The scene takes place in one of the luxurious palaces situated on the outskirts of the City State of Dubai, one of the seven members of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In a vast majliss, a big reception room with Persian carpets with a thick wool pile, the Emir Mohammed ben Rachid Al Maktoum is hosting some hundred journalists from around the world to celebrate the country’s national Independence Day. Amid bokhours (incense) vapour, the ruler of Dubai, who is also Deputy President and Minister of Defence of the UAE, is offering his guests coffee and encouraging them to ask any questions they like.
The scene takes place in one of the luxurious palaces situated on the outskirts of the City State of Dubai, one of the seven members of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In a vast majliss, a big reception room with Persian carpets with a thick wool pile, the Emir Mohammed ben Rachid Al Maktoum is hosting some hundred journalists from around the world to celebrate the country’s national Independence Day. Amid bokhours (incense) vapour, the ruler of Dubai, who is also Deputy President and Minister of Defence of the UAE, is offering his guests coffee and encouraging them to ask any questions they like. An Egyptian reporter gets up immediately and launches in English into a long paean of praise to the glory of the Emirate and its leader. “You have succeeded in making your country the equal of the great Western nations”, he declares. “We are all impressed by and proud of the success of Dubai. It is the city of the 21st century, no, what am I saying, of the 22nd century! Can you not undertake a grand tour of the Arab world where you would advise our leaders on how to draw inspiration from your vision?” This draws an amused smile from “Sheikh Mo” who observes only that “his country and his Government are always available to help their Arab brothers.”
Despite being just a little obsequious, the Egyptian journalist’s remarks sum up well the general feeling of admiration, not to mention envy, felt by many of the Arab populations with respect to Dubai and its astonishing development over the last 25 years. “Dubai is achieving spectacular success where a number of the Arab countries are failing”, says a Tunisian diplomat posted to the United Arab Emirates. No one can be unaware of that today, in this era of social networks and satellite television. Even the crisis of 2009 and the size of the Emirate’s debt do not cloud this image.”
The economy is the most frequently recurring theme when Dubai’s praises are sung. In an Arab world disadvantaged by stagnant growth, or at least incapable of creating enough jobs, especially for its youth, the city of Al Maktoum provides a model of diversiﬁcation. “Dubai is the proof that it is possible to emerge from a windfall economy by using oil money to create other activities,” states Philippe Dauba-Pantanacce, an economist at Standard Chartered Bank. He quotes the case of the city’s international airport which has just wrested the world crown for the number of passengers from London Heathrow, or the port of Jebel Ali and its free zone, a real nerve centre of global container transport.
For their part, Algeria’s leaders – 95% of whose country’s foreign earnings come from the sale of oil or natural gas – regularly cite the Dubai model when talking of the need to reduce dependence on hydrocarbons. “We are going to make this country another Dubai, but a hundred times richer” promised the Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal during the presidential electoral campaign of 2014. It is the same story from his Moroccan neighbour, where big urban renovation projects and real estate development in Casablanca or Rabat are being launched using the now famous skyline that borders the Dubai Creek as their baseline. “We too can have skyscrapers and big airports to receive our tourists” insists Fathallah Ouallalou, the mayor of the capital of the Kingdom of Morocco.
Consequently, since the beginning of the 2000s, a number of Arab countries have been trying to borrow the secrets of Dubai’s success by also betting on the winning combination of “BTLFR” – i.e. business, trade, leisure (for tourists and businessmen), ﬁnance and real estate. Fifteen years later, the record is extremely varied. The crisis of 2008, the popular uprisings of 2011, combined with the fact that the governments in place have been unable to create genuine policies to break away from the windfall economy, have meant that Dubai is still leading the ﬁeld in economic stimulation. In the general imagination, the old trading post of the ‘Pirate Coast’ in the 19th century continues to be the ultimate benchmark, since no other country has succeeded in dislodging it from its place as the primary reference.
