Opinion: Everything you see now is a work in progress

Since the UAE flag was first hoisted 40 years ago Dubai has changed beyond recognition, but it remains the product of an essential vision that dates back long before 1971

I first visited Dubai in 1973 shortly after qualifying as a chartered accountant in London and deciding to start the next stage of my professional career in the Gulf. People often tell me I must have seen a lot of changes in the emirate since then. My response is always the same: in some respects, yes; in many others, no.

Dubai did not have its first five-star hotel until a few years after the birth of the UAE. It had no high-rise buildings until the construction of the Dubai World Trade Centre in 1979. Expatriates had to send their children to boarding schools overseas because of the absence of suitable schools locally. Likewise, for medical treatment.

Obviously, Dubai has changed enormously in respect of all of the above over the past 40 years. However, its essential character remains the same. Dubai was entrepreneurial, had wonderfully engaging and warm people, and style and flair in spades. The emirate’s then Ruler, the late His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, had a clear vision of what the region needed economically in order to grow and improve the wellbeing of its citizens.

Dubai has changed enormously in respect of all of the above over the past 40 years. However, its essential character remains the same.

In these respects, HH Sheikh Rashid was following in the traditions of his predecessors who had sought to make Dubai a trade hub through the abolition of tolls and other impediments to business in the early part of the last century.

Dubai discovered oil in the mid-60s and invested the resulting revenues wisely by improving its physical infrastructure in order to make its non-oil economy more competitive and fit for purpose as a regional trade hub. Money was borrowed to dredge the creek and the largest man-made port in the world was built at Jebel Ali, where a freezone was established to facilitate regional trade.

The next stage of Dubai’s development came with the establishment of Emirates Airline in 1985. Emirates Airline has probably been one of the most successful of Dubai’s investments in terms of enhancing trade connectivity and more particularly the development of the retail, tourism and hospitality sectors.

Nevertheless, I always say that the best investment Dubai ever made was the development of Emirates Golf Club, the first grass course in the Middle East, which was opened in May 1988. This, together with Emirates Airline, played a big part in attracting literally thousands of regional offices to Dubai and firmly establishing the emirate as a regional service hub.

Accordingly, within 20 years of independence, Dubai was already well on its way towards establishing itself as a regional trade, logistics, services and hospitality hub. It then focused on adding retail, real estate and further improving soft infrastructure such as education and healthcare. Additionally, in recent years, considerable success has been achieved in positioning Dubai as a centre for financial services and technology as well as an incubation hub for many niche industrial and service sectors. All of this has been achieved within the context of the same essential strategy which successive rulers from the Al Maktoum family have employed consistently for over a century.

As for the future, I would be surprised if there were any major departures from the strategy that has served Dubai so well thus far. Dubai will always encourage and benefit from greater economic integration within the UAE and the GCC. As one of the most interconnected cities in the world, it should be well placed to facilitate new patterns of trade and investment flows between other Asian countries, China – and Africa in particular. This is precisely what Dubai does well. The regional market which Dubai has served for decades has grown over the years and will continue to do so in future until it is truly global.

Dubai’s strategy has to-date been built largely on entrepreneurship at government level. However, in the years ahead, I would foresee even greater opportunities for the emergence of SME startups owned and run by both Emiratis and expatriates. Entrepreneurship is in Emiratis’ DNA and Dubai continues to attract a considerable number of innovative expatriates.

I can see Dubai in the years ahead leading the way in providing private sector jobs – not just for its own people but also for other GCC nationals and expatriates from all corners of the world who have an adventurous spirit and the willingness to work hard. In the words of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed, everything you see now is just work in progress. Like Emirates Airline, Dubai has a long way to go in terms of growth.