DUBAI, April 2012

Las Vegas on the Gulf…in Arabic.

As part of a series of meetings with the Financial Planning Standards Board, I visited Dubai for a week in April, 2012.  Penelope was able to join me for a part of that time.  First impressions are always both very sharp and unreliable as reflective of a greater understanding, but I may never have the occassion to return, so here goes.

Sheik Zayed Road, 5AM, with rail lines
Dubai, most outward-looking city of the UAE (United Arab Emirates, the capital is Abu Dhabi) does not lack charm…but the charms are subtle in an environment of little subtlety.  The land is barren, the sea and sky a white-washed gray much of the time, unbearable heat (I’m told) in the summer months, but still fog from the Gulf and “shamal”…a fine cloud of dust… from the desert.  The recently constructed physical infrastructure is stunning: vast roads, impressive urban rail, and countless tall…including the world’s tallest…buildings with fanciful shapes, unlike anything to be seen anywhere else.  The architects were given license to play!  But, it may be a long while before they are close to being full. And the interiors are a true spectacle:  either completely “over the top” pretentious or the epitomy of elegance and sophistication depending on whether you happen to like the specific venue.
But, it is a very disciplined place, with, I sense, a strong determination to be unique, combining what it perceives as the “best” of two worlds.  You quickly notice that it is very clean…no litter…none, and no graffiti.  There are frequent, but very gentle, reminders of the call to prayer on public amps and TV’s and display screens in the stupendous shopping malls show a small, discrete outline of a mosque and minaret to alert the observant. About a quarter of the men and maybe 40% of the women wear traditional garments (white or pastels for the men, black or some other very dark color for the women), but few of the women are completely covered.  Islamic sensibilities are observed and respected, but not imposed.  There are no public displays of affection and Muslim couples do not always walk together, but at a few steps remove.  Still, men, especially young, are often arm-in-arm or holding hands as just a marker of friendship.  Taking someone’s photo, without permission, is not only rude; it can result in criminal penalties.

Dubai sets out to be a tolerant, Western-oriented oasis between, literally, the fundamentalism of Iran across the Gulf, to the East, and Saudi Arabia in the desert just beyond, to the West.  It appears that they are succeeding.  One feels personally very safe here.  And it is designed to make business feel very safe as well.  Ironically referred to as Dubai’s “Vatican City”, the DIFC (Dubai International Financial Center) is a portion of the city with its own laws, it’s own governing officials, its own courts, modelled on Western notions of contract law and legal procedure.  The expectation is that from that core, general economic liberalism and a westernized commercial regime will gradually spread throughout the region.

The Burj Khalifa, in shamal
However, there is never any question about where the real power lies.  So unfamiliar to American sensibilities, Dubai is as close to an absolute monarchy as the 21st century still observes. Sheik Muhammad bin Rashid al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, is the ruler of Dubai (The Sheik of Abu Dhabi, its ruler, is the UAE President) and their photographs are seen everywhere, including on giant billboards along the main roads.  His comings and goings, and those of his sons and heirs, are front page news in the local paper, every day.

Most of the people are not Emiratis.  Those few tend to be very wealthy and work, if they do, in government ministries.  The many others are European, US, and Asian financial expats, and workers from elsewhere in the middle east, Africa, and south Asia. The Emiratis are surprisingly tall…and especially good-looking.  Unsurprisingly, the food is varied and delicious.  But prices in the best restaurants are beyond belief (over $400 for two, with a not very special wine).  Alcohol is available and very expensive…but only in hotels (where the best restaurants are always located).  But the taxis are very cheap, so no excuse not to go out and explore!

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