I once had a boyfriend who said I could suck the fun out of anything. Fair warning: I am about to give this treatment to Dubai, a place I, perhaps unexpectedly, now adore. Everything you have ever heard about Dubai is true. The largest mall. The tallest building. The whims of oil sheikhs and billionaires indulged thanks to armies of Indian and Filipino workers. The camel-racing track used only once a year. I have seen it all and, at face, it is easy to dismiss as venal and vainglorious. But there are life lessons and leadership lessons to be drawn from the miracle that is Dubai.
Imagine you are the head of the ruling family in charge of Dubai in the 1880s. You have a lot of sand, sundry camels, a lot of sun and, frankly, not much else. But you do have access to open water– you are a gulf state. So you get rid of taxes and tariffs and establish yourself as a trading hub. You read your environment, identify your strengths, come up with a vision and execute it, ignoring all nay-sayers. While you are at it, you teach your son the importance of thinking big, and taking care of your people, and focusing on a goal. He passes his wisdom to his son and so on, down the royal line.
Fast forward nearly 100 years. The British Labour government, in what turned out to be an ill-judged belt-tightening exercise, decides that Britain is no longer needed in the Gulf because piracy is no longer a problem threatening world trade. The Brits in Dubai pack up their buckets and spades and go home. The ruling sheikh, descendent of our original hero, is instrumental in forming the United Arab Emirates. He also begins to implement his vision for Dubai as the go-to spot for the world’s entrepreneurs, innovators and designers. Dubai today is a throbbing, shining example of the value of self-belief, focus and problem-solving. Imagine if you had been asked to invest in creating a super-city built on sand in a part of the world with no drinkable water? You’d think it was crazy, and you’d walk away. You’d be wrong. One after another, the problems facing Dubai have been solved. No water? Build desalination plants. Use the steam generated at various points in the process to power new industry. Spray the run-off on construction sites to combat desert dust. No labor in a state with only 200,000 nationals? Import service and construction workers from the developing world. Invite architects from all over the world to design their most outrageous fantasies. Build these. Make it just as easy as you possibly can for business to succeed here. Let the shoppers of the world know they can find anything they want– anything– here. Sit back and listen to the cash registers ring. Encourage the world’s best doctors to come by investing in medical innovation. Plant the idea of surgery and recovery in luxury and sunshine. Welcome the sick, the halt and the lame, and those who need new noses.
‘Ah’ you say ‘All this imagination and innovation is all very well if you have oil to fuel and fund it’. Well, yes. But oil wasn’t discovered until the 1960s and, in Dubai, will run out by 2040. Plus oil isn’t as fashionable as once it was. Dubai of course is building the world’s largest solar energy plant in what’s left of its desert. Planning for the future and enabling new futures is what today’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed is all about. He sees Dubai as a model for the world.
Now there must of course be ugliness, and pain and need in Dubai. Workers live 8 to a windowless room. Western women worry about the restrictions faced by Arab women here. While the country is pledged to advance knowledge and education, it is a great deal easier to spot 7-star hotels than to see libraries or schools. But it’s hard not to marvel at what has been created. Even if you can’t afford happy hour prices in the big hotels (the only places where alcohol is sold), still visit the Palace and Al Qasar and the Jumeirah Beach just to see what’s possible. The beauty, taste and opulence astounds. Ride the sleek metro. Take a taxi at night to admire the lights on the skyline. Gain a new appreciation of Islamic patterns (symbolising infinity and transformation according to some scholars) rendered with laser beams and angled panes of glass. Every store in the Dubai Mall–yes,the biggest in the world– is obliged to ensure its outlet here is bigger than any of its shops anywhere else on the planet. No point bleating about your British HQ if you are Cath Kidston, or your French allegiance if you are Galeries Lafayette. If you don’t go big, you go home–or I suppose to one of the many other mega-malls here. Walk a mile or two of the marbled halls inhaling the smell of vanilla and orange blossom pumped into the air and admiring the glass and lights. This mall has its own aquarium, ice rink, and dancing fountain. Leave open-mouthed and empty-handed. Pick up a Subway for supper if you must. Just as Payless Shoes jostles with Hermes for retail space at the mall, so junk food brands from all over the world can be found between high-end restaurants. Anything you fancy, you can find.
‘Ah but’, you say, perhaps a little piously, “What about culture? There is more to life than shopping after all…” Well UAE has that covered too. Abu Dhabi, less than 150 km from Dubai, is being fashioned as the cultural center. The Louvre has already unfolded its tent in the desert. A visitor from the Pompidou Centre in Paris will give a talk on buying art for those aspiring to their own collection. There are festivals for opera and many other kinds of music, and awards for arts and literature. And of course Islam has its arts and culture too, although most of us in the West know little about it.
Visiting Dubai is like seeing New York for the first time. I believe I like it better. Try it sometime and see what you think.