Even Qatar, frequently mentioned in the Western media – though often negatively – pales in comparison. “You have only to compare Dubai and Doha, the capital of Qatar,” chuckles Marwan Troudi, a young Franco-Algerian businessman based in the Gulf. “One is permanently dynamic, lively and innovative. The other continues to be boring and is ﬁnding it difﬁcult to accommodate its recent growth.” He explains that the World Cup of 2022 scheduled to take place in Qatar will also beneﬁt Dubai. “The foreign tourists will go to the matches in Qatar’s stadiums but the rest of the time, they’ll be enjoying themselves in Dubai or indeed in Abu Dhabi.”
Even the other Gulf countries are in the grip of ‘Dubaimania’. This is what a consultant working for a big international English-language company has to say: “One of our teams consisting of high-level ofﬁcials embarked on a major circuit of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar. The goal was to persuade leaders and local investors to launch a major innovative real estate project in their country. At the ﬁrst meeting, we noted that the following question, “Are you going to offer this project to Dubai?” was asked again and again.” A similar story, commonly heard in the peninsula, tells how a big French architectural practice was thrown out of a competition launched by a Saudi organisation, simply because it had admitted that an initial version of the project had already been unsuccessfully submitted to advisers of the Emir Al Maktoum.
The automatic comparison with this old oyster ﬁshing port, which has now become the world’s second major logistical platform, has also had an impact on the very peaceful and conservative Sultanate of Oman. This is what an ofﬁcial had to say in muscat in September 2014, at a meeting on job markets in the Gulf. “Our young people do not understand that our laws ban skyscrapers. They say, but why can’t we do like they do in Dubai? Why don’t we have big hotels and amazing ﬁreworks for the year-end festivals? Why do Western stars rarely come here? Our young people are fascinated by the vibrant Western nature of the city and their elders are having difﬁculty in defending our ancestral traditions. In this sense, Dubai is acting as an accelerator of modernity.”
Now we need to deﬁne modernity. As far as job supply is concerned, that has effectively been done. For a long time, the Emirate was mainly identiﬁed as the place where one could do good business and have a good time. “And this was instead of having to travel to Europe which was becoming increasingly sealed off by visas and insularity” states Marwan Troudi. But as time passed, with economic diversiﬁcation, other outlets emerged such as big technology companies, the media and ﬁnancial companies: the Emirate exerted an attraction which drew in thousands of graduates from the Arab world, unable to ﬁnd work at home commensurate with their education. “When I got my MBA from an American university, I had the choice of staying in the United States, going back to Morocco or working in the Gulf for a signiﬁcant salary. I chose the last option,” says Nawal, who is now working as the head buyer for a big merchant family from Dubai. “Here,” she goes on, “110 nationalities live side by side. Contrary to what is happening in France and in Europe, no one is obsessed with the origins of other people. And furthermore, I can wear the hijab without anyone wanting to talk to me about it 10 times a day.”
Nevertheless, the Arab world’s positive perception of Dubai needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Although it is more accessible than the European fortress, this Eldorado has toughened the conditions of access to its soil to some extent. Working there is still reasonably easy but the related formalities are becoming longer and longer and are sometimes more difﬁcult than in Europe. Added to that is a political inﬂexibility that tends to be hidden from the occasional visitor by the modernity of architecture and technology. “When you come here, you know you are in Arab territory,” remarks an academic from Jordan who prefers to remain anonymous. “That means that you should not be fooled by the liberal climate in which this country appears to bask. You can do business, you can live a life that is not too restricted by Muslim laws, but there are red lines that must not be crossed. You do not talk politics, you avoid getting involved in the affairs of the ruling family and you keep your distance from debates, very popular in the West, on freedom of expression in the face of religion.”
In many Arab countries where authoritarianism rules, if not dictatorship, this type of preventive measure does not actually constitute an insurmountable obstacle, at least initially. “At home in Alexandria, I lived in a tiny place with a barely adequate salary. Here in Dubai I earn a great deal more. But it means being careful about what I say and what I do, despite the fact that I live in more favourable material circumstances”, explains Naim, an Egyptian aircraft engineer. Before leaving his country, a few weeks before the fall of Mubarak in February 2011, he knew what the rules of the game were. His children, although born in Dubai, will never have its nationality. In addition, whatever his residence status, he can be expelled from one day to the next if he loses his job or if he commits a “big mistake,” a very vague expression which ranges from serious crimes to the simple fact of issuing a cheque that bounces or involvement in a trafﬁc accident. “Or even, he states, getting into a dispute with a citizen of the Emirate, whether it is my boss or a neighbour.”
