City of Dreams

Letter from the Executive Editor: Dubai and Sheikh Mohammed have done all the dirty work of building a city, wart-ridden and beautiful in equal measure

Published: Dec 4, 2009 12:01:00 AM IST
Updated: Dec 4, 2009 12:00:40 AM IST

I think I was in Class VI when I first visited Dubai. Dad was posted to the city on an assignment and my brother and I were headed there for our summer vacations. It was the first time we got on an international flight. Th e taste of eggs and croissants onboard the Kuwait Airways flight still lingers on my tongue.
My dad picked us up from the airport in a sky blue Nissan, aptly named Bluebird.

That was the first time the both of us sat in a foreign car. And as we giggled in the backseat, taking in the sights and sounds of a foreign land for the first time, my dad pulled over at a super market — Mustafa Mohammed — to fulfill a desire the both of us had articulated. Chilled Coca Cola in a can! Until then, we’d only had Thums Up in bottles.

The damn thing tasted like heaven and I was hopelessly in love with Dubai.

Notwithstanding its bling, over-the-top ostentatiousness, unapologetic materialism, and petulant attempts to be bigger and brighter than anything else on Planet Earth, there was nothing that could diminish my fervor for the city — for one simple reason.

Dubai represents the most audacious economic and social experiment our modern world has ever seen.
Traditional wisdom has it that cities are built around the people that inhabit it and the competencies they possess. Dubai had neither. So its ruler “imported” eighty percent of its work force to build the city he dreamt of.
This wisdom demands respect for the environment you operate in. Dubai doesn’t.
The brand of Islam it practices has consistently managed to raise hackles and push the boundaries of its more conventional neighbors.

Convention likes it when a city’s cultures evolves bottom up. In Dubai, it was imposed from the top, to keep in line with what the ruler wanted the city to be. This wisdom dictates that when you harbor ambitions of being the world’s biggest financial centre, you first attempt to integrate with the rest of the world. Dubai resisted. While the rest of the financial world works Monday to Friday, Dubai works Saturday to Thursday.

It neither has a stock market nor a remotely transparent monetary policy. But the world flocked, enamored by promise.

My apologies if this sounds like an obituary to an experiment gone awfully wrong. It isn’t. My point here is an altogether different one. Dubai and Sheikh Mohammed have done all the dirty work of building a city, wart-ridden and beautiful in equal measure. Now, whether neighboring Abu Dhabi or Qatar, both of which aspire to displace Dubai as the next Mecca — for that matter any other city in the world, they have a text book on what’s to be done and what shouldn’t. As for Dubai itself, think of the current crisis as a rite of passage into adulthood.

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(This story appears in the 18 December, 2009 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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