A few days before Ramadan started in May, the city was already sweltering in 40 °C heat during the early morning hours. Dubai was bustling. Traffic jams were huge, deluxe hotels and classy restaurants nearly full and Emirates A380 superjumbo jets taking off for and landing from the four corners of the world. The stunning city is growing up and out—a far cry from the black and white photos from the early 1980s with a few small buildings in the desert near the old port and the old town where Burj Dubai rises today.
Ambition, optimism, willpower and gigantic scale are on the agenda. Dubai is multiplying projects and goals to keep the machine under pressure. Expo 2020 mobilises all its energy, despite some internal criticism. Some say it is too expensive, others that potential visitors cannot afford the city’s prices and luxury. There is also a desire to emphasize the global hub strategy by stressing new goals, such as the “getaway to Africa” concept and becoming the interface between Asia and the continent, investing in knowledge and technology and increasing the number of offshore zones, hotels and conventions.
“The model,” says one specialist and city resident, “must be continuously reinvented in order to work and draw visitors and investors. A new idea is needed every day, or almost.” Low oil prices, high real estate overcapacity and regional tensions also play a role, resulting in a perceptible slow-down that taxi drivers and the Emirates’ other humbler residents feel more than anybody else. In that context, some analysts mention real challenges to maintaining the city’s appeal. The cost of living and doing business—“global cost”—has become very high, even for expatriate residents, who abundantly complain about it.
The prospect of a gradual rollout of a VAT and other taxes may deter those seeking to optimise their expenses. The hub strategy also requires a certain degree of rationalisation and thought on the federal United Arab Emirates level (and, therefore, Abu Dhabi). Is it really necessary to have two airlines with global ambitions (one of which, Etihad, is in trouble)? To build mega-airports 50 kilometres away from each other? Management and governance issues, where sophisticated projects, ancestral methods and family ties collide, must also be solved. Dubai is a traditional emirate with global ambitions and the challenges of the modern world. Lastly, the geostrategic situation and regional tensions weigh heavily on its strategy and goal of becoming a bridge.
The “ruler” Mohamed El Maktum, “Sheikh Mo”, has always sought balance and neutrality in the region, a position that clashes with the much more one-sided decisions taken by Abu Dhabi, the federation’s real master. The war in Yemen (and its civilian deaths and Emirati military losses), and especially the deep rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran, have destabilised an emirate largely open to Iranian capital and home to many great Shiite families. “The emirate’s interests,” says an important company head, “lie at least as much in its proximity to Iran and that country’s 90 million people as to a tense, crisis-ridden Saudi Arabia tempted to establish its hegemony across the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf.” Meanwhile, in Dubai’s princely palaces, caution is the watchword, especially since relations with Qatar were broken off. It is time for national solidarity, a low political profile, restraint and this key concept: the show must go on and business as usual…