Trip report - Dubai

Trip report - Dubai

Summary: I just came back from a visit to Dubai, where I went for a WPP board meeting. While I was there, I managed to get around a bit. Here are my impressions.

TOPICS: Browser

Just to set the scene, Dubai is one of seven emirates comprising the United Arab Emirates, a sovereign state; the UAE is a federation of jurisdictions with some local laws and economic regulations, and some central ones.  As everyone I met stressed, the UAE is not Saudi Arabia is not Egypt is not Syria is not Iraq is not Iran…and so forth. Although they may look the same from a Western distance, they are very different places. They have some common problems – most notably a regional political situation that spills over everything – and quite different demographics and local politics internally. 

The overwhelming impression is not just cranes everywhere, but that most of what is being built is luxury apartments, hotels or shopping malls.  The Emirates have about 2.7 million residents…and 8 million tourists a year.  The tourists cycle through a modern airport that is itself a huge shopping mall.  (The airport has solved the duty-free liquor problem – i.e. that liquids are forbidden on board - by checking it in for you so you can pick it up at your destination’s baggage claim.) 


There’s a feeling of commercial ebullience in the air: Real estate prices are going up, stock prices are going up, building are going up… and it’s all paid for by oil prices that are going up.



Yet there’s unease, too. Dubai is not just a casino-less Las Vegas on the beach; it’s also a capitalist edifice plopped into a culture that considers interest payments immoral. 



What will happen when all the buildings under construction are finished and a couple of those hundreds of cranes stand idle?  People talk of “Dubai fatigue,” and to the west Qatar (capital city: Doha) is positioning itself as the “new Dubai.”



Then there’s all the political turmoil, visible most recently in the destruction of 14 years of progress in Lebanon, the region’s most liberal, open country (which I visited in 2004).



And when will the oil run out? That’s a good question, even though I believe that will take longer than people expect because it will stretch further, and generate more revenues per barrel, as it becomes scarcer.  (More troubling – or promising, if you’re an investor - is the discovery/development of alternate sources.)



Those tensions are ever-present, and they may account for a bit of the pervasive materialism and the get-rich-quick mentality, which contrast with traditional Islamic values and much of the official story about the place.  That story includes a determination that the Gulf does not want to fritter away its money the way it did during the last oil boom.  This time around, the leaders want to build economies that will be healthy and sustainable even when the oil wealth goes away.  Yes, Dubai Holding is building hotels, but it is also investing in schools and hospitals. Then there’s Media City and Internet City, economic zones devoted to the development of Dubai’s new economy, with special affordances for start-ups.



Yet I still felt that the Dubai establishment - like so many establishments around the world - pays way too much attention to money and official structures and not enough to people issues.  The population of the UAE – very different from most other Gulf and Middle Eastern countries – is mostly foreign.  There’s a thin upper crust – about 7 percent – of locals, or “Emiratis.”  The rest is foreigners – large numbers of migrant/immigrant workers, mostly in service and construction jobs, from India, Pakistan and other countries, many of whom send money “home.”  (None of the employees of the Royal Mirage where we stayed was a native, but they came from more than 20 different countries altogether.)  Higher up the scale are expats: managers and knowledge workers who ply their trades and live in booming housing complexes: They can rent but generally (until just recently?) cannot buy.  They are the brains of the new economy, while the Emiratis are the owners and foreigners provide capital.  Foreigners can invest, but in most cases they need a local partner with at least a 51-percent interest. Of course, over time things will change, and foreign ownership is permitted within the Free Economic Zones, but you can imagine the distortions these rules must engender…


And then there are the real people issues: In South Africa (see previous post), there is affirmative action for a large, underprivileged majority, and the result is that the few well-trained people are leaving government for business posts.  In Dubai, there's affirmative action for a small, overprivileged minority, who in the past simply played a role as owners or mostly silent partners.  Most of the locals who work, work in government… but the government now wants to push them into more productive private-sector jobs.  The challenges are well described in an excellent Financial Times article I read in the plane on the way home.


