What is Dubai?
Dubai is planted firmly in the Middle East. It is the most famous of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is a founding member of the once-powerful cartel OPEC, which controlled oil prices for nearly 40 years. It is now weakened by in-fighting and by a defiant Saudi Arabia, which is determined to set its own course in deciding oil production quotas based not on its own economy or those of its coalition partners, but it’s enmity of Iran.
Dubai is Arab. It is Muslim. But step out of its spectacular airport, climb into a taxi, and drive toward the city, and you don’t see Arabia. You see a city that could be planted in America, Canada, Europe, Japan, China, Australia or parts of Africa. You see steel, glass, marble and granite. You see construction cranes and rebar and cement. Shopping malls that house ice skating rinks, an indoor ski slope, and miles of stores with European couture names.
You see six- and eight-lanes highways that carry a lot of foreign automobiles. You see an elevated tram that scoots along the highway, crammed with people. Automobile dealerships selling BMWs, Audis, Mazeratis, Bentleys and Lamborghinis down to the lowly Toyota, Ford, VW and Chevy. Hyundai and Kia bring up the rear.
You see people from all over Southeast Asia. They come from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan to find work. They come from Africa — Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt and Sudan — and send money back home. Business people from around the globe work here in every sort of business. The executive and technology jobs are filled with suited or casually dressed expatriates from America, Canada, Australia, Germany, The Netherlands, China, Japan and Thailand.
Yes, Dubai is Arab, but it is minority Arab. By some estimates, only 10 percent of Dubai’s population is actually from Dubai, and no estimate puts it above 20 percent.
Dubai runs on an expat population. Emiraties — citizens of the United Arab Emirates, own many businesses and ventures. But it’s the expatriate population that runs them. Unlike in neighboring Oman, which is two-thirds to three-quarters Omani, very little Arab is heard spoken here.
There is almost no oil left in Dubai. The largest of the emirates, Abu Dhabi, has the remainder of the oil here. It is the richest of the emirates, a fact that Dubai would just as soon you don’t know.
A friend of mine was dining with an old classmate, and the classmate leaned over the table and said what he had to say had to be whispered because he wasn’t sure who might be listening. Dubai, he confided, is in a recession. Hardly surprising news to anyone who’s been following the price of oil as it crawls along at drastic lows from five years ago. But why the big secret?
The only things that keeps Dubai going are global business and tourism. Oil, which once seemed unlimited and lucrative, is depleted and cheap. Dubai has to keep up the façade of a forward-looking, economically progressive city that is still growing, still vibrant, still vital and still relevant. The fear is that if global businesses scent an economic slowdown, they’ll start to flee. And if they flee, there is no replacement for the lost revenue any more. If businesses flee, the money leaves, the tourist attractions will begin to deteriorate, and Dubai will return to the sand.
That is the fear, of course, and like many fears, it is probably overblown. Dubai is not going away any time soon. It is still an economically progressive city. It is still relevant. But the floor is much thinner, more precarious that it has been for the past 50 years.
The Middle East has been important to the global economy precisely because of the oil. But as the world moves away from oil as its energy source, the Middle East in general will become less important, less a place that business feel they have to be involved in to protect their interests.
Politically, the region will change as well. Staying on the good side of Gulf countries in the name of world economies will become less important. The region will still be part of the global economy, but a smaller part, and with less influence in the economy than it has had by controlling the price of crude.
It will affect the Arabs and the expats alike, and Dubai needs those expats.
Executive and technology workers have offices in the steel and glass towers, sitting in air-conditioned offices, suites and cube farms. The construction workers build those towers, laboring in 95-degree heat with visible heat waves shimmering off the concrete and steel. Taxi drivers drive a couple hundred miles a day.
Some of them get to work in air conditioning. Service workers in hotels, restaurants and office buildings make sure everything looks great for the hordes of tourists and business people who make trips to this glitzy, money soaked spot in the sand.
But in Dubai, the money is showing the first signs of drying up. The question now is not What is Dubai, but What is Dubai’s future?