Dubai and the United Arab Emirates: 2010 and beyond for city states in flux
This post was written for the Huffington Post, and mirrored on Mid East Posts. Here’s a view of what transpired in possibly the world’s busiest entrepot - through the eyes of seven individuals, residents, analysts, writers and global citizens who are proud to call the UAE home. Any criticism, opprobrium or issues with this piece are my responsibility – for it was I who cajoled these writers and residents into contributing. I’m grateful for their assistance, and am glad to call them fellow community members.
A year in revelation
Hisham Wyne is a columnist, analyst and radio commentator, at home in the world but residing in Dubai. His socio-cultural ramblings can be found here.
The UAE – and Dubai in particular - has been an utterly fascinating place to be in 2010. Obstinate denials of the recession not having an iota of impact gave way to a tacit admission that the model of ostentatious ambition needed a re-think.
Drawn as vultures to carrion, 2010 saw many a hack float their way to Dubai and magnanimously assure us they knew us, and our cauldron of greed, our city built supposedly on sand, our modern day interpretation of Shelley’s Ozymandias. They said they were sorry but we were all doomed to extinction.
We thanks them for their gleeful schadenfraude and applaud their extreme sloth – pieces were penned before actual visits, and some decided they had figured the city and country out from 30,000 feet in the air while flying over it. It’s easier to forgive the UK’s Daily Mail for such transgressions than more erudite publications like The Guardian. We were all described as priapic stallions, goldfish in a bowl and whatever other easy cliché was within grasp.
Yet, to mangle Mr. Twain beyond forgiveness, the reports of Dubai’s death have been greatly exaggerated. What has emerged is a new consciousness, where residents and citizens have combined in a genuine understanding of what it means to choose live here.
Thank you, global pundits of misery, but we’re taking back our narrative.
The political capital of the UAE’s President
Sultan Saood Al Qassemi
Sultan Saood Al Qassimi is a columnist for UAE daily The National, and is a non-resident fellow of the Dubai School of Government. He is @sultanalqassemi on twitter and his work can be found at Felix Arabia.
The year 2010 can be summed up for UAE nationals as the year of Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed, the president of the UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi.
As early as January 4th 2010 the world’s tallest man-made structure was unveiled in Dubai, standing at 824 metres. Prior to its inauguration the UAE’s Prime Minister and Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid said, “Today the United Arab Emirates achieves the tallest building ever created by the hand of man ... and this great project deserves to carry the name of a great man. Today I inaugurate Burj Khalifa [named after Sheikh Khalifa]."
In the autumn of 2010, Sheikh Khalifa returned to the UAE after treatment at a medical facility in Switzerland, and in December welcomed his fellow Gulf leaders at the 31st Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Abu Dhabi that he chaired. A few days earlier, on December 2nd, the UAE had celebrated its 39th National Day celebration under the banner Kulluna Khalifa, which translates into ‘We are all for Khalifa’, a slogan that spread through social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook amongst Emirati citizens and expats alike.
The Emirate of Sharjah named in his honour the city’s most vital road after Shaikh Khalifa; the same applied to the new Dubai-Fujairah highway. Businessweek placed the UAE President on its 2010 World Leaders to Watch list while Forbes magazine named Sheikh Khalifa amongst the World’s Most Powerful People list and published an article entitled “Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a man of difficult situations” highlighting various economic and cultural initiatives that were launched under his presidency.
Ultimately what makes 2010 the year of Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed were the thousands of UAE citizens who thronged to Al Rawda Palace in Al Ain oasis in September to welcome their president back home in a scene reminiscent to one a few years ago when they similarly welcomed back his much loved father Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan, the founding father of the UAE.
The Entrepreneurial Fixation of 2010
By Danish Farhan
Danish Farhan is a futurist, entrepreneur, writer and CEO of hybrid consultancy Xische. He can be found at www.danishfarhan.com and is @danishfarhan on twitter.
Every year, a singular protagonist soars into the collective psyche of a people. While Time Magazine might have decreed Facebook's Zuckerberg its choice, 'entrepreneurship' has emerged centre-stage in the UAE (39 this year), but not without its worthy nemeses.
