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Glamour and Glitz on the Gulf

The image of the Persian Gulf is now an indelible one for most of the world: CNN, BBC and Fox News 24-hour images of bombed buildings, inhospitable deserts and tanks rolling down the streets of Baghdad.  Perhaps, in the background, we can also see the oil rigs afire and the young soldier, alone, writing a letter home to his wife, his mother, his son.  It is hard, in this mix, to imagine a world of high fashion, glitz and glamour just several hundred miles from so much destruction and chaos. 

Dubai’s nightlife – before

Yet in the past fifty years, the United Arab Emirates has become the true oasis of the Middle East.  While its neighbors are embroiled in political and military battles, the UAE – particularly the Emirate of Dubai – has quietly emerged as the hot spot for vacationers from Saudi Arabia, Europe and the former Soviet Union. 

Dubai is a city on the move, its streets lined with modern and sexy buildings, its coasts boasting some of the most luxurious hotels in the world.  Tourists dine at five star restaurants and then play a round of golf at the exclusive Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club.  From its desert and desolate past, a new thriving city has been born.  And there is no sign of this economic and construction boom slowing down. 

In the past fifteen years massive and creative buildings have shot up along Dubai Creek giving the city a distinctive and beautiful sky line.  The Emirates Tower, which houses a luxury hotel, office space and a shopping mall is the ninth tallest building in the world. 

One of the most spectacular of these new structures is the seven starred Burj Al Arab Hotel (yes, seven of them!), which sits just off the coast of Dubai on a man-made island.  Its sail-shaped body glitters in the mid-day heat while helicopters come and go from its rooftop helipad.  If you don’t fancy a helicopter ride to the hotel, Burj Al Arab offers a Rolls Royce transfer from the airport.  Everything about this hotel is opulent, and it should be for the starting price of just under a $1000 a night during the peak season.  The Burj Al Arab was built with the Dubai mentality: why offer an underwater seafood restaurant for hotel guests?  Because we can! 

Perhaps dazed with the success of increasing its coast line with the Burj Al Arab, Dubai has taken this exercise in land reclamation one step further with the beginning of “Palm Islands,” which will increase the coast line by an astounding 166%.  The pinnacle of Dubai’s architectural audacity, these two man-made, palm-shaped islands will be home to 5,000 residents and will be visible from space. 

Amidst this glamour, luxury and economic prosperity, Dubai offers a unique insight into the Arab world.  And also into the conflict between Islam and modernity.  The contrasts are difficult to ignore: traditionally dressed women, faces covered, chatting on their cell phones while they purchase Estee Lauder make-up from a boutique at one of the numerous high-end shopping malls; mosques calling followers to prayer five times a day while tourists enjoy the pleasures of the Wild Wadi water park down the street. 

It would not be a stretch to describe Dubai as the Bud Light of the Arab World.  It has all the taste with none of the fat, or least less of it.  For members of more strict Islamic societies in the region, a visit to Dubai is an escape from ridid rules and a chance to let your hair down (literally) and enjoy. 

Don’t feel like donning a hot, black burka during the 120 degree summers?  No need!  Looking for a place for just a sip of that prohibited sin called alcohol?  Visit any hotel and your local bartender will set you up with a Long Island Iced Tea or even a Coors straight from the Rockies.  Tired of all that sand?  Visit the center of Dubai with its golf green grass and thousands of flower beds, all meticulously landscaped and watered and you’ll forget that you are actually still in a desert.  In a land where water costs more than petroleum, this dedication to public landscaping is more than aesthetic.  It is a physical affront to the old Bedouin way of life.    

The prosperity of Dubai begs the question: why here?  Like many of its oil rich neighbors, the United Arab Emirates discovered oil in the late 60’s which led to immediate wealth for this country barely the size of Maine. 

Commentators often note the seemingly incompatible nature of Islam with modernity and developed economies.  For countries that rely on the Koran as a main source for legal guidance, the prohibition against borrowing and lending in Sharia law is a major impediment to economic growth.  The reliance on a set of laws established 1,400 years ago does not allow for accommodation of the modern global market.

This is somewhat of a chicken-and-egg debate.  Is the Islamic faith a cause of poor economic growth, or do countries which stagger behind in economic indicators (health, education, trade, e.g.) become more religious in the absence of cosmopolitan influences? 

One theory, promoted by Robert Wright, looks to the power of competition.  Industrialism took root in Europe, it is argued, because the states were fractionalized; therefore various states were experimenting with political and economic arrangements.  This competition between states to out-do each other led to a winning combination: economic and political freedom.  The Muslim world, by contrast, had little competition and therefore their economic and political systems became less efficient.

The 7-star Burj al Arab

Expounding on this argument, perhaps the key to Dubai’s economic success is the very element of competition and fractionalization.  After the United Kingdom left the region in 1971, the United Arab Emirates formed as a federation of seven states.  Each state maintains a large degree of independence to enact its own economic policy.  In this environment of competition (with its other Emirates on a macro scale and with itself on the micro), the Emirate of Dubai has taken the lead in opening its economy and its social policy. 

Working within an environment of limited autonomy, Dubai was able to build on its free trade history.  Even before the discovery of oil, Dubai was a bastion of free trade, opening its ports and lifting tariffs on traders.  And with economic openness came a limited opening in the social realm.  This is not to say that free markets and competition are the only cause of Dubai’s moderate policies, but they certainly play an important role. 

While many eyes are now turned to Iraq with the hope that it will succeed in forming some kind of loosely connected representative government, perhaps we can learn some lessons from its southern neighbor which, while not a Jeffersonian democracy, has done quite a knock-out job with the whole free market thing. 

Jessica Powley Hayden lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  She recently visited Dubai while on vacation.  

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