This sometimes quite summary arbitrariness is well-known throughout the Arab world. In Cairo and in Beirut, it is known that living in Dubai, and indeed in the rest of the Gulf, does not mean being sheltered from the same vexations as one experiences at home. Stories about this appear regularly in the Arab press. However, this only marginally erodes the Emirate’s power of attraction. “It is only after a few years that a feeling of weariness can arise,” acknowledges Hicham, a Palestinian living in Dubai since his expulsion from Kuwait in 1991. “You feel vulnerable and you say that, when all is said and done, Western-style rule of law has its advantages.” The result is that Dubai is also perceived as a staging post. People go there to earn a good living but they know in advance that they are unlikely to stay there until they retire.
This does not bother the local authorities. Quite the contrary, conscious of the magnetic effect of their country on their Arab “brothers”, they regard them with considerable ambivalence, not to say ambiguity. To understand this, we need to go back to the population question. In Dubai, only one in 12 inhabitants is a ‘local’, the term generally used to mean the people of Dubai. Against such a background, there is a genuine fear of being submerged by foreigners, particularly those originating from the Indian subcontinent. Consequently, though an Arab national is a potential ally, he is also a potential troublemaker.
When the Government of Dubai and its neighbour Abu Dhabi call for Egyptian or Tunisian teachers, they are seeking principally to reinforce an Arab identity threatened by the cosmopolitan environment characterising the Emirate and which, in the opinion of many experts, is one of the main factors in its success. “We are encouraged to spread the Arab language to the young citizens of Dubai who are increasingly tempted to use English exclusively” says Hassen el-Karaoui, a Moroccan academic. But at the same time, the Arab immigrant is always suspected of bringing with him some habits which are anathema to the Emirate’s leaders, beginning with their pronounced taste for politics and nationalism. In 2009, following a football match between Egypt and Algeria punctuated by some serious incidents and diplomatic tension, the Dubai police force patrolled the city and cordoned off a number of cafés as a warning to the nationals of both countries. A single outburst could result in immediate dispatch to the airport lock- up for deportation. Since 2011, the potential sympathisers with the Muslim Brotherhood movement have been in the sights of Emirate authorities. More importantly still, the perception of young Europeans coming from Maghreb, Turkish or even sub-Saharan immigration is beginning to change. “We used to be welcomed with open arms here, as both French and Arab-Muslim. But all the problems related to the jihadists from the housing estates are making things difﬁcult” says Nordine Moulay, a French-Moroccan chef living in Dubai since 2007.
Simultaneously welcoming and suspicious of the Arabs coming to live on its soil, the Emirate of Dubai is developing the same ambiguous attitude towards their respective countries. During the 2000s, its major semi State-run businesses, but also its family conglomerates, targeted mainly the Maghreb and the Mashrek regions to launch their international development, such as the Emirate property giant Emaar or the merchant group Al-Futtaim. But very quickly, priorities were adjusted. “We have experienced to our cost the great gap which exists between Dubai and other Arab countries in relation to liberal legislation and business facilitation,” explains an Emaar ofﬁcial who was involved in his group’s projects in Algeria and Morocco. “At present, our perception is that the Arab world, despite its vast potential, has too many constraints for business. The administrative red tape, employment codes and uncertainty about land issues have all forced us to look elsewhere.”
And “elsewhere” has two names: ﬁrst of all, Asia, for beyond the standard discourse on the proximity and “necessary solidarity” with the Arab world, Dubai sees its future in the East. For its leaders and its economic elite, countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines or Vietnam are a priority, not forgetting of course China, India and Singapore. Secondly, sub-Saharan Africa is regarded as a land of many opportunities. Each year, the volume of trade between Dubai and Africa increases by an average of 5%, amounting to almost 3 billion dollars in 2013. Last October, Dubai spared no expense in organising the second Africa Global Business Forum (AGBF). This was the opportunity for the Emirate’s leaders to recall that the continent is one of their main priorities, especially as Africa still represents only 8% of its trade with the rest of the world.
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