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02 June 2023

The Dubai Dream: Shifting sands

By Staff Writer



Once upon a time, on the shores of the Arabian Gulf, in a sun-scorched hamlet inhabited mostly by pearl divers, fishermen and traders, there was a man who dared to dream – and dream big.

While others in and around his village saw the narrow creek that snaked through the small town as a place to dock their decrepit dhows and fishing boats, and as a means to earn their meagre livelihood, this man, the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, saw an opportunity – an opportunity to bring the world to his home, and to take his home to the world.

Dubai, then insignificant for the world at large, was part of a region that was then, as it is today, embroiled in conflict. In those days, until oil was discovered in large quantities in neighbouring Abu Dhabi in the early 1970s, not a lot of people chose to visit the region, and those who did, never cared enough to visit Dubai. After all, it never had much oil to boast.

What it did have was the vision of one man who, never mind his lack of financial resources, built a platform so strong and so apt that the theatre of generations of future growth and development is being played out on it – and being played out far better than anywhere else in the world.

Even before Sheikh Rashid became the Ruler of Dubai, he realised the strategic importance of the Creek and ordered an economic and technical study in 1954 on its deepening and widening. In the early years, only small dhows were able to enter the Creek. The bigger vessels had to unload goods into small boats at the entrance of the Creek.

Despite the lack of financial resources at that time to cover the cost of the project, a fund called the Dubai Creek Dredging Fund was established with a sum of £200,000 (Dh1.42m) paid by one of the operating banks in Dubai. Along with that, Dubai borrowed another £400,000 (Dh2.84m) from its oil-rich neighbour Kuwait.

Initially, a canal 4,000 feet long and six feet deep was dug and in the second stage, sheet piling of length 1,200 ft and 11,700 ft was laid on both sides of the Creek. As a result, shipping movement increased and ships of a capacity of 500 tonnes were able to enter the Creek. Around the same time, Sheikh Rashid founded the Dubai Airport, now one among the busiest airports in the world.

Sheikh Rashid realised it was not enough to just provide a secure passage to the ships – Dubai, also known as the City of Gold for its hundreds of elaborate gold shops and some of the best jewellery prices in the world, needed a large enough harbour for ships to load and unload goods that could then be re-exported to the various adjoining regions, the countries of the Indian Subcontinent and East Africa.

This was brought to fruition in the 1960s with the construction of Port Rashid with a five-berth container terminal for the biggest ships of the time. Significantly, at that time, the discovery of oil reserves in Dubai hastened the growth of non-oil trade and development. Oil was discovered in Dubai in 1966, after which the city granted concessions to international oil companies.
The discovery of oil led to a massive influx of foreign workers. As a result, the population of the city grew by more than 300 per cent between 1968 and 1975.

For anyone else, developments of such huge magnitude would have been overwhelming, and it would have taken many more decades to comprehend and digest the growth that this brought about to Dubai. Not for Sheikh Rashid, though. For him, this was the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and his vision far extended that of ordinary folk, many of whom questioned his judgement and believed he was wrong in making such huge investments.

In 1976, Sheikh Rashid gave instructions for another, even more ambitious project – the construction of the world’s largest man-made harbour at Jebel Ali. When completed in 1979, Jebel Ali Port ranked alongside the Great Wall of China and the Hoover Dam as the only three man-made objects that can be seen from space.

Indeed, Jebel Ali was planned as a whole new city on its own, complete with its own seaport and airport. Sheikh Rashid’s intentions were clear – he wanted to bring industrial development to Dubai. Although complementing Port Rashid in terms of trade and trans-shipments, the concept of Jebel Ali was geared more towards industrial development and soon attracted major aluminium, gas and cement projects.
Establishing the surrounding Jebel Ali Free Zone (Jafz) made the location a magnet for international businesses looking for the best facilities, cheaper overheads and the freedom to operate with an offshore status. The greatness of Sheikh Rashid’s foresight can be gauged from the fact the Jebel Ali Airport – now called Dubai World Central and soon to be launched as the world’s largest airport – was part of his original vision for Jebel Ali and Dubai.

The subsequent success of Jafz created a benchmark for other free zones across the region to compete against. Jafz, offering foreign companies unrestricted import of labour and export capital, also laid the template for the establishment of numerous other free zones within Dubai – Dubai Airport Free Zone, Dubai Maritime City, Dubai Media City, Dubai Internet City, Knowledge Village and Dubai International Financial Centre, to name but a few – and across the UAE in the years to follow.

An integral component of Sheikh Rashid’s vision for Dubai, the Dubai International Trade Centre and the Dubai Dry Docks project saw the light of the day in the early 1970s and 1979, respectively, and today contribute handsomely to Dubai’s economy, which has been defying the naysayers for decades and is steadily progressing at a double-digit growth rate.

The true inheritor of Sheikh Rashid’s vision, his son His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, is today building on his father’s dream, complementing it with his own foresight and imagination.

Responsible for not just landmark projects, among the early examples of Sheikh Mohammed’s vision and his ability to execute grand projects is the formation of Emirates airline with his own funds and only two planes in 1985.

Indeed, he realised early on that while trade was the bedrock of Dubai’s economy, tourism was to be its cornerstone. Emirates, profitable within a year, now serves more than 80 destinations across the world, and with orders worth $35 billion (Dh128.45bn) for new-generation aircraft committed during the recently concluded Dubai Airshow, it is flying high towards its chosen destination of becoming the world’s largest and first truly global airline.

Unveiling the Dubai Strategic Plan-2015 early last year, Sheikh Mohammed emphasised Dubai was set to maintain double-digit economic growth, and achieve a GDP of $108bn (Dh396bn) and increase real per capita GDP to $44,000 (Dh161,480) by 2015.

The plan, launched under the theme “Dubai: Where The Future Begins”, set out a strategic approach that focused on developing the emirate’s most dynamic economic sectors that have been the key contributors to Dubai’s annual real GDP growth rate of 13 per cent since 2000.

“We have come a long way towards achieving the objectives of an economy independent of oil. Indeed, we have exceeded all expectations and predictions,” maintained Sheikh Mohammed. “When I announced my Vision for Dubai in the year 2000, I spoke of economic aims for the year 2010. The reality is that not only have these aims been realised, but they have been realised in half the time,” he declared.

“In the year 2000, the plan was to increase GDP to $30 billion by 2010. In 2005, that figure was exceeded, with GDP reaching $37 billion. The plan also included an increase in income per capita to $23,000 by the year 2010. In 2005, the average income per capita reached $31,000,” Sheikh Mohammed revealed.

“In other words, we realised, in five years, economic achievements beyond those that were planned for a 10-year period.” That, in fact, sums up Dubai’s philosophy for economic growth – promise what you can deliver, and over-deliver what you promise.