In the past few weeks, so much has been written and said about the incredible story of the UAE as we prepare to mark the country’s 50th anniversary. And there will even be more as the nation, born in 1971, continues its ascent as an economic and political player in today’s world.
And there are many stories to tell. So many milestones to record. And so many out of the box ideas and dreams that have come true in this land. But there are two stories that always come to my mind that truly embody the essence of this country.
At a meeting for senior officials of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in the early 1980s, most of the discussions, as usual, were about the political and military developments in the region. Those years were tough, dominated by the aftermath of the Iranian revolution and the subsequent Iraq-Iran war that lasted for 8 years.
Then His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, who was in his mid-30s then, had this proposal. An out of the box idea. “Why don’t we develop our region, Dubai for example, as a tourism destination for people from all over the world?” he tells the ministers.
Suddenly, the room went silent. The minsters seemed to have been caught off guard — it was such an audacious idea that would never cross their minds; all the dossiers in front of them were filled with political matters. The few seconds of uneasy silence was then broken by the loud laugh of a senior minister in the meeting.
“And what will those tourists find in Dubai? Who will be coming to the desert anyway? Who will be coming for the heat and humidity of Dubai?” the minister continued still laughing. Soon, the other ministers were laughing too.
The senior minister then turned to Sheikh Mohammed with a grin that aimed to clearly demonstrate his long years of experience to what he was about to say. “And, Sheikh Mohammed, what is the cultural heritage the tourists would want to visit and enjoy anyway? The landmarks? They will be [stuck] between sand and sea and nothing but a scorching sun above their heads.”
“I didn’t want to argue with him; he didn’t even want to listen to the proposal,” Sheikh Mohammed recalls as he tells the story in his book, ‘My Story’, published in 2018. However, the reaction from the meeting didn’t deter him. On the contrary, it made him “even more determined” to purse his idea, Sheikh Mohammed writes.
Turning idea into reality
A little over decade after that meeting, his idea became a reality as he opened the first edition of the Dubai Shopping Festival on February 16, 1996. In the first year, Dubai attracted at least 1.6 million visitors while the festival generated a revenue of over Dh2 billion.
Today, in its 25th year, the festival continues to be a driver of tourism that has generated hundreds of billions of dollars and attracted millions of tourists to the UAE. More interestingly, most of the countries that were in that meeting have started their own shopping festivals!
Dubai today receives an average 16 million international tourist a year. In 2020, with the coronavirus pandemic in full play, the emirate welcomed a staggering 5.51 million tourists. The MasterCard’s Global Destination Cities Index 2019 ranked Dubai as the world’s 4th most visited city for the 5th consecutive year.
Sheikh Mohammed must have projected this clearly in his mind when he proposed his idea at that meeting. His philosophy has always been to go where the others don’t dare to go. To go the extra mile. To turn the challenge, the crisis into an opportunity. And that leads to the second story: the story of Emirates, the airline.
Opportunity amid adversity
In 1985, as the war between Iraq and Iran intensified, the maritime routes were under frequent attacks by both countries and air traffic was at its minimum.
However, Dubai announced its famous open skies policy allowing foreign carriers any number of landing rights at the Dubai airport. Gulf Air, the regional carrier, didn’t like the decision as it would allow other airlines to feed off its flights to Dubai.
Gulf Air, which enjoyed protection regionally for years, was concerned about competition. When Dubai insisted on the policy, Gulf Air reduced dramatically its flights to Dubai. “The relationship was tense,” Sheikh Mohammed recalls in his book. He was undeterred, again. “The Dubai principle is based on openness, justice for all, rule of law, and healthy competition,” Sheikh Mohammed writes in ‘My Story’.
As the talks reached a deadlock, he called his team and ordered them to set up a national airline, Emirates airline, at a time when investment in the region was risky because of the ongoing war. But that is Sheikh Mohammed; he sees an opportunity when others shy away because of the challenge.
Emirates today is one of the top 5 airlines in the world with a fleet of nearly 260 passenger aircraft and 11 cargo aircraft. The airline now operates the largest fleet of both the Airbus A380 and Boeing 777 aircraft in the world and flies to around 160 destinations worldwide.
The Dubai story is the story of the UAE. It is one of defiance, determination and big goals. A desert state that has defied the challenging geography, climate, and geopolitics to become a modern nation cited worldwide as an example of progress, sustainable development, peace, and as a destination for talent and tourists.
When the late Sheikh Zayed, and the founding fathers, met in that tent in 1968 to discuss the establishment of a union, the odds were against them. They didn’t have the resources the UAE enjoys today.
They didn’t have the full backup of regional powers. But the ambition and determination were so great, as great as the men who held the dream. They created a country that would become in a matter of few decades a leading player in almost every aspect of the human development, a force for peace and stability in an otherwise a chronically troubled region.