Exactly half a century ago a man known to UAE citizens as the father of modern Dubai headed to Kuwait, a commercial exporter of crude oil since 1946, to take a bold step forward. Sheikh Rashid managed to secure 400,000 Kuwaiti dinars (£500,000) from the highly respected Sheikh Abdullah Al Salim of Kuwait to realise his ambitious plan of turning Dubai into a service hub for the region. Needless to say, borrowing such a considerable amount was a risky step on the part of the 47-year-old ruler of Dubai.
Sheikh Rashid used this money to dredge what was until then a natural creek, which split historic Dubai into a northern and southern shore allowing boats from the Arab Gulf states, Iran, the Indian subcontinent, and East Africa to dock and offload their goods. Two decades later Sheikh Rashid realised that the Creek was too small to allow newer, larger shipping vessels being introduced in the region to dock and be serviced easily. His attention turned to a little known area called Jebel Ali 35km south of Dubai and about a quarter of the way towards Abu Dhabi to build the largest man-made container terminal in the world.
Two decades later, his son Sheikh Mohammed the current ruler of Dubai also dreamt big. His city would no longer compete regionally; the world was Dubai’s new challenge. Today this young city is the third largest re-export hub in the world after Hong Kong and Singapore; its financial centre is considered among the global top 20; its airport is the fifth busiest in the world in terms of international traffic, and houses one of the world’s most successful airlines, which has reported an increase in profits even during this downturn; its duty free is the world’s largest airport retail operator; its container port, Sheikh Rashid’s enduring legacy, is the fourth largest port operator in the world, managing close to 50 ports in every single continent; its inhabitants’ literacy rate increased from 20 per cent in the 1950s to more than 90 per cent.
Going back half a century, perhaps the most powerful achievement Dubai recorded is to break taboos that the region could not possibly be more than an oil-exporting centre. So powerful a force was this taboo-breaking mentality that “mini Dubais” have sprung up across the region. When Dubai hosted the World Bank and IMF meetings in September 2003 it was not known as a financial hub, but construction was already underway to build the Dubai International Financial Centre. The international press reported then that Bahrain, the traditional financial centre of the region, had launched a financial harbour “in response to the challenge posed” by the DIFC. Soon afterwards, Qatar and Saudi Arabia followed Dubai’s pioneering steps launching their own dedicated financial districts.
Further afield, Jordan and Egypt realised the success of Dubai’s media and internet cities and launched their very own creative hubs. Emiratis continue to be proud that this ambitious model is being replicated in a region that was short on hope and that inspired others to dream big.
In fact, Dubai went a step further. Armed with knowledge, the most powerful tool known to humanity, it shared its expertise with the rest of the region. Today, DP World manages ports in various regional countries. The UAE is considered among the top emerging states: a list that includes Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Egypt. Dubai assisted Syria in launching state-of-the-art television studios and Yemen in the imminent launch of its stock market. The Dubai School of Government is training scores of Arab government employees in the essentials of public administration using the very best faculty from across the world.
In recent times, heads of commercial entities owned by the Dubai government made gross errors in judgment, such as highly leveraged investments. But these individuals can easily be replaced and a more competent team introduced. With his emphasis on high quality service, Dubai’s current ruler has pulled the city out of crises before; over the past two decades trade with neighbouring countries was heavily affected due to the numerous wars launched in the region and yet Dubai’s logistics status has not only survived but grown exponentially. The emphasis on quality work by the ruler will certainly pull it through this crisis once the tough but necessary decisions are taken.
No other leader in the region starts his day by visiting government departments to make sure that the highest quality standards are met for customer service. As long as he, like his father before him, makes sure that Dubai’s young crown prince carries on with this tradition, Dubai’s ruler can rest assured that his city’s premier position as the region’s service and logistics hub is secure for a long time to come.
*This article was first published in The National on Sunday December 6th, 2009.