Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Dubai story

Dubai: The Making of a Megapolis
By Pranay Gupte
Rs 699/-

(First published in The Pioneer dated December 18, 2011)


In the turmoil of the Arab Spring, one country remained untouched – the United Arab Emirates. Although ruled since its inception in the early 1970s by the royal family with Islamic ideals, its people have never felt the need to rise up against what citizens in other countries in the region perceived in their regimes as dictatorial, despotic and repressive. The reason is apparently simple: The people of the UAE have not felt repressed or left out of the prosperity that has been generated for the rulers and their nation. The sense of inclusiveness has kept the UAE intact.

There is no better example to understand this than the success story of Dubai. Easily the most prominent emirate in the UAE, it is a jewel not just in the UAE’s crown but also the business community of the world. Just how the transformation of a desert sheikhdom into a glittering and dynamic global hub came about, is the story told by well-known author and journalist Pranay Gupte in Dubai: The Making of a Megapolis. At first glance it would appear that the book is nothing more than a public relations exercise on behalf of the rulers of Dubai to showcase their achievements. There is no denying that the purpose, even if not intended, has been met. But the book is about more than that. It is a marvellous narration of the heights that a city – or a nation, for that matter – can attain if the leadership is far-sighted, determined, willing to take people along and open to fresh ideas.

It has not taken for ever for Dubai to reinvent itself from a nondescript fishing village to what it is today. In a mere two decades the city has metamorphosed into what can only be termed as ‘futuristic’, and it is continuing to get better even as several other Arab countries are grappling with an uncertain future. Gupte has skillfully traced the story from its roots that go deep and before the UAE itself came into being. In the process, he has also underlined the remarkable unity of purpose that the rulers of the various emirates have demonstrated in building the UAE and its various constituents. Their sagacity coupled with a humane touch in governance that is so rare in the Arab region – and in many democracies as well – has ensured that petty squabbles that could have derailed the development process, never took place. And, if there were some they were effectively dealt with by being nipped in the bud.

The book is an eye-opener for those of us who have been led to believe that Dubai is a dazzling entity because it has cleverly leveraged the enormous amount of oil resources it commands. As Gupte points out, the impression is fallacious. Dubai in the next few decades will run out of petroleum wealth. It has know that for some time now, which is why its rulers and policy-makers years before set in motion a plan of action to develop the emirate into a centre for international services in the banking and financial sectors and an export hub. To meet that goal, world-class infrastructure has been created that even several developed nations in the West have been unable to replicate. Dubai’s ports, airport, roads and civic amenities are among the very best in the world. Luxury tourism has catapulted the emirate to the top league of cities that attract the best and the most affluent clientele.

The author has devoted a large amount of print space to recount in much detail the visionary rulers the UAE has had in the form of the Al Makhtoum family members. Ruler after ruler from this family diligently worked to create the Dubai that we see in the finished (or still evolving?) form that it is today. Gupte provides a fascinating account of the rise and rise of the family and its contribution to the growth of the various emirates, particularly Dubai. In that story lies the secret of the Dubai Phenomenon. What is amazing in the tale is the almost complete absence of arrogance in the rulers who were almost apologetic about their wealth, and have been always seeking to offload it for larger, charitable causes. Is it any wonder then that the people in the Emirates are so emotionally attached to them?

The author provides many interesting insights into the minds of the rulers. Sheikh Mohammed, for instance, would visit the various construction sites where Indian and Pakistani labourers were at work, and enquire about their welfare. He would pull up officials for the poor quality of houses these workers lived in and ensured that they were given better facilities. In another case, a ruler of the family called a meeting of Indian and Pakistani businessmen operating in Dubai and told them politely but firmly that he would not tolerate any friction between them on account of their nationality. He then suggested with a smile that at least in Dubai they should leave their animosity behind and work for the mutual prosperity of self and the emirate. Needless to say, the message was well received. One does not hear of communal clashes in Dubai.

Gupte is absolutely on target when he points out that the success of Dubai reflects the enormous contribution of people from India. This has been often acknowledged by the Sheikhs there. That is one of the reasons why the UAE continues to enjoy cordial relations with India.

In constructing the success story of Dubai, Gupte deconstructs the stereotypical Arab leader, generally seen as brashly opulent, untrustworthy and closed to modern thoughts. The author says that many of such erroneous impressions would evaporate after one met the rulers of Dubai. In any case, the transformation of Dubai could not have been possible if the emirate – and the UAE – had been ruled by sheikhs who were consumed by a sense of their own wealth and adulterous adventures.

The Makhtoum Tradition is an enduring one, as Mr Gupte repeatedly underlines throughout his narrative, and will be enduring as long as it remains faithful to the ideals that its early rulers laid down. The ‘shop till you drop’ Dubai will continue to pull Indians to this emirate, for a visit if not to always settle down. But more than that, Dubai will remain the benchmark for capitalism with a soul.

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