I recently returned from a 10-day trip to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), mostly Dubai but spent a day at the Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi, and was so impressed I decided to share a few thoughts. What follows is one person’s perspective so feel free to take this with a big grain of salt!
Before I get started, it may be helpful to point out that Dubai is one of seven emirates that make up the UAE. It’s generally the best known of the emirates, while second-most prominent, Abu Dhabi, serves as the UAE’s capital and hosts the last Formula One weekend of the year, which I was lucky enough to attend.
Dubai is still growing—and growing fast. Like most people, several years ago before the financial crash I received numerous emails demonstrating the construction boom in Dubai. Naively I assumed the city’s growth had abided by now. I was very wrong! Having driven around the city several times by car, tour bus, and metro, I was constantly amazed at the number of cranes across the city. Although a Google search indicates an estimate of 587 cranes as of May 2015, it seemed like considerably more. Basically, when Dubai's Monarch, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, or Sheikh Mohammad as he is often called, wants something done, there is no red tape to slow things down.
A tale of two cities. Dubai, and the rest of the UAE, is comprised of two distinct groups: the local population of emirates and the expats. It’s estimated that expats make up over 88% of the UAE’s population. As Dubai is considered to be less conservative and more international than other areas of the UAE, it’s likely this percentage increases to over 90% in Dubai.
Perhaps more interesting is that there is no path to citizenship if you move there, unless you are a direct descendant of an Emirati citizen. This doesn’t just apply to someone who has moved to the UAE, but it includes people who were born there as well. To drive the point further, even if your family has been in the UAE for generations, you still can’t obtain citizenship if you aren’t of Emirati descent. Regardless of how long you’ve been there, you also need to reapply for residency every three years. This process includes a medical exam to ensure you are healthy enough to remain there.
Human rights. The UAE is a monarchy. As with most monarchies, past and present, this means that the free speech, debate, and right to criticize the government enjoyed in most democracies is absent. This also means that the regional media provides what seems like a fairly sanitized view of the government and news. On the justice spectrum, flogging and stoning, for example, are legal punishments as the UAE falls under the rule of Sharia law.
Trying to diversify. Although the UAE was built on oil, Dubai itself doesn’t have any. As a result, it’s aggressively building industries from scratch. While I was there, the local newspaper announced several initiatives (backed by billions of investment) for renewable energy as well as innovation of all sorts, which I found most interesting given the UAE’s roots in oil. I took this to be an indication that they are open to any opportunity possible.
The emirate is also setting up “cities” for institutions with special interests to grow and work together. Some of these areas were labelled Internet City, Health City, Logistics City, and Sports City. It’s very clear that Dubai is doing all it can to grow through a diversified portfolio of industries and taking advantage of as many emerging trends as possible.
Shop ’til you drop. If you like to shop, Dubai is the place for you. Not only does it sport a few huge malls, but it seems like everywhere you go there are high-end shopping and strip malls being built. I’ll be the first to admit that I am far from an expert on the number of shopping establishments needed for a given area, however, to my untrained eye, it likely passed the necessary number a long time ago. This is merely an opinion based on my amazement at the sheer amount of shopping square footage and my limited shopping endurance.
A unique model. One of the biggest reasons people move to Dubai is their taxes, or rather their lack of them. There is currently no income or sales tax—what you make is yours to keep and the price on the sticker is the price you pay.
In some ways Dubai reminded me of the old SNL skits for the First Citywide Change Bank where the bank’s sole purpose was to provide change when you needed it. The tag line was something to the effect of “some people wonder how we make money, the answer….is volume.”
This is not to say that Dubai does not have any source of revenue. Business owners are charged considerable licensing fees to operate businesses and I believe they also have fees embedded into the costs of many goods. However, the incredible scale of their growth, including infrastructure, left me wondering how much of their expansion was fuelled by debt. My hope is that there is more than meets the eye and this isn’t all an unsustainable bubble.
A curious merging of cultures. Living in a multicultural city like Toronto provides a glimpse into a number of cultures most cities aren’t lucky enough to have. However, processing the contrast between Dubai’s deeply religious side and its capitalist 21st century side requires more than a little mental gymnastics.
According to the automated recording on the bus tour, there is a mosque every 500 metres in Dubai. Assuming this is correct, it would mean you will never be more than 250 metres away from a mosque wherever you go.
Everywhere we went people wore traditional clothing with men in dishdashes and women wearing hijabs and niqabs. Although I expected this, what I didn’t expect was the juxtaposition of seeing people in religious clothing walking in front of lingerie stores.
The UAE is clearly not perfect and restricts many of the basic rights we in the west often take for granted. Its lack of democracy and human rights, while denying citizenship to immigrants is something we in the west would and should not tolerate. But despite this, Dubai is clearly a unique place where millions of people have actively chosen to live.
My biggest take away was that as Canadians we often don’t think big enough. In Dubai things happen fast, relatively efficiently, and on a large scale. It's a growing place in a hurry to become bigger and better. Although I'd never want Canada to be run as extremely as the UAE, we are in an increasingly competitive world where capital and people can and will move for better opportunities. We'd be wise to consider any options to ensure Canada remains one of the best places in the world.