At the World Economic Forum on Latin America in Rio this spring, there was a dedicated two-hour session to discuss the future of the Amazon rainforest. At the World Economic Forum on the Middle East in Jordan last month, there was a similar dedicated two-hour session to discuss the future of Dubai. For me, that was the clearest example to date of how significant the city, and therefore the UAE, is to the entire region.
Just as the Amazon rainforest functions as the lungs of the American continent, and indeed the world, Dubai and the UAE have emerged as the beating heart of the Middle East.
Among those who took part in the Dubai discussion on the last day of WEF were two of the city’s most passionate defenders: Sheikh Khalid bin Zayed bin Saqr Al Nahyan, founder and chairman of the Bin Zayed group of companies and a noted Emirati entrepreneur based in Dubai, and Nasser bin Hassan al Shaikh, former head of the Dubai Finance Department.
Sheikh Khalid pointed out that not many people are aware of how proactively Dubai is engaging the business community, meeting business leaders and exchanging ideas on how best to overcome the current global financial crisis. Sheikh Khalid went a step further, observing that negative newspaper articles about Dubai written by foreign journalists served as a free consultancy service: while ignoring the spiteful untruths, we can still gather from them ideas on how to improve our country.
Nasser al Shaikh, meanwhile, stated the undeniable truth that Dubai has grown closer to its colleagues in the federal government in the past six months as it dealt with the economic crisis, citing the example of how the federal Central Bank immediately subscribed to the first tranche of the $20 billion sovereign bond issued by Dubai.
These words echoed in my mind as I sat there in the packed room, thinking how true that statement was. Whether it was a by-product of the global financial crisis or the execution of a plan for which the groundwork was laid a long time ago, the fact is that the crisis has brought the seven emirates closer. Psychologically and on an individual level, both Emiratis and expatriates from across the country have rallied behind Dubai by countering those negative articles in the foreign press. Initiatives such as Promise of a New Generation, a discussion group launched by three young female nationals and an expatriate lady to publicly discuss topics that are of concern to the country, also exemplify the personal initiatives to counter foreign allegations.
On the federal level, after a period in which many Emiratis felt that individual cities within the federation operated on the basis of intra-emirate laws rather than inter-emirate regulations, we have seen a strong return of the federal government’s role in the day-to-day running of the country.
The most significant of these was the launch of the Emirates Competitive Council (ECC) under the direct auspices of the Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid. This is without a doubt the single most important federal body to be launched since the establishment of the Federal National Council in 1972. Its mandate is federal and its members come from all seven emirates, rich and poor alike.
The ECC’s gargantuan mandate is to propel the country into the league of the world’s most competitive nations. This young body is already working on 61 initiatives, of which 14 have been identified as high-priority projects for improving UAE competitiveness, including proposals to improve the education sector, infrastructure and human capital.
Also, the country has launched a unified federal six-month multiple-entry visa for foreign property buyers, which whether practical or not is ultimately in many people’s eyes a federal law after the lawlessness of the past few years in which each emirate and a number of officials had their own interpretation of the property laws.
Also in the works is a federal double-track rail network from Ruwais in Abu Dhabi to Fujairah, which will cost an estimated $3 billion.
Even the relatively dormant Federal National Council has started tackling taboo issues such as human trafficking and abuse as well as putting tough questions to ministers and senior federal officials, including the Central Bank governor himself.
Previously, some federal institutions were neglected or ignored in the rush to develop as fast as possible, but now it seems the federal authorities have taken control of the steering wheel again.
As Nasser al Shaikh continued promoting Dubai’s model of development in his unique and transparent style, I couldn’t help but dwell on his wise words and how the UAE, the Amazon rainforest of the Middle East, is only going to emerge more unified and hence stronger because of the global financial crisis.
This article was first published in The National on Sunday, June 7th 2009