Driving along Sheikh Zayed Road, the abundance of cranes is striking, as are the thousands of Indian workers peppering the landscape. A city which is very largely a construction site, it is unsurprising to learn that more than a quarter of the world’s industrial cranes are currently in Dubai.
Relative to its neighbours, both within the United Arab Emirates and the wider Gulf, Dubai has very little oil. Since its modest reserves are expected to run out by 2010, Dubai has taken on a number of diversification strategies to expand and secure its income. At an astonishing rate, its deserts have been swept away by skyscrapers and man-made islands.
With its glitzy hotels, shopping festivals and relative freedom - Dubai has become an attractive tourist hub. Dubai Media City, Dubai Internet City and the like have also created thousands of new jobs. Dubai’s ruler and CEO, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is a self-confessed entrepreneur who aims to draw 15 million visitors by 2010 and boldly states that he wants Dubai “to be number one. Not in the region, but in the world".
The maxim "build it and they will come" has so far proven successful. Yet despite tangible achievements, the ‘Dubai Model,’ is not without limitations. An array of internal and external factors could halt or possibly reverse its success. Becoming the biggest and the best is not necessarily sustainable.
How can Dubai survive as an autocracy, albeit a benign one, when over 80 percent of the population is non-local? Will the expatriate labour, which Dubai owes for the rapid mushrooming of the city, continue to work for pitiful wages whilst being housed in dire conditions? The global economic crisis means that workers can no longer send adequate remittances back home. Meanwhile, the boom in India’s economy offers opportunities back home which may see a large displacement of labour, inevitably slowing or even halting some of Dubai’s projects.
Reliance on foreigners in all spheres has increased. Since a company must have an Emirati as a majority partner, locals profit regardless of whether they have the necessary skills. Likewise, the practice of 'Emiratisation' means that Emiratis are not hired on a merit basis but merely to fulfill a quota. This system of spoon-feeding has lead to an unmotivated local population whose incentive to acquire skills or work hard has been lost with their dependence on foreigners. If for any reason the foreigners were to leave, a variety of Dubai’s sectors would be crippled.
In order for Dubai to survive, it needs to address these issues and more; without press freedom, intellectual revenue, culture and democracy, the Dubai dream cannot survive - especially as an emerging economy in such a volatile region.
Indeed, Dubai is precariously placed. The UAE borders the austere Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Across the Persian Gulf lies Iran, which has a territorial dispute with the UAE over three small islands.
If current international scrutiny lead to western military intervention in order to thwart Iran’s nuclear program, this would undoubtedly affect Dubai. Iran could use its installations on one of the disputed islands to attack US forces in the Gulf. Tourism and foreign investment, arguably the driving force behind its success, would cease. The economy would crash and the expat population would migrate. The shortcomings of replacing dependency on oil with dependency on foreign investment would be nakedly displayed.
Dubai should look at the countries that have endured terror and war, yet maintained the status quo. Lebanon and Israel have both suffered terror attacks and invading tanks. The stains of war that remain, even in times of calm, are part of their history and heritage. They have survived because Beirut and Tel Aviv boast not only skyscrapers and nightlife, but a rich culture, history and a diverse populace of loyal nationals. They are real.
Dubai's successes should be credited, and naturally the model it adheres to is one which other Gulf cities are emulating. But in order to prevent a meltdown in the soaring hub, it must focus on managing a more sustainable growth, dependent on local workforce, while also stepping up political freedom and cultural developments.
If it focuses on building a civil society from the bottom up, these developments are sure to follow naturally. Sustainable cities are not built overnight and they don’t gleam from head to toe, they develop organically. Part of their charm is that they are 'tarnished'.
The potential ‘alter Dubai Model’- a thriving city taking in lively culture, political freedom and a motivated local workforce would prove a sustainable model and a better one for the rest of the Gulf to emulate.
Claudia Schwartz is a freelance research analyst focusing on the Middle East