For Dubai shoppers, one lobby boutique offers Burj-style bargains: a gold-filigree model of Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria ($150,000); a rock-crystal cobra with ruby eyes battling a lapis lazuli mongoose ($35,000); and a fist-size falcon of turquoise with a diamond-studded beak on a gold base embedded with 55 rubies ($125,000). The lobby window held the shop’s pièce de résistance: an elegantly cut woman’s vest (size 8) composed of links of solid gold, set off by the occasional tasteful diamond: $1.2 million.
Excess on this scale might suggest Dubai is little more than an Arab Côte d’Azur drunk on development. But the most compelling aspect of the emirate is not the wealth itself, but where it comes from and how it’s used. Unlike Abu Dhabi, which produces more than 85 percent of the UAE’s oil (the emirates’ total reserves rank fourth in the world), Dubai never had large amounts of oil. Its production, which peaked in 1991 at 410,000 barrels per day, provides less than 10 percent of its income. When the United Arab Emirates was formed 32 years ago this December, Sheik Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the late father of Dubai’s present rulers, realized he could not gamble his little principality’s prospects on oil revenues. The future, he believed, lay in making Dubai the great marketplace of the Middle East; he set out to minimize bureaucracy and create tax-free trading zones. Businesses need offices: Sheik Rashid calculated that Dubai’s traditional families could profit mightily by developing and renting—but continuing to own—real estate.
“The man could hardly read and write, but he was a genuine genius and a true visionary,” says a European veteran of those days. “He slept in a room over his office by the shipyard so he could appear at all hours to tell the workers: ‘Streamline your procedures, cut the red tape and make things move faster.’ He had a few very honest advisors who had worked for Shell and British Petroleum, but he was the real driving force. And his lesson is still followed. Government paperwork that takes four days in London takes four hours in Dubai.”
“What Dubai demonstrates overwhelmingly to the rest of the region is the importance of leadership,” says the Times’ Friedman. These days, Crown Prince Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, 54, the charismatic, black-bearded third son, actively promotes Sheik Rashid’s vision. His oldest brother, Sheik Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, 60, is the ruler of Dubai and vice president of the UAE. His older brother, Sheik Hamdan, 58, deputy ruler of Dubai, also serves as finance minister of the UAE. But it is Sheik Mohammed who is Dubai’s most visible leader.
“There is one very, very important Arab in Dubai and that is Sheik Mohammed,” Friedman goes on. “What gives me great confidence in Dubai both for its future and as a positive example for the rest of the region is not just the vitality of his leadership but the type of people he surrounds himself with and promotes. They are not at all the sycophants and hangers-on you usually see around a monarch. They are amazingly able and dynamic people.”