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It was once claimed that Singapore was the initial role model for Dubai to emulate. Over the years, Dubai and Singapore seemingly became competitors as Dubai achieved the status of a mega metropolis and a hub — not only catching up with Singapore but perhaps even surpassing it on several fronts. A recent article in Trends described the relationship as an “old duel” between “the Falcon and the Lion”. Many years ago, the ‘Dubai model’ itself became synonymous with a template of how other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere could catapult themselves into a successful and progressive financial metropolis. It has become commonplace to compare and contrast both city-states according to the most recently published indices such as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs city ranking, the World Bank’s Doing Business Index, and the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index. Such comparisons are tempting, as analysts try to assess the standings of Dubai and Singapore based on various measures generated by international agencies and situate the respective city-states according to numerical rankings, ratings and criteria, pointing to a drop or improvement from one year to another. A key problem is that most of these reports are obscured by the fact that they do not list Dubai but the UAE (as a whole) as a reference point and often times use different variables to measure global ranking indices.

At first glance, there seem to be commonalities that both Dubai and Singapore share. According to Jim Krane, the author of City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism, both Dubai and Singapore “are highly competitive and deeply globalised small city-states with high living standards and big expatriate populations. Both are [also] heavily involved in energy commodity trading, shipping, logistics, tourism and conventions”. It is clear that the two are guided by a state-driven investment strategy, focused on trade and export, initiated by an enlightened leadership. In addition, they have both created an elaborate infrastructure, such as ports, airports, and telecommunications hubs that contribute to their success. They are equally concerned with maintaining their status as global cities, continually improving and enhancing their international reputation and connectivity.

Yet, there are also some obvious differences that set the two apart. For example, with regard to the average use of electricity per year, there are striking differences between the two. Krane emphasises that although ”Singapore and Dubai both languish under hot and humid climates,” on an average, Singapore households use about 7,000 kWh of electricity annually; whereas in Dubai, electricity consumption is nearly six times that figure at an average of 40,000 kWh/year. Krane claims that much of Dubai’s high consumption of electricity is due to generous energy subsidies, whereas “Singapore does not provide free or cheap energy to its residents”.

Furthermore, while both city states place high dependencies on migrant labour, according to Kent Calder, author of Singapore: Smart City, Smart State, “the ratio of guest workers and expatriate executives is significantly higher in Dubai,” around 75 per cent of the work force, vs only 35 per cent in Singapore. He also cites that Singapore has more than double the population of Dubai (5.2 million inhabitants in Singapore, compared to Dubai’s 2.3 million) and that both cities are known for their multi-ethnic character. In Singapore, ethnic Chinese make up 80 per cent of the population, while the Malay have become somewhat of a relegated ethnic community of the city. On the long term, Calder projects that “Dubai’s hinterland ... may well have even greater future potential [as] it lies between India and Africa, both of which have huge future growth potential, and it has stronger access to natural resources, which are of course plentiful in both the Gulf and Africa.”

With low custom’s tariffs, no personal income tax, and low corporate tax, Dubai has become a preferred business location in the Middle East. The two city-states employ different tax regimes, with a significant tax bracket of around 28 per cent for expats in Singapore, compared to zero taxation on personal income in Dubai. Moreover, Dubai’s reduced oil reserves and the ongoing global oil glut have long ago led it to diversify its development strategy.

Laavanya Kathiravelu, a sociologist at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore explains: “Dubai has of late invested heavily in artificial intelligence infrastructure and knowledge as well as in making strides in the implementation of such technologies. In terms of constructing the Palm islands or Burj Khalifa, Dubai has also overtaken Singapore in creating world-renowned architectural marvels. Singapore boasts the iconic Marina Bay Sands and Gardens on the Bay as well, but they are perhaps not as ambitious.” While Singapore has factored Green roof technology into public planning, Dubai has recently focused more on space technology, and both are developing smart city solutions to urban problems.

Instead of viewing Dubai and Singapore as rivals or competitors, it would be more prudent to state that they are similar yet different in certain respects, since they cater to different regions and potentially different clienteles. Singapore seems to prioritise its immediate neighbourhood, competing with likes of Hong Kong and other Association of Southeast Asian Nations, while Dubai is mainly competing with regional economic rivals. A more constructive view is to ask: What can each learn from each other as they serve different audiences and yet uphold their respective status as a regional hub?

Kristian P. Alexander is assistant professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Zayed University, 
Abu Dhabi.