And in case you were wondering about IT: It’s still early.  Businesses are using the Internet, as are higher-income people, but overall penetration is low.

[CORRECTION :  According to this study, Internet use in Dubai is higher than I realized, at 40 percent some years ago. (Thanks, Juri Kaljundi!)  That's much higher than in the surrounding region - but it's still not seen as a mass channel by advertisers.  Maybe they are missing something.  For a more recent view, see this article.]

It didn’t seem worth asking about reselling WiFi to one's neighbors.  As for VOIP, it’s banned in the Emirates, though it was available in Internet City. It is now banned even in Internet City, but the ban may be rescinded. Stay tuned. 


Topic: Browser

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  • on trusting "trust"

    It seems to me like there are both fake and real approaches to modernism. But what in the heck do i mean by that?

    Well, fake modernism is based on a premise of top-down control -- it is the subjection of the material trappings of a western modern economy to a "greater" primary loyalty. You may have your fancy buildings. You may have your stock markets, your trade zones, your liberal districts, your discrete trade in booze and pornography, even. Yet you have these things -- it is always to be understood -- at the indulgence of a larger power. You have these things, because they are tolerated, but not because they are beyond Control.

    True modernism is almost the exact opposite, though the differences are more subtle than that suggests. In true modernism, you have your fancy buildings, stock markets, trade zones, liberal districts, booze, and porn -- because that is what hoi poloi does, left to its own devices. True modernism is not only beyond Control, it has a built-in social immune system against Control. A housewife can become a secretary, then manager, then executive, then chairman of the board -- then take one accidental step too far in the direction of Control and land flat on her butt. When we accept true modernism, and agree to live with its faults, it is out of trust. Not a trust in a medieval king. And certainly not a fear of a medieval mafia. True modernism is, ultimately based on a universal dedication to a universal trust in what we can, as a group of equals, do.

    Words, words, words. Modernism -- dependence on electric grids and sewage systems and hospitals and schools and communications and transport -- these materials things are tritely described as vulnerable, to be sure. Any jackass in a cave, any clique of book-thumping clerics with sufficient followings, any idiot who trades up to possession of a few missiles -- left unchecked, such fools will take us all back to the stone ages and, in the ensuing chaos, among the garbage heap left, carve out their own pathetic little reincarnation of Control. (And such jerks can be found in all cultures. No culture has a monopoly on them, although they play a more important role in some places than others.)

    And so what's to do?

    For our purposes here, the central point is that true modernism is based on trust -- trust in what hoi poloi will do, given opportunity, a vague clue, and relief from medieval Control. It's a brave and unintuitive thing to stand up for freedom, starting from Control, yet -- it's he Right Thing and it's the only thing that ultimately wins. Or, at least, that doesn't wind up the loser.

    Things one must not do as an informal diplomat: One must not tell off the elites of the country one is visiting for failing to spend lots of money on rebuilding Iraq. One must not tell off the elites of the country one is visiting for taking an idiotic and cowardly patronistic attitude towards labor. One must not suggest offering to spend billions for the economic rehabilitation of Palestine -- via the government of Israel. One must not suggest offering aid in Lebanon, contingent on the disarming of Hezbollah. One must not do anything to challenge the fear of those who assert Control.

    It's too bad, really. Who can you trust?


    p.s.: reselling wifi is a neat idea. Berkeley is starting to wonder about universal access. Would you consider making a pitch to our city council?
  • Help me out here

    So Esther, help me out with a moral question. First my thinking then the question. Many people make judgments about a society and choose to not lend it support or even their credence by avoiding travel to that country. South Africa during apartheid was a cause celebre for instance. During the early part of Hitler's regime would it have been morally correct to addend a conference in Berlin?

