A shared endeavour

As the UAE celebrates its 40th anniversary, Vision.ae considers the ways in which Dubai’s achievements have been based on trade and business ties that stretch far beyond the lands that now form the UAE in much the same way as some of history’s most notable metropolises

In Dubai, the UAE’s National Day celebrations spooled past with a bit more than the usual fanfare on 2 December. Celebrating 40 years of independence, Emirati nationals paraded along the beach road in cars festooned with flags and bunting, while bemused expatriates looked on and asked, “What’s all the fuss?” The National Day is a day for nationals, of course. It’s an exercise in forging national feeling among natives of seven separate sheikhdoms that finally came together as a nation in 1971.

But the National Day, done right, should also pay tribute to generations of expatriate Dubai residents, who, for more than a century, did the heavy lifting required to build the UAE, and especially Dubai. The foreign residents who make up more than 90 per cent of Dubai’s population might just be spectators to the celebration, but their contributions are the driving force behind the emirate’s development. In fact, Dubai is now recognised by the United Nations as the city with the largest proportion of foreign-born residents in the world.

Dubai’s strengths stem from its autonomy to operate as a nimble city-state, forming independent diplomatic and business relations

Since at least 1900, the city-state’s prosperity has been based on trade and business ties far beyond the lands that now form the UAE.

A vital part of Dubai’s formula for success has been the ruling family’s ability to attract expatriate residents with a comfortable and liberal environment that allows them to thrive. And foreign residents will be just as important to Dubai’s business model over the next 40 years as they have been since 1971.

Dubai’s strengths stem from its autonomy to operate as a nimble city-state, forming independent diplomatic and business relations. It inevitably earns comparisons with Hong Kong and Singapore, two other trade-based city-states. But in my book, I argue that it bears more resemblance to the great entrepôt city-state of Venice, especially during the 12th and 13th centuries when Venice was the most prosperous city in Europe.

Venice, like Dubai, lacked natural resources, but grew ostentatiously wealthy. Both cities chose to convert their wealth into palatial buildings and cutting-edge architecture. Both cities earned their fortunes through duty-free trade and attracting investment and smart minds from the surrounding region. Both cities also acted as islands of enlightenment in far more conservative surroundings.

There is also an historical connection between the two cities. The first written reference to Dubai appears in 1590, in the travel journal of Gasparo Balbi, the court jeweller of Venice. Balbi sailed up the Gulf in search of the source of Europe’s pearl supply and came across a fishing village called “Dibei”. Back in 1590, Dubai was probably just a collection of thatched barasti fishing huts. But it existed. In 1990, Dubai could have celebrated the 400th anniversary of its first appearance in print. It might even have invited Venice to become its “twin” city.

A second key date in Dubai’s history is 1833. This is the year the Al Maktoum family and its tribal allies wrested control of Dubai from Abu Dhabi. The Al Maktoum family has run the territory with astonishing stability since that year. Current Ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is the 11th in an unbroken line of Al Maktoum sheikhs who have governed Dubai since 1833. Not one has been overthrown or killed during their rule.

The key decisions that transformed Dubai also predate the formation of the UAE. For instance, around 1900, Dubai’s Ruler Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher Al Maktoum created a predecessor of the current free trade zone, after dropping import duties and other taxes. His policies helped attract Iranian merchants from across the Gulf, who received land grants in return for settling in Dubai and helping build the city.

Likewise, Dubai’s role as a modern trade hub stems from the pre-independence investments of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the father of the current ruler. Sheikh Rashid built an airport – against the wishes of Dubai’s British overlord – and he borrowed money from Kuwait to launch a port building binge that created more than a hundred berths in under three decades.

These are the investments that have allowed Dubai to become the Middle East’s first post-oil economy, as its modest petroleum reserves – discovered in 1966 – have depleted. Sheikh Rashid’s steps allowed Dubai to become the only city anywhere in the Middle East and Central Asia recognised as a “global city” by the American journal, Foreign Policy.

Current Ruler Sheikh Mohammed’s plans follow these globalising traditions. In his book  he looks to 10th-century Cordoba, in what is now Spain, for inspiration. Cordoba was Europe’s largest and most enlightened city, where Muslims, Christians and Jews thronged libraries and universities, delving into philosophy, mathematics and astronomy.

Cordoba’s Arab rulers commissioned some of the world’s most sublime architecture, while its merchants traded with places as far away as China. Cordoba remains the pinnacle of Arab achievement. When it fell apart after 1031, the Arab world sank into a long decline. It has never regained its greatness.

Sheikh Mohammed sees Cordoba as a model for the spirit of learning, tolerance and architecture he wants to achieve in Dubai, and the trade relationships he wants to use to put it – and the Arab region – back at the centre of the world.

Dubai has some way to go to live up to Cordoba. But the fact that Sheikh Mohammed is partway there ought to put a fresh perspective on the National Day.

Emiratis are rightly proud of their young country’s achievements over 40 years, which have not only put the UAE onto the map, but also into the world’s collective consciousness. But in the world’s most cosmopolitan city, the National Day needs to reach a wider audience. The achievements it recognises are just a facet of the grand story of Dubai.