In addition to his role as heir apparent to his brother, Sheik Mohammed also serves as defense minister of the UAE. In this capacity, he oversaw the deployment of 4,000 troops to Kuwait this past February. Though the UAE opposed the war and advocated giving U.N. inspectors more time to find Iraq’s famously elusive weapons of mass destruction, the sheik made clear that UAE forces would help protect Kuwait.
Exemplifying a rare instance of Arab unity—the emirates act as a single entity in conducting foreign affairs, although each emir remains sovereign within his own principality—the UAE serves as a voice of moderation in the often fractious politics of the region.
Sheik Mohammed appears almost daily on the front page of the Gulf News—attending an Arab summit, welcoming Jordan’s King Abdullah II to the Burj Al Arab (Abdullah, attending a conference on investment in Jordan this past January, described Dubai as an economic model for his country), or launching some bold, usually quirky, endeavor. “We don’t worry about completing a project,” he told me when I caught up with him after he had won an 80-mile endurance horse race through the desert. “Completing projects I leave to others. As soon as we start, I’m thinking, ‘What will be the next?’ ”
Strolling Dubai’s tidy but traffic-clogged city streets or driving its immaculate four-lane freeways through the desert, one can only wonder just what the sheik might dream up next. At night, the shores of Dubai Creek, a riverwide body of water winding through the city, sparkle with festive lights. Traffic overpasses shine in the glow of yardhigh palm trees constructed entirely of tiny lights. By day the two EmiratesTowers, one an 1,150-foot office building and the other a five-star hotel, each topped with a dramatically tilted triangular roof, dominate the urban skyline.
Beneath the high, arched roof of the fabric souk (market), shop owners sell everything from pashmina shawls to Teletubby dolls. In the crowded, multiblock gold souk, where every shop glitters with bracelets and necklaces, Indian and Pakistani merchants will tell you gold is cheaper in Dubai than anywhere in the world. Sheik Mohammed, however, says he is prouder of the huge Jebel Ali tax-free port and business zone down the coast; and of Dubai Internet City, the largest information technology complex in the Middle East; and Dubai Media City. He wants MediaCity to be the region’s hub for news organizations from CNN to Al Jazeera.