To be concise about Dubai is harder than you think. The city stands for something in the Middle East’s way of living, but what that something is not always clear. Even after decades, you can’t easily formulate the reasons for your attachment, because the city is always transforming itself and the scale of transformation is tremendous.
Dubai builds itself, knocks itself down again, scrapes away the rubble and starts over. In Paris or Venice, a person can always view the city as it has been for centuries, as his ancestors saw. In Dubai however, a person wanders about the city like a man who has lost many teeth.
Fast-tracking an unprecedented boom
The speed of the cycles of prosperity and sluggishness presents an extraordinary challenge to historians. Dubai is not old enough to attract archaeologists, but long-time residents still feel that they have their own monuments and ruins that accelerated development and compacted the decades. If you’ve been here long enough, you have seen the movement of history with your own eyes.
It wasn’t long ago that water was starting to flow in Dubai Marina, JLT was still a barren desert, and the Palm was yet to rise above ground. The Downtown district was but a power point presentation, and there was an outbreak of redback spiders in Meadows as residents moved in for the first time. In those heady days, the real power belonged to a pioneering group of real estate developers, themselves competing and colluding with each other to create districts and neighbourhoods from scratch.
Investors and developers alike descended on the city to capitalise on the gold rush, allocating capital and talent into the city to capitalise on the opportunities created through government legislation. Aspiring entrepreneurs walked around the city with business plans, their eyes brimming with hope and anticipation, as they looked for funding to seed industries from corner coffee shops. And the latest skyscrapers rose in front of our eyes.
A state of continuous motion
No history book records the innumerable number of buildings that were on the verge of stalling, only to be rescued at the last minute by an angel investor, with prices that cannot be conceived of even today. Even as the global financial crisis hit our shores in 2008, the will to move forward was always present, given the entrepreneurial mindset, as the need to expand — always part of the biological imperative — became imbibed into the city’s fabric.
This nuanced history of the pioneering days is the second reboot the city witnessed — the first being the formation of the Jebel Ali free zone in 1985. Back then, the pioneers were the traders, moving goods across borders, and setting up shop to allow for a seamless and efficient transportation network. Then, as in 2002, the fuse that was lit was through the SME sector, and in both cases, there are innumerable anecdotes of upstarts that made it big in the city that never stayed content with staying still.
Today, with the establishment of new suburbs, scarcity has given way to excess. There is plenty of choice as to where to live, and with relaxed regulations, co-working and co-living concepts have sprouted up as young companies vie for the marketplace. Everything again seems up for grabs, and everybody asks “Will we make it?”
Will Dubai, the dauntless tightrope walker which has never yet fallen, get a charley horse in the middle of the high-wire? Those of us, like myself, who have never abandoned Dubai, tell ourselves that it will not fall, for we cannot imagine the world without great cities like Dubai. Walking down DIFC or Citywalk, looking at the blinking lights and searching for the newest eatery, we marvel at the lack of a sign of the old life.
The gold rush has mutated into the newer industries of fintech and e-commerce. But the gold rush is still there. In the past we watched events, even as we had no control over them.
Today, we feel much the same way. In Dubai, the rapid change of events forces you to look inward, to search for what endures, the zeitgeist that survives and thrives at each stage of the economic cycle. Give Dubai half a chance, and it will turn you into a philosopher.
Sameer Lakhani is Managing Director at Global Capital Partners.