Abu Dhabi at 40 //Photo by Tala Al Ramahi (@journalist_tala)
As some of you may know I just moved back to New York last week after living in the Middle East for much of the last 10 years, most recently in the United Arab Emirates, which is today celebrating its 40th anniversary. There is no doubt that the UAE has accomplished pretty spectacular things in 40 years, fueled greatly by the abundant oil wealth of Abu Dhabi, which holds more than 90 percent of the crude in the country, and about 7 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, according to BP data.
Burj Khalifa // Photo by Vivian Salama
The country is home to the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, one of the world’s biggest malls, the world’s largest dancing fountains (I must confess, the fountain is rather amazing), the only manmade island visible from space and one of two gold vending machines in the world!
Dubai dancing fountain // Photo by Vivian Salama
It is, undeniably, a remarkable accomplishment given that just 40 years ago the emirates, prior to unification and the discovery of oil, earned much of their income from pearl diving and exporting dates.
The pride of its citizens is something to be admired, and for weeks (even before I departed for the US), skycrapers were covered from top to bottom in lights of white, green, red and black, the colors of the UAE flag. Emiratis, the citizens of the UAE, wore scarves and jewelry with the colors of the flag, and cars were covered, literally, in photos of leaders past and present.
But a challenging road lies ahead for the UAE, particularly after this year’s events in the Middle East, where longtime dictators were forced out by popular uprisings. There is one clear advantage the UAE has over countries like Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen: it’s citizens are not poor. There are parts of the country that are in great need for updated infrastructure – roads, power lines, etc – but citizens are, at worst, comfortable thanks to lifetime handouts by the government. (Click here for my story Abu Dhabi’s Spending on Soccer and Skyscrapers Masks Slower Times at Home)
But citizens of the UAE are hungry for one thing: opportunities. Currently, foreigners make up about 85 percent of the country’s population – the majority hailing from countries on the Indian subcontinent. British/Western European, Canadian, Australian and South African expats hold many of the high paying white-collar positions, in SOME cases because they are better trained to do so, leaving few high profile jobs for the locals.
Emiratization, a policy now enforced by the government in many workplaces, seeks to boost Emirati employment whether by providing training and education for Emiratis, or setting quotas in certain sectors for Emirati employment. Ultimately the government is trying to prevent their own talented citizens from being lured to the West. But many critics believe that the UAE cannot afford to lose its foreign workers as they may have been the driving force for the country’s speedy success in the first place. In the meantime there is growing resentment among foreigners who, despite making up the majority of the population, have few rights. There is no legal protection on property rights, and police, in practice, do not need a reason to stop, question or even detain people.
Another challenge is maintaining the “vision” set by the country’s founders some 40 years ago. Seldom was there a day in the UAE that I did not hear someone refer to the “vision.” Abu Dhabi and Dubai have set urban planning roadmaps for diversifying their economies away from oil and expanding certain sectors (services, real estate, alternative energy, etc). However, the global economic crisis dealt a massive blow to the once seemingly invincible UAE and its seemingly invincible real estate market. Slowly we’ve seen the country scale back, but its officials still maintain that the overall “vision” is intact and on track. We shall see.
Photo by Vivian Salama
Finally, a problem facing many of the Gulf sheikhdoms: succession. The country’s founder Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan has been dead for 7 years now but his legacy undeniably lives on. The question is whether his sons, the current President Sheikh Khalifa and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed, can continue the vision he laid out for the country 40 years ago. Many experts I’ve spoken with believe that the vision of the two brothers has grown less cohesive, and the two have developed mini “kingdoms” – investing money in projects that are too different, both from each other and from that envisioned by their father.
The government is so private in nature (painfully so) that it’s always hard to know exactly what is going on behind the scenes. But given Dubai’s economic disaster and, more recently, Abu Dhabi’s problems, it raises a lot of questions as to who is calling the shots. The country enjoys making a splash, and it’s served them well, but if it genuinely wants to keep out of the spotlight during tougher times, it may want to adopt a more humbled approach over the next 40 years. (ie, no more $20 million hotel debut parties, ok?)
Dubai Atlantis Hotel Opening Show - December 2008
Good luck UAE. I am excited and eager to see what you have up your sleeve for the next 40 years!!