Before two weeks ago, I had only negative preconceptions of Dubai. I saw it as an over-the-top, glitzy, Ferrari-saturated culture where money replaced values, success was measured by how tall your building rose, and sustainability meant keeping the indoor ski slopes at 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
Never mind that I had never been to Dubai—what did that matter? In today’s Instagrammed world, we think we can understand a place despite never experiencing it first-hand.
Driving into Dubai that first evening I felt I was behind the wheel in long-lost Sega racing classic Out Run. Sports cars and luxury SUVs were whizzing past carefully designed and newly built skyscrapers, and construction cranes peppered the skyline. I thought to myself, “See, I WAS right!”
But I wasn’t. And the next four days on AFAR Experiences Dubai proved just how wrong I was.
Dubai is the new global crossroads, a place where the world comes to do business.
All of the construction, all of the glitz and glamour and superlatives, are part of a bold and visionary plan put in place some 60 years ago by Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum and continued by his son Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. You see, Dubai is relatively resource poor. Its pearl industry collapsed in the 1930s and its oil reserves are insignificant compared to those of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. (The UAE is a federation of seven emirates, of which Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the best known in the West.)
However, the ruling family’s genius was to realize the geographical importance of their tiny swath of land alongside the Persian Gulf. One third of the world’s population lives within a four-hour flight of Dubai, and two-thirds within an eight-hour flight. Following in the footsteps of his father, Sheikh Mohammed is proactively designing Dubai to be a new global crossroads, a place where the world comes to do business. Spend a few days here and you can’t help but think the investments in infrastructure, as well as technical and intellectual capital, are helping to make that vision a reality.
The epitome of such forward-thinking ambition is Emirates airline. Started in 1985 with two leased planes from Pakistan International Airlines, they made their inaugural flight to Karachi. It’s a far cry from what they do today. With the world’s largest owned fleet of Airbus 380s and Boeing 777s, and over 3,300 flights each week to 150 cities around the world, Emirates are about to launch one of the world’s longest flights—Dubai to Panama City.
But despite this rapid growth, they’ve managed to sustain a standard of quality that far exceeds what you experience on most other carriers, and they very much embody the global melting pot that is Dubai, whose population of around 2.5 million is only 10–15% Emirati and contains some 70+ nationalities. This is reflected on Emirates flights, where a typical flight crew might consist of a dozen nationalities and speak two dozen languages.
There are so many stories like this in Dubai. Listening to Issam Kazim, CEO of Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce, speak about the role tourism plays in Dubai, you can’t help but be impressed by his relentless focus on metrics as a means to manage and grow his industry. The same goes for Dr. Aisha Bin Bishr, the director of Smart Dubai, an initiative focused on making Dubai the smartest city in the world by seamlessly connecting its citizens and tourists to a technological infrastructure that makes living there more convenient. For example, did you know that in Dubai you simply go to an ATM to print out your vehicle registration?
Are there problems in Dubai? Of course. But it’s revealing that a government-sanctioned institution such as the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Cultural Understanding exists, devoted to increasing awareness and fostering tolerance between cultures in Dubai. We spent a morning with Managing Director Nasif Kayed, who is working to debunk the myths and misconceptions and unwind the complexities of Islam and Emirati culture. We were encouraged to ask “taboo” questions about such topics as women’s rights, migrant workers, free speech, and Sharia law. And even if we didn’t always get the answers we were looking for (understandable, given we were a group of 40 and had limited time), the fact that we could openly discuss such issues shows that Dubai is a lot more open-minded and progressive than its stereotypes suggest.
Reflecting on my week in Dubai, the dreams coming to life here renew my optimism for an entrepreneurial planet on which ideals of cosmopolitanism and global citizenry can thrive, despite the geographical—and intellectual—deserts in which we sometimes reside. Dubai may well be the crossroads of a new world.
AFAR Experiences are expertly planned and led trips that allow participants to really get beneath the surface of a destination, offering unparalleled access to local thought leaders and tastemakers. Join us on our next event in New Orleans.