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Dubai’s influence goes beyond just commerce

Today it is no longer merely a prosperous city but a beacon of hope for tens of millions of youth in the region that a better future is indeed possible

Gulf News

Last month US magazine Forbes ranked Dubai as the seventh most influential city in the world. It is no coincidence that Dubai was the only regional city to feature in the top ten in a region that includes Occupied Jerusalem, Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran while its sister UAE emirate Abu Dhabi was included on a to-watch category for rising stars. Both cities have slowly transformed from a local, to regional and now global phenomenon within my lifetime.

Over the past few decades Dubai has turned itself from a little known town to a global metropolis, hosting one of the world’s best airlines, biggest airports and most diverse populations. Dubai is truly a global city. The founders and CEOs of its airline, university, electronics retailer and trading conglomerate are British, Lebanese, Indian and Ugandan citizens respectively.

In a recent Op Ed by renowned author Parag Khanna wondered if Dubai had become “the centre of the world, again?” Another piece in the UK’s Sunday Times described The Dubai Mall, which didn’t exist just five years ago, as the most visited