Dubai and the United Arab Emirates: 2010 and beyond for city states in flux

Skyline Dubai

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

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.

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.

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.

Con­clu­sion

Hisham Wyne

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.