Several magnanimous events galvanised this new-found entrepreneurial thirst, and it rapidly became en vogue for smaller stories to be celebrated across mass media channels. In Dubai, there was an unprecedented re-emergence of the city's beginnings as a business hub with a promise of a new breed of entrepreneurs. This was further fuelled by another sub-plot that reflects its global counterpart: the rise of social media this year.
Pull back the legendary 'boom' decade, Dubai seemed to have gradually gone from being an incubator of 'small ideas' that can grow big, to one that supported only 'big ideas' that can grow even bigger. This year marked an attempted return to small ideas once again. However, the city's presiding trader-mindset is still disproportionately elevated to the single most important tenet of its business psyche. While 2010's renewed zeal has catalysed real dialog between budding entrepreneurs and investors, bigger paradigm-shifts have yet to follow suit. Entrepreneurs that are not traders still find themselves on roads less travelled; essentially, outliers with little precedent to fall back on. Dubai has a lot more to offer than re-exported goods and plots of land on man-made islands.
To compound the trade-elitism in play, the term 'entrepreneur' made its debut into the mainstream this year. But with little education, scarce legislative support for startups and virtually no incubation opportunities, here's hoping the sustainability of this new found fixation will not suffer the fate of the proverbial bubble we are all too familiar with in Dubai.
Having said that, the catalysts for creating an entrepreneurial revolution have arrived, and are set to change the landscape in 2011.
UAE consumers and their tech
Paul Castle is a writer for MacWorld ME and PCWorld ME and a consumer technology expert with an inordinate love for tea and cats. He can be found on twitter as @Daddybird, and his work is here.
2010 was another eventful year for tech-savvy consumers in the UAE; despite some belt tightening, our hunger for the latest technologies remained high, and all too often frustrated.
"Fiber to the Home" Internet connections came to more and more of us this year, allowing us to pay even more for speedier connections, which in turn let us more quickly load the "This page is blocked" notice when web surfing. Censorship is a dish best served at 8Mbs.
Mobile phone adoption passed 200% penetration in the UAE this year, so if you can't reach us on our iPhone, try our Blackberry. Or Android phone.
The product of the year, Apple's iPad has yet to be officially released here, nonetheless shortly after its US debut it showed up in almost every store here that carried any inventory resembling tech items, and subsequently on the tables at coffee shops around the UAE. (Don't spill your latte on it though, there's no official warranty coverage here.)
Meanwhile, Samsung has officially launched their Android-powered Galaxy Tab with several events, as well as adverts posted seemingly everywhere. The end result is that if you sit in a coffee shop with your Galaxy Tab, passers-by will ask, "Is that the iPad?"
Of course the usefulness of the Tab- and all Android devices sold in the region- is hampered by the fact that the UAE's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) has disallowed the inclusion of the Android Market for purchasing apps. Yet another instance of the "openess" of the Android platform making it open regulatory and manufacturer restriction.
The iPhone 4 did eventually get its official release here, and almost intact. A mention of the FaceTime video chat feature of the phone was noticeably absent from the promotional materials preceding its release, and even more noticeably absent from the phone itself. The blame shifting between Apple and TRA/Etisalat/du for this omission in functionality was bitter and cacophonous... or it might have been if any of the parties had bothered to offer more than minimal responses.
To make our tech year compete, Blackberry service as-we-knew-it was threatened when caught in the middle of yet another game of political chicken between the UAE and Canada. For reasons of national security, the government of the UAE sought access to messages sent over the proprietary network that Canada-based Research In Motion (RIM) maintains for its Blackberry devices. (After all, the best way for others to keep you safe is by opening and reading your mail.) While RIM asserted that the access for such snooping was reserved for themselves, the UAE claimed that they only wanted what had been already granted to other governments. (The USA countered this argument with absolute silence.) All came to a happy, amicable end, with RIM announcing new business opportunities bestowed upon them by UAE agencies in return for... well, your Blackberry is still working, isn't it? So ignore the man behind the curtain and keep BBM-ing.
Arts, Culture and Content : My Dubai at night.
Hind Shoufani is a Palestinian poet, filmmaker, writer and organizer of local poetry slam “The Poeticians”. Her work revolves around her own narratives and those of a people the world, if not time, forgot. She can be found at www.poeticians.com.
