DUBAI — Last month, Gen. Sheikh Muhammad bin Maktum, minister of defense of the United Arab Emirates, announced at a press conference that the Internet revolution and the “new economy” were coming to the government of Dubai. It was an incongruous spectacle, so traditional a figure, in distinctive black “dishdasha,” delivering a pep talk like a wired and with-it corporate executive. As “synergy,” “Internet-enabled solutions,” “cycle-time reduction” and the like flashed across a screen behind him, he swore he would have his “e-government@dubai” Web site in place within 18 months, or “kick arse” if he didn’t.
It was a typical can-do performance by the minister of defense; typically, too, it had nothing to do with defense. In the zany power structure of the federation that Britain created 29 years ago, its seven member-states retain vast autonomy. And defense is left essentially to Abu Dhabi which, thanks to its oil, is by far the richest of them.
Business was ever the main business of Dubai. Only the scale and variety of it has changed explosively. Barely a generation ago, Sheikh Rashid, founder of the modern city, sat by the famous Dubai creek charging a few dirhems on boats ferrying passengers across it. Today, under his son Muhammad — the effective ruler because his elder brother, the titular one, is more interested in horses than public affairs — it is perhaps the world’s fastest-growing global city and intercontinental hub. It is also a non-Arab society planted in the heart of Arabia.
It rejoices in superlatives; the Guinness Book of Records is on quasi-permanent standby to register them. Normally they apply to the biggest and best of everything — the tallest hotel or largest-ever wedding cake — which Maktum Inc., as some call Dubai, can boast. But the one it doesn’t advertise is ultimately the most significant of all: an immigrant population that, proportionate to the natives, is the highest in the world.
In the UAE as a whole, nationals are outnumbered seven to one by mainly non-Arab aliens, 1.2 million Indians, 600,000 Pakistanis, 100,000 Iranians and contributions from dozens of other nations, including some 50,000 Britons. In Dubai, nationals fall to a mere 8 percent.
Dubai nationals firmly control executive and administration offices, but only by allocating a huge proportion of their manpower to the task. By contrast, they are a mere 1 or 2 percent of the private-sector labor force. Indians dominate there, because of historical connections and because they are the most easily available and affordable. They — and other non-Arabs — are also less likely to be politicized than Arabs.
If politics are barely permitted to the natives, who have made few democratic inroads into the “sheikh” autocracy, they are totally forbidden to the immigrants. Not that they agitate for them. Dubai is definitely not intended to be a melting-pot, a new polyglot polity in the making. All who come here, come to work only. They must leave when they finish. They can bring their families if they earn more than $850 a month. Some have been here a long time, and grown very rich. More and more are born here. But except by the ruler’s special dispensation they cannot formally own a house, or more than 49 percent of a business, let alone acquire citizenship. It appears that, at most, the authorities are gingerly considering residency rights for the truly deserving.
Within these ground rules, it is uniquely tolerant and open-minded in its multiethnicity; there is barely a trace of Islamic fundamentalism here. The Dubayans, by and large deeply conservative, may keep to themselves, but live and let live is the philosophy officially applied and genuinely practiced.
There is nothing furtive about the hedonism of the place. Along with countless restaurants and open-air eating places, bars and nightclubs — and prostitutes from many lands — abound; only on the prophet Mohammed’s birthday, from 6 p.m. to 6 p.m, is the sale of alcohol forbidden. Not just single Western, but even Arab women, go comfortably to cinemas, even discos, on their own. A spanking modern infrastructure keeps pace with Dubai’s international vocation, and much of it, despite the haste, is well planned and in tolerable taste. It makes for a physically and socially pleasant place to live.
The country is orderly; its traffic discipline alone puts a country like Lebanon, the Middle East’s former business hub that now (hopelessly) aspires to be so again, entirely to shame. The administration is relatively efficient and uncorrupted. Sheikh Muhammad makes impromptu personal inspections and fires slackers on the spot.
Perhaps most strikingly, it is green. One of the most arid places on Earth, Dubai consumers nearly four times more water per capita than the world average. Almost all of it is desalinized; then, in the form of recycled sewage, it irrigates man-made parks, almost as fresh as English woodlands, the immaculate verges of the great new highways — and golf courses. Four have sprung up in a decade, sports of all kinds being one way in which Dubai promotes its global image. Every week sees some “international event”: The Dubai Air Show now ranks next to Paris and Farnborough; the Desert Classic draws the world’s top golfers; the Dubai World Cup is the world’s richest horse race.
Doubtless, there is a bubble factor in all the hype. And sometimes local custom does break through the cosmopolitan gloss; businessmen sometimes complain that it’s more important to know the right people than to market the right goods, and the courts sometimes trap foreigners in the coils of a justice system that retains “blood money” and other Islamic archaisms. But there’s overwhelming substance too. Uniquely for these parts, it does not come from oil alone, which, with small deposits fast running dry, now constitutes a mere 7 percent of GDP. It’s a diversified, organic growth, built on three main things:
* The expansion of traditional commerce. The buildings that line the old creek may be futuristic, but the stout old-fashioned wooden dhows are still at anchor there, and they ferry the same sort of goods, from consumer durables to secondhand tires, to Iran, India or Zanzibar. At the same time, its huge free zone and the busiest airport in the Middle East put it at the cutting edge of modern freight services.
* Regional business representation, which increasingly covers Africa as well as Asia. “It has created an atmosphere of international efficiency,” said the editor of a local English-language newspaper, “that makes everyone want to come.” Some 90 percent of Fortune’s top companies have done so.
* Tourism. There were only 44 hotels a decade ago; now there are 257, and this new sector already accounts for 16 percent of GDP. They thrive even in the most humid dog-days of summer, when the visitors come mainly for the air-conditioned shopping, cheapest in the world.
And now Dubai is going electronic. Along with “e-government@dubai,” there will be a whole new “Internet City.”
Some say that a place like this does not, cannot, have an identity; it’s just a location where foreigners come and go. Though nationals may go on ruling the country, culturally speaking, said a Western diplomat, “they may end up like some quaint relic in their own land.” They strive to preserve their indigenous character, they discourage mixed marriages, but the business imperative makes it all a losing battle.
At what point does an ever growing immigrant population, for all its diversity and the mutual antipathy of its two largest — Indian and Pakistani — components, begin flirting with political ambitions that reflect its overwhelming, totally indispensable functional weight? It’s a question few Dubayans dare contemplate. And it is presumably Sheikh Muhammad’s hope that the more productive and rewarding role everyone, native and immigrant alike, can find in the building of his great new global city, the longer an answer to it will be in coming. But the more global the city, the more momentous the answer is likely to be when it finally does.
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