The emergence of an economic power
Imagine a country made of sand. No fossil resources, no rare metals, just sand… and the sea. And that changes everything. This geography, once just conducive to fishing and pearl farming, took on a whole new value when, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Persian Gulf became, thanks to the discovery of hydrocarbons, a crossroads of international trade.
This is what the chief of a tribe reigning over Dubai, a small coastal village living, at the time, from fishing and pearls, Rashid ben Saeed Al Maktoum, understood . The soil has not given Dubai any gift, but its sea is its unlimited wealth. Then Dubai will become the largest port in the region, and why not in the world. It’s Rachid Al Maktoum’s dream, and that’s exactly what happened.
His son and successor, Mohammed bin Rachid al Maktoum sees even further : since foreigners come to do port trade, why not also attract tourists? Tourism has become, since the rise of international travel, and also of the globalization of information, one of the most prosperous industries on the planet. Tourists love the sun and the sea, and Dubai lacks neither…
So Dubai starts building. Trade provides him with colossal income, which the Emir invests in pharaonic projects. Not because of some sort of extravagance or oversized ego, but quite simply because, in a distant and unknown country, where it’s still a little hot for the chilly Europeans, you have to make the difference. It is necessary to astonish, amaze, seduce. Bet won. The Emir used to say: « Bring a person once to Dubai, he will come back ».
Thus were pegged, on the sands and on the ocean, the most beautiful hotel in the world, the tallest tower in the world, the largest artificial island in the world, the largest indoor amusement park in the world. A waltz of records which began to attract a crowd of onlookers from all continents. Until the global economic crisis of 2009, which brutally wiped out the morale of the inhabitants of the planet… as well as their wallets.
Saved in extremis from ruin by its neighbor Abu Dhabi, which divine grace has endowed with a land extremely rich in natural resources, Dubai understood that once again, it could only count on its only real fortune : its imagination and his audacity. So, since tourists are flocking, why wouldn’t they stay to participate in the economic development of the country?
Dubai is an absolute monarchy, like all the countries in the region. But its leaders understood that their future lay in reconciling opposites: audacity and realism, tradition and responsiveness, power and attention to the people.
Thus, everything was done to facilitate the arrival and installation of investors, but also of this creative youth that the administrative archaisms of the old world prevented from realizing their dreams. And dreams, they had plenty…
Arriving, often skeptical, on the land of the Emirates, the candidates for happiness, and in particular the French, were surprised to discover a country which could have, without being accused of plagiarism, taken over our dear national motto « Liberty, Equality, Fraternity ».
Freedom is of course freedom to do business. New laws were enacted to facilitate the installation of foreigners, the creation of a business, which is now done freely, quickly, without any sponsor, and at little cost. It is also that of coming and going safely. We thus see children doing their shopping alone at 11 p.m. in complete peace of mind, and consumers leaving their iPhone on the table of a restaurant to reserve their place before going to order at the counter. The Parisians, who are told by the metro loudspeakers to hold their personal belongings close to them, believe they are on another planet. Certainly, this security has its downside, insofar as the city is full of surveillance cameras. But the rules are so simple that you have to really want to break them, and the cameras do not enter places where privacy must be preserved. Result : you will never come across these policemen, these soldiers in Dubai, armour-plated like Robocops and armed to the teeth, who are unfortunately part of the decor of our French cities today. Not sure, moreover, that this oppressive police presence provides the same feeling of freedom as the calm and tranquil atmosphere of Dubai outings. A French expatriate, whose mission was soon to end, explained to us that he had to go back and forth to Paris to get his children, born in Dubai, used to living in a city where it was risky to walk alone in the streets.
Talking about Equality may seem paradoxical in a country ruled by a few powerful families. But here, we don’t care about the color of your skin, your confession, your love preferences. Here, racial, religious or sexual discrimination does not exist. It is even considered a crime. Not an offence : a crime. Only count your personality, your culture, your talents. « Oh yes ! » laughed a young Frenchman, who, after spending his childhood and adolescence in Dubai, had gone elsewhere to try his luck to return to « his » country, « there is discrimination that the authorities would do well to worry about : motorists believe that priority belongs to those with the biggest car! »
Fraternity is practically enshrined in the constitution of Dubai since the Emirate is the only country to have a Ministry of Tolerance. Incivility is punished with absolute severity. Brawls, insults can lead you directly to prison. “There is no exception, even for me !” . The member of an influential Emirati family and holder of an important government position told me : “I could not escape justice if I disrespected you.” Admittedly, perfection is not of this world, and there may be flaws in the system, but the principles are there, and are widely respected. The comparison with our « democracies » is, far from it, not to our advantage.
