While many observers seem to be preoccupied with the future of Dubai and the UAE, it might be prudent to draw their attention to where the country actually stands today.
The credit crunch, in fact, serves as a perfect opportunity for us to show the world that our ambitions were well placed and that many of the developments undertaken were not only very well timed but, it could even be argued, may even have been rather restrained.
Not too long ago, what is now the UAE was a land of scant primary schooling and absolutely no prospects of higher education for either sex. Regular outbreaks of polio reflected the minimal health services, while a less-than basic road network impeded trade and commerce. The emirates were able to transform themselves in less than two generations into global centres of commerce and tourism despite being in the politically turbulent region of the Middle East in an era when negative news has been the norm and hope in short supply.
Sceptics may argue that this impressive development is solely due to the UAE – and Abu Dhabi more specifically – being blessed with oil, but the answer to that is all too common in our region: think Iraq, Libya and even Kuwait.
However, the rapid development of the newly-created UAE came with some social cost to the country. Certain unscrupulous developers took advantage of migrant labourers, and more conservative voices have lamented what they see as a declining respect for the nation’s culture not only by some foreigners but also by UAE nationals themselves. Both are issues that the UAE Government is actively remedying.
Had Dubai and its sister emirates allowed themselves to be yet more victims of the prevalent mentality in the region that discourages development because “tensions are high in the Middle East”, the country would never have been built.
Rather than compete with our neighbours, Dubai set as its benchmarks New York, London and Singapore, emulating the best and even challenging them at their own game – a challenge that necessarily required a great deal of financing.
Recently, Mohammed Ali Alabbar, the Director-General of the Dubai Department of Economic Development, announced that the Government of Dubai’s debt obligations today – including state-affiliated companies – stand at $80 billion. This figure is dwarfed by the $350 billion in assets that it holds, a figure that includes assets of only some of the state-affiliated companies.
Additionally, Dubai is part of the UAE, a federation that according to the Ministry of Economy registered a Gross Domestic Product (the value of all goods and services produced in one year) in 2007 of $200 billion, making it an economic superpower by any standards. What is more, ADIA, one of several Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth funds that was established as a result of the visionary planning of the late President Sheikh Zayed in 1976, has assets estimated to be in excess of $500 billion (as of January 2008); and, of course, 10 per cent of the world’s oil supply lies under the capital’s control.
To cut a long story short, this is a strong and resilient economy despite the global financial crisis and the severe corrections witnessed within the UAE equity and real estate markets.
The truth is that had Dubai awaited what could be considered a more ideal geo-political environment, or had it been more cautious about its development, we would not have built the single largest driverless metro system in the world, nor would we have built the superb road infrastructure that will serve many generations yet to come. We would not have built the Healthcare City, the Media City, the Academic City, the Humanitarian City, as well as the world class airport that is used to transport UN aid workers and supplies to trouble spots in Asia and Africa. The same goes for DP World, the fourth largest port operator on the planet.
In fact, one way to put Dubai’s accumulated debt into perspective is to imagine the cost of building all of the above today. Should Bahrain, Beirut or Amman decide to build a metro, for example, they will face a much higher cost of financing and even tougher repayment schemes than those secured by Dubai in the past decade.
Today, the UAE is confident enough to have women parliamentarians, judges and ambassadors, placing them on an equal footing with their male counterparts. Young Emirati boys and girls are growing up with even more hope for the future and with an eye to improving whatever shortcomings this country may have, including labour reforms and corporate governance.
Pioneering Dubai, by not delaying or tempering developments, effectively broke the regional taboo on thinking big and proved that we, too, in the Middle East can not only dream but can achieve world class status. Just look at all our neighbours following suit.
Undoubtedly, Dubai has a great deal of debt, but once these loans are settled they will be proved a price worth paying to secure this nation’s future.
By taking the path it has, Dubai has effectively brought the future forward rather than await its arrival. Our debt will not be in vain.
This article was originally published in The National on December 7, 2008.