Our ambitions for the Middle East
During President Bush’s visit to Dubai [on Monday], he will find a big city like no other that has risen from the Arabian desert. The joke making the rounds here is the crane should be designated as Dubai’s national bird, so extensive is the engineering activity. We also plan to keep on investing in markets and businesses abroad, including in our own neighbourhood, where economic development has long been uneven.
Our plans do not flow from mere ambition; they are a necessity. Consider that only three per cent of our revenue is from exports of diminishing crude reserves; 30 per cent is from tourism, and there is increasing revenue from manufacturing and other sectors such as hospitality, technology and transportation.
The Burj Dubai tower rises in Dubai. The world’s tallest building since July 2007, it has also become the tallest free-standing structure on earth.
But to term our emirate “Dubai Inc”, as some do, suggests commerce, more than anything else, is our leitmotif. It is true, of course, Dubai has been a trading port and a commercial hub for several centuries. But the ethos of Dubai was, and is, all about building bridges to the outside world; it was, and is, about creating connections with different cultures.
As a child, I learned how important it was to establish an enabling economy, where the government provided incentives and an ethics-based regulatory environment, but left it to the inventiveness and energy of the private sector to expedite economic growth.
I learned my capitalism in the bazaars and boardwalks of Dubai. And perhaps the fundamental question I learned to always ask was: how can we serve as agents of positive change? That is why I prefer to call Dubai “Catalyst Inc”.
We live in a tough neighbourhood. We live in a country that has been surrounded by difficult issues for several decades – the Iraq-Iran war, the invasion of Kuwait, the current war in Iraq. Despite all that, Dubai has learned to reinvent itself and cope.
We believe helping to build a strong regional economy is our best opportunity for lasting social stability in the Middle East. That is why, for instance, we strongly support the new Gulf Common Market, which was launched on January 1 and which will eventually lead to more regional economic integration, enhanced intra-Gulf trade, and a common currency for the six countries that form the GCC. There are more initiatives under way, many aimed at ensuring prompt payment of salaries, and improvements in working conditions for unskilled foreign workers. While capitalism does not always create egalitarian societies, I like to think that in Dubai we are making the effort to cast the net wide when it comes to sharing in
I also like to think that we in Dubai also learn from our mistakes. We have had some object lessons. The Dubai Ports episode in the US last year was one.
We analysed our experiences, and we now approach our international investments in a much more holistic manner. We take the time to analyse the social, political and economic landscape, identify the stakeholders, and then carefully prepare the way by ensuring concerns of all parties are properly addressed. When disputes occur, we find a way to work through them. When there was resistance to our investment in some European bourses, we listened carefully to various arguments and then successfully negotiated our way. As with CEOs in boardrooms, leaders of sovereign nations need to act collaboratively in order to engender progress.
It does not take the visit of a capitalism-boosting American President for this region to freshly understand that it needs to accelerate progress. When you look at the region, there are parts that are behind compared to the rest of the world – behind when it comes to the economy, business and social development. We want these parts to be like Europe, Japan, Singapore and the rest of the industrialised world.
Nearly 1.5 billion people live in our neighbourhood, and more than 50 per cent of them are under the age of 25. In the Arab world alone, some 80 million young people – out of a total population of 300 million – are seeking jobs. I look at these young people as extraordinary resources for nation-building. If we can take our vision beyond Dubai, I think we can save a lot of young people from humiliating unemployment, from becoming extremists.
Education and entrepreneurship are the twin underpinnings for building a safer world. With these two, we will have fewer angry young people, fewer frustrated youths ready to embrace radicalism because they have nowhere else to turn.
I am often asked, ‘What does Dubai really want?’ Well, here’s my answer: what we want is the continuation of a journey that began with my forebears. I truly believe human beings have a tremendous capability of changing and improving their lot. Change and modernisation are inevitable in this age of galloping globalisation. But we in the Middle East need to continually and carefully calibrate that change in the public interest.
I am also often asked, ‘What are Dubai’s political ambitions?’ Well, here’s my answer: we don’t have political ambitions. We don’t want to be a superpower or any other political power. The whole region is over-politicised as it is. We don’t see politics as our thing, we don’t want it, we don’t think this is the right thing to do.
We are engaged in a different type of war that’s really worth fighting – fighting to alleviate poverty, generating better education, creating economic opportunities, and teaching people how to be entrepreneurs, to believe in themselves.
Humility and tolerance run deep in my family and are important in trying to serve one’s people. I am anchored in that tradition, which is why my favourite activity is listening.
I always ask: how can I help? What can I do for people? How can I improve people’s lives? That’s part of my value system. It’s too late for me to change that system, but it isn’t too early for me to say to the world that the Dubai narrative is all about changing people’s lives for the better through smart capitalism, willpower and positive energy. (This column first appeared in The Wall Street Journal)
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