    The UAE is not a democracy. And according to the State Department Internet access is tightly controlled: "Internet access, which was open to public use with an estimated 1.11 million users, was provided through a state-owned monopoly, Etisalat. A proxy server blocked material regarded as pornographic, violent, morally offensive, or promoting radical Islamic ideologies, as well as anti-government sites. The proxy server occasionally blocked individual news stories on news websites such as CNN. The Etisalat proxy server provides access to AOL email but blocks other features that enable users to chat online, and (according to Etisalat) those that facilitate hacking. The Internet monopoly solicits suggestions from users regarding "objectionable" sites, and at times the Government responds by briefly blocking some politically oriented sites, which are sometimes later unblocked. Etisalat also blocks commercial "voice-chat" sites on the Internet."

    And, of course, women in the UAE do not have equal rights. They face imprisonment if they bear children out of wedlock. A husband can bar his wife and daughters from leaving the country.

    So the question. Does it lend support to reprehensible practices that are diametrically opposed to at least the morays of the US to participate in commercial events and conferences in Dubai?

    I have never had to face this question myself, although I sure it will come up some day.
    • If I may

      Personally I think it's alright so long as they are making progress. You have to look at the history of a society in order to judge it--see where they have come from.

      Sadly the modernity of the West has sped past the Middle East. Some countries in the region are playing catch-up.

      For example, just a year ago I heard that women were finally given the right to vote in Kuwait. It may have happened earlier (I know it was after 2000), but that's when I heard about it. This was a major point of contention in the West back during the Gulf War of 1991. Only men could vote then.

      Even with progress, their practices may still be abhorent to you. If you feel uncomfortable about the current state of affairs, that's fine IMO.
      Mark Miller
  • Speaking of Dubai

    What did you think of the controversy over the Dubai ports deal?

    I thought there were good arguments on both sides. On the one hand there were many people who stood up for Dubai, saying that they were good allies of the U.S. in the current conflict in the region. Our Navy uses their ports and the Navy had nothing but good things to say about them. On the other hand stories came out that a member of the royal family/government went on a hunting trip with Usama bin Laden, sometime before 9/11/01, and there was some story about the port allowing a ship carrying suspected nuclear materials to go to its destination (it may have been Iran, North Korea--some country we didn't like) without a thorough inspection.

    Personally I kind of came down on the side that I think we handled the deal badly, and I felt bad for how it turned out. I don't think we made a good impression with them, and I hope there were no hard feelings. At the same time it came out as a wash in my own mind. I couldn't make up my mind if it would have been a good strategic deal or not.

    The part that I think was handled badly is the deal was approved without any discussion. It was all legal, but the department that let it go through showed tremendous tone-deafness to the political realities of it.
    Mark Miller
  • More about Dubai

    I am sure your report is accurate from a tourist's perspective. As a person who lived in Dubai for more than 4 years, I can guarantee that dubai is built on exploitation. Emmigrant workers are harldy paid 600 Dirhams a month by most construction jobs. The minimum wage/month is 600 dirhams (170 Dollars). You must have probably paid more than that at Royal Mirage to stay one night. There are no labor laws protect the poor workes. You are not allowed to get a driving license (of course unless you have a western license) without your employers permission. So does a credit card. As you said dubai is a much better arab country, but basic human rights and not taller glass building make a country beautiful and progressive. Their affirmative action is a high level discrimination towrds other nationalies. An local employess who does the jobs makes 2/12 times salary. A local pregnant women gets 3 months more than and expatiate women in most goverment establishments.
  • Try Italy Vip

    When travelling to Italy and visiting cities such as Rome, Florence, Venice or Milan, is always very important to choose the right hotel. Paying a fortune doesn't mean to have a good time, and sometimes our vacation is ruined because of a poor accomodation, rude staff or terrible food. That is why, in order to have a good service, an excellent room and fine food we suggest a website called, where all hotels are selected one by one after a serious inspection.