The big bounce
These measures, this art of living, have enabled Dubai’s economy to get off to a new start, despite the tragic episode of covid, which has undoubtedly been managed here with more finesse than in most other countries. The Expo, postponed for a year due to the epidemic, finally attracted nearly 24 million visitors. Over 61,000 apartments and villas were sold this year, 75% more than last year. The audacious real estate projects emerged from the boxes : Lagoons, the lake district, Dubai Creek tower, the tallest residential tower in the world, the Mall of the world, the largest shopping center on the planet, surrounded by a gigantic park, to quote only those.
Young entrepreneurs, French in particular, come here to set up their innovative businesses, allow the Emirate to benefit from their talents, particularly in new technologies, but not only : « French-style » quality in service, communication and trades flourish in Dubai. Every month, entrepreneurs and French creators meet in networking parties organized by the French Chamber of Commerce. They exchange their experiences there, find partners for new deals.
Business, but not only
Hoxever, if we want to settle for the long term, it would be illusory to want to rely only on the ease of doing business, and on the deceptive hope of infinite growth. A new economic or health crisis could disintegrate the enthusiasm for Emirati destinations with the snap of a finger. We saw this during the Covid crisis, which caused the sudden desertion of nearly a third of European foreigners working in the Emirates. If we want talented people to make a lasting contribution to the growth of the country, they have to stay here, develop themselves here. And no one wants to live in an « office-country » or a « warehouse nation ». You only settle somewhere if you can study there, learn there, improve your skills there. If you have the opportunity to flourish there by going to the museum, to the concert, to the cinema, to the theater. If you have the time to visit exhibitions, listen to conferences, make music, practice an art. To exist as such, a nation needs both to rely on strong roots and to build a rich cultural identity. Thus will it be able to radiate, and be maintained over time. Dubai’s future will be driven as much by its cultural activity as by its real estate projects.
Does Dubai have the sustainable means of its ambition? The answer is simple: yes
Dubai, the future city of light?mière ?
If the Emirati authorities grant the famous « golden visa » to scientists, artists, actors in the field of culture and inventors, it is because it is clear to them that these talents are obviously those who will build the nation of tomorrow. The ambition of the leaders is to make Dubai what Paris was in its time : a pole of attraction for international artistic geniuses, a center of cultural influence, a breeding ground for budding talent, in a word the « city of light » from the future.
The Emirates gained their independence in 1971. It is a young nation, whose meteoric rise is well known. Still, don’t imagine offending an Emirati by reminding him of their simple origins in the desert sands. On the contrary. Nothing makes him prouder than his Bedouin origins, and you’ll see his eyes light up as he recalls the life lessons learned alongside the elders. Even Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum devotes much of his autobiography « My Story » to his childhood and the long conversations with his father and grandfather, in the simplicity of a tent pitched in the dunes.
Fuad al Bastaki was born in the oldest district of Dubai, where stands the fort of Al Fahidi, erected in 1787, and which now houses a museum. This village, completely restored, bears witness to the early days of Dubai. It is called Al Bastaki village, after Fuad’s family name. He and his childhood friends, now successful entrepreneurs, members of the government, still live here, in these magnificent houses made of raw earth or coral clay topped with the famous wind towers, centuries-old ancestors of air conditioning. The owner families wanted to make this jewel of traditional Emirati architecture a place of memory and culture. In the heart of these pretty narrow streets, they have set up art galleries, such as that of the Dubai painter Fatma Lootah.
And if you go through one of the doors leading to some lovely inner courtyards where a tree always brings shade and freshness, you may be greeted by the owners, respected personalities in the civilian world, who will be honored here to sing and dance for you, to the skilful tones of a traditional instrument. Because this is how the memory of roots, as deep as the towers of the city center are high, are perpetuated.
Every year, the Sikka Art and Design Festival takes place there, where talented artists come to present their latest creations. Because art and culture are omnipresent in Dubai. Often in the most unexpected places. By taking the wrong exit, I discovered by chance an incredible exhibition of the street artist Banksy at the Mall of Emirates. Shopping centers, but also cafes and restaurants permanently host the works of young Emirati painters. The new Opera receives the most prestigious artists on the planet, schools of arts and music flourish in the four corners of the city. World-renowned artists have settled in Dubai, such as the Greek musician and composer Kostas Karigiozidis who opened a production studio there. Ferrouze Gadery, French musician and impresario, and talent scout, discovers, for the Ministry of Culture of the Emirates, the artists who will soon make the Gulf countries one of the hubs of international culture.
The authorities have also launched a major development program in this direction. After the establishment of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, Roselyne Bachelot signed a new partnership contract between France and the Emirates last year. In Dubai, the « Museum of the Future » has just opened, already considered one of the most beautiful museums in the world, and culture should be very present in the city of the future project, District 2020, which is in progress, is being built around the pavilions of the Universal Exhibition which has just closed its doors.
So yes, we can believe in the future of Dubai, a crossroads of Arab and Persian knowledges, which today comes to marry harmoniously with Western spirit. Fair return, in the land of pearl-fsihers, culture is a pearl.