The year 2010 was the year I committed to Dubai. It was to become a new home for someone who never really had an inherited land. Word on the street, in other cities I abandoned, was that we were to be dwarfed by the skyscrapers, eroded by the wind and sand, left in a desert without songs to heal, guide or entertain us. Mercifully, this was far from true.
This past year witnessed art buses driving thirsty eyes to miraculous paintings and installations. We heard the throaty tones of a harmonica-infused voice singing the blues, all common to the innate human condition. A multitude of re-born writers abandoned the self-imposed confines of a cubicle and came out at night to poeticize what their souls see. They took burn and loss to the page and made it a collective personal experience, creating a space we were told was ridiculous to envision. There were film festivals where every room was filled with hungry stories aching to find celluloid. Filmmakers, writers and producers buzzing about trying to tell tales of resistance, hope and a multilayered history of a region in flux. Even those seeking oblivion in a few well-chosen tunes could retreat to Thursday night underground dance spots where the music and the energy sealed solid friendships. All this and more happened this year. I saw sketches and designed stars and homemade documentaries about family. I saw people pick up a guitar and insist on speaking in chords. I saw women quit jobs to take the time to draw in their living rooms. I saw others tango and salsa their way to freedom. Art is never impossible.
It certainly isn’t about quantity anymore. We produce, we import, we are open to the world and its mysteries. The definitive quest right now is to fine-tune the quality. It is no longer enough to stand back, stroke our chins in smugness and say, look, here we go, art is being created locally. We need to have mouths agape at the power of an exhibit, or throats silenced at the exquisiteness of a song. We must aspire to compete, internationally. I know this takes time. I know it takes a long hard look at our inspiration and craft, a judging look that demands we outdo our own expectations, a challenging look that orders us to not settle for the novelty of culture, but to ever seek its metaphysical plateaus of necessary excellence.
I know those around me can.
An architecturally sound view of the street
A.Z. is an observer, a thinker and occasionally a troubled troubadour. He is @dubaijazz on twitter and his soothingly alliterative musings can be found here.
Don’t be beguiled by the delicacies of the world,
become a heartless, emotionless fool
Don’t ever allow it to take hold of your head,
the idea that you are above everyone else
The above are the opening two lines of my favourite Emirati song by the one and only Hussein Al Jasmi. I’m humming them as I think of what has transpired for Dubai in 2010. You see, I’m an architect, and there is probably no sector that had been hit harder by the recession than construction.
But, looking at the bright side, trying to detect the silver lining through all the uncertainty, I see a resilient Dubai learning from its errors of judgment and adjusting its expectations of itself and the world. Educational courses on offer for us engineers these days bear the titles of ‘Managing Risk in Times of Uncertainty’, and the slightly more upbeat ‘Beat The Recession; Build Your Way Through The Downturn’, all with ‘recession-sensitive’ entry fees.
When I visit the headquarters of the Dubai Municipality these days it is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of last year: then it was all about disputes, different parties scrambling to interpret ambiguous drawings to their best interest. That, fortunately, is no longer the case.
Consultants, clients and authorities are all more or less on the same side. This partnership formed on the common notion that we are all in the same boat, and has evolved on survival. The fast-track has been ditched by those who have taken a step back to watch, observe and act accordingly.
Perhaps it’s not a crime to be mediocre. The average can serve you well if the average is all you can muster for now, as long as you can get over your unrealistic expectations and realize that there is a lot of potential between the all and nothing.
That was 2010. The year ahead promises to be saner, yet hopefully progressive. The government has realized that economic recovery starts at ground level and is trying to make things easier for community businesses. The media remains paralysed by self-censorship, but anecdotal evidence suggests more freedom of expression than ever before. Of particular significance is growing body of bloggers, writers, poets and scribblers who are documenting the region first hand.
Yet, we must guard against complacency, and a celebration of mediocrity. There seems a trend towards self-congratulation in the community for ideas that would make not a ripple in other places.
We’re all convinced Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the UAE have a future that lives up to their billing as laissez faire trade hubs, cultural cauldrons and possibly the world’s most successful peace experiments. We’re also convinced we can catalyze ideas that are globally competitive in their own right, and not pallid reflections of what has already been accomplished elsewhere. Mostly, we’re rather sure we have more right to comment on our home of choice than ill-prepared outsiders. Engage with us by all means, but do your homework, sil vous plait.