering new Emirates
Stadium, named after a luxury airline with its headquarters in
what is arguably the most economically dynamic city in the
And it's not just north London which is undergoing a process of
"Dubaization." Up in Liverpool, the iconic Anfield-based
Liverpool FC are close to finalizing their own buyout at the
hands of Dubai International Capital, an investment arm of Dubai
Holding and an entity belonging to no less than the ruler of
Dubai himself, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum. At the
other end of Europe, Istanbul's Manhattan-style Levent business
district will soon host the tallest buildings in the metropolis
of around 11 million people: Dubai Towers, two pencil-thin
structures being erected at the cost of $500 million.
Everywhere -- from the Land of the Free, where the Dubai-based
Emaar Properties acquired U.S. homebuilding behemoth John Laing
Homes via a $1.05 billion cash transfer in June 2006, to the
Axis of Evil, where the same company are engaging in property
ventures worth hundreds of millions of dollars with both private
sector partners and the Syrian government -- the mantra is the
same: Dubai. States, local governments, individuals: all want a
piece of the Dubai pie.
Indeed, the economic vibrancy of Dubai has made such a strong
impression globally that some are beginning to talk of a "Dubai
model" that poor countries can leverage to catapult themselves
into first-world levels of affluence.
The story runs something like this: for much of its history,
Dubai made a relatively small imprint on the global economy.
Then under the visionary leadership of the Al-Maktoum dynasty,
Dubai turned itself into an economic powerhouse through
reinventing itself as a hub for international finance, business,
tourism and transport, approximately in accordance with the
stated aim of Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al-Maktoum, Emir of Dubai
from 1990 until his death earlier this year, of transforming
Dubai into "The Hong Kong of the Middle East."
Through concerted efforts towards this goal, it is argued, Dubai
has attracted sufficient capital investment to construct what
appears to be a phenomenal physical infrastructure. In Jebel Ali
port, it vaunts the largest man-man harbor in the world; the new
Jebel Ali airport, currently under construction and with an
anticipated finish date of 2008, is expected to become the
world's busiest, with projected passenger numbers of 120 million
by around 2030.
Dubai's hotel capacity, expanding at a phenomenal rate, includes
the world's tallest such building, the Burj Al-Arab, a
self-styled "seven star" establishment with the reputation of
being the last word in decadent luxury, if not taste. The city's
credentials as a major player in corporate office space are
being augmented by developments such as Business Bay, a new
commercial district which will comprise 500 skyscrapers built on
As a shopping and leisure destination, Dubai has tried to
position itself as a global leader through a multi-faceted
strategy. Firstly, it has utilized its historic cachet in
sectors such as gold to project an image of long-standing
commercial acumen. Secondly, it has taken advantage of its zero
tax regime by throwing up countless malls -- the Dubai Mall,
presently being built, will be the world's largest when
completed -- in a brazen attempt to remake the city as a
Added into this mix is the plentiful supply of hotels and rental
apartments, relatively clean beaches, year-round sunshine and an
increasing number of tourist attractions, from the implausible
Ski Dubai -- the world's largest indoor ski resort -- to the
Burj Dubai tower, an $8 billion project containing around 2
million square meters of prime real estate. Another gargantuan
initiative presently being constructed - it is estimated that
15-25 percent of the world's cranes can be currently found in
Dubai -- Burj Dubai will be the tallest edifice on the face of
the earth when it is finished around the turn of 2009.
The results of all this looks impressive: Dubai's GDP per capita
levels are those of a fully-developed country; oil revenues
account for less than 6 percent of the emirate's total GDP;
economic growth per annum is pushing double digits. But is Dubai
a realistic, or even a desirable, model for emulation?