Thursday, December 04, 2003

An Oasis a Midst Turmoil

Generally, when people put together a list of places that they dream about visiting, it is filled with locations that boast sun-drenched beaches, tropical climates, plentiful recreation, exotic culinary delights, and unique cultural experiences. My own personal list is populated with such places. Yet when I think about travel destinations of interest, never in my wildest imagination would I ever have listed somewhere in the Middle East…until now.

Why in the world would you want to go there? That was a phrase I heard often when telling friends and family that I was headed to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The comment had good foundation, since not too many Americans who are not already serving in the Armed Forces choose to travel to this region of the world. My company was hosting a world-wide summit for small to midsize software companies in Dubai, and I was asked to present during one of the daily sessions. My purpose and reason for traveling to the Middle East had therefore been established, but what was I going to find there?

I had never wanted to go to the Middle East, there was seemingly nothing of any good awaiting me there, and my perceptions were formulated on a homogenous notion that the Middle East was nothing more than a festering land of Jihad full of hate and despise for all things Western or 21st century for that matter. Dubai and the people that I met there however, showed me that even in a firestorm; one can find sanctuary and hope.

The wonder of Dubai was established by its ruling family in the 1960s, who must have looked around at that point in time and pondered the fact that the UAE had very little oil reserves compared to that of its neighbors such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Iran. No oil, summertime heat that can reach 140 degrees, and plenty of sand does not sound like a recipe for prosperity for the Royal Family’s people, but that was exactly the ingredients they were forced to use. So what does a country do that has no resources, no established core competency, and no competitive advantage? The answer: Create one from scratch.

It seems logical when you think about it now. My neighbors are rich in natural resources, but are plagued by political upheaval and security concerns. My neighbors sell their resources to the West, but do so at arms length. How can I take these realities and use them to my country’s advantage? As in the restaurant business, The UAE learned that it is all about location, location, location. The UAE therefore needed to create a compelling “location” for businesses that wished to perform trade and commerce in the Middle East. Dubai is located on a peninsula that pokes right into the main shipping lanes of the Persian Gulf, but physical location was just one element of Dubai’s success formula. The most important factor was in becoming an Information Hub to the region where Western businesses could establish regional centers.

The first step was massive investments in physical infrastructure, followed closely by gigantic tax breaks to encourage foreign investment. A little known fact is that Ex-Patriot employees of foreign companies operating in Dubai pay no personal income tax to the UAE, creating a virtual tax haven for employees looking to create a shelter for their hard earned dollars or vested stock options. Next step was building some of the best hotels in the entire world. The only 7-Star hotel in the world is located in Dubai for example. These hotels include marvelous beaches (remember that sand was the only resource of note), extravagant restaurants serving cuisine from every ethnicity and background imaginable, world class golf courses (Tiger Woods plays the local Dubai Open each year), and recreation that will never leave you bored.

The last effort in Dubai’s winning play book was to invest heavily in the future of technology and communications, which is the life-blood of any information hub. Dubai created “commerce cities” focused on promoting business leadership in these select industries such as their Internet City, which includes tenants such as Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, Dell, and Apple; and their Media City, which hosts the likes of CNN and other global and regional news agencies.

So the stage has been set, now how are you going to run this place? Dubai has offered good paying wages to help staff their service industry, and the opportunity for higher pay has attracted workers from all over the globe, namely from developing nations. An astonishing fact is that the local UAE populous only makes up 20% of the total population. The rest is made up of Ex-Patriots from over 100 different nationalities. In my week’s stay in Dubai, I met staff from the Philippines, India, China, Ethiopia, Senegal, and Syria just to name a few. All were in Dubai because they could make more money than in their native lands. These are the very same people that staff the hotels, the restaurants, clubs, bars, and most other places of hospitality.

Dubai works because it has created a safety zone for business and has encouraged its presence. It has invested in infrastructure and technology that rival any place imaginable, and it has focused on creating a service culture that caters to the business traveler and recreation seeker. Not too bad from starting out with the world’s biggest sandbox.

In a few short decades, Dubai and the UAE have become the information hub to which they had aspired. It took foresight, lots of investment, and commitment to stay the course even as their neighbors scoffed. It also took an incredible amount of tolerance to embrace people, nationalities, customs, religions, and backgrounds that are foreign to their own. It is this tolerance balanced with respect for lawful order (once convicted of a crime you are immediately deported) that has made Dubai great.

So I have defined the ingredients to Dubai’s success, now let’s explore how to use all this fun stuff:

While in Dubai, my co-workers and I took some time on the weekend to explore the sights and recreational benefits. First stop was a beach side resort where the waters of the Persian Gulf felt like a warm bath. Next, our group took a Jeep Safari out into the desert. Our drivers were well experienced at navigating these dunes in their SUVs and raced up seemingly right angles of sand with surprising grace. We took pit stops along the way to ride quad ATVs, visit a camel farm, and partake is some sandboarding, which is to slide down a mountain-like dune of sand with a snowboard attached to your feet. The views of the desert were ever-changing as the sun sank in the west.

The highlight of the day’s activities was a desert feast held at nightfall. Upon arrival, each guest was presented traditional Arabian clothing which were ours to keep (At the very worst, I will have a great Halloween costume for next year). Food was prepared and cooked over open fires and was delicious. A belly dancer performed for the crowd’s entertainment, and Shisha Pipes (Arabic Water Pipe for smoking flavored tobaccos) were available for those who wished to try.

Dubai is an amazing place and delivers on every expectation one would expect from an amazing and world-class travel destination. Combine this with its focus on business and regional commerce and Dubai has surely become a model for how to create something from nothing.


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