Provocative commentaries on international issues, social development, and people and places by a veteran journalist
Published in The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2008
Published on June 1, 2008 By PranayGupte In Politics

Timeless Journey: The Maktoum Tradition and the Making of Modern Dubai

By His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum

(Note to Editor: This article was published in The Wall Street Journal on January 4, 2008. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed completed two years as ruler of the Emirate of Dubai, and Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates earlier this week. He is writing his memoir, due to be published later this year.)

When President George W. Bush of the United States visits the Middle East later this week, he will be offered traditional Arab hospitality, the sort of spontaneous and warm welcome we always extend to dignitaries and dispossessed alike. He will find a big city like no other Arabian center that has risen from a hostile desert.

This society is often called “Dubai Inc.” because of our ambitious plans for domestic economic and social development; the joke that makes the rounds here is that so extensive is the engineering activity, in fact, that the crane should be designated as Dubai’s national bird. Those plans – which have been widely publicized and therefore don’t warrant repetition in this essay -- also include investing prudently in bourses and businesses abroad, particular in the United States, Europe, Asia, and, of course, in our own neighborhood where economic development has long been uneven.

Such widening of our plans doesn’t flow from mere societal ambition; it is a necessity. Consider the following: Only 3 percent of our revenue is from exports of diminishing crude-oil reserves; 30 percent is from tourism, and there’s increasing revenue from manufacturing and other sectors such as hospitality, technology and transportation. I wish that they called them touro-dollars instead of petro-dollars.

But I also wish that Dubai were known as something other than “Dubai Inc.” We need the world to look at this region from a different perspective. As long as people on the outside look at it from a certain stereotype, there will be misunderstandings. The culture clashes will continue when somebody is looking at somebody else from really a different view than what reality suggests.

There’s a misleading perception about Dubai needs to be changed. To term our emirate “Dubai Inc.” suggests that commerce, more than anything else, is our leitmotif. It is true, of course, that Dubai has been a trading port and a commercial hub for several centuries. When I was a child, my late father, His Highness Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, would frequently take me to Dubai’s creek where creaky old dhows would be docked, and merchants from many parts of the world would be engaged in lively bargaining.

But even back then, I learned that the ethos of Dubai was all about building bridges to the outside world, it was about creating connections with different cultures. 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 that I learned to always ask was: How can we serve as agents of positive change?

That’s why I prefer to call Dubai “Catalyst Inc.” We live in a tough neighborhood. 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, and the various politically sensitive aspects of the Gulf. We’ve seen three major wars in the region in two decades. But despite all that, Dubai learned how to reinvent itself and cope with issues.

What we have learned is that during the bad times, we need to work much harder to implement our vision, and to stay focused. Wherever Dubai establishes a presence, it will serve as a catalyst for local businesses to see what more can be done if there is drive, determination, and good business sense. We believe that helping to build a strong regional economy is our best opportunity for lasting social stability in the Middle East. That’s 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 Gulf Cooperation Council – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.

There are many more initiatives underway, many of which are aimed at ensuring prompt payment of salaries, and improvements in working conditions for unskilled foreign workers. While capitalism doesn’t 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 prosperity.

I also like to think that we in Dubai also learn from our mistakes with alacrity. We have had some object lessons. The Dubai Ports episode in the United States last year was one example. We analyzed our experiences, and we now approach our international investments in a much more holistic manner. We take the time to analyze the social, political and economic landscape, identify the stakeholders, and then carefully prepare the way by ensuring that the concerns of all parties are properly addressed. When disputatious issues occur, we generally 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 through the situation. As with CEOs in corporate boardrooms, leaders of sovereign nations need to act collaboratively in order to engender progress.

It doesn’t necessarily take the visit of a capitalism-boosting American president for this region to freshly understand that it needs to accelerate economic progress to what I call “The Second Level.”

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. When we say “second level,” we would like these less developed parts of the region to be like the rest of the world – we would like the whole region to be as the rest of the world, as Europe, as Japan, as Singapore, as the rest of the industrialized world. Nearly 1.5 billion people live in our neighborhood, and more than 50 percent 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 this vision beyond Dubai, I think we can save a lot of young people from humiliating unemployment, from becoming extremists – saving them for own their sake and for their family basically, so that the whole region can really move to the “second level” of economic growth and prosperity.

When I created the $10 billion Maktoum Foundation last year, the prime objective was to educate young people in the region and around the developing world in entrepreneurial leadership. Our “Dubai Cares” project similarly supports literacy and employment programs for youth everywhere. Education and entrepreneurship are the twin underpinnings for building a safer world, regardless of which society we live in: we’ll have fewer angry young people that way, fewer frustrated youths who are ready to embrace radicalism because they have nowhere else to turn. So the aim is really taking development to the “second level” in order to improve education, health care, and improve every sector that will result in a sustainable and open economy for our region. That means more competition, good governance, and certainly less corruption within our region.

I am often asked, “What does Dubai really want?” Well, here’s my answer: This is the continuation of a journey that began with my forebears. I truly believe that human beings have a tremendous capability of changing and improving their lot. Change and modernization are inevitable in this age of galloping globalization. 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 kind of power, basically. The way we look at politics in today’s economy is different than whatever politics used to be. The whole region is over-politicized 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 opportunity for people, and teaching people everywhere how to be entrepreneurs, and believing in themselves and their capability of being really not only local and regional players, but international players.

It is impossible for me to end an essay like this without harking back to a tradition that’s deeply rooted in the Maktoum family – humility and tolerance. I think humbleness is very important in trying to serve one’s people. I love to serve people and to help people. That’s what makes us different than many other parts of the region and the world. I am anchored in that tradition, which is why my favorite activity is listening to people.

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 also 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, will power and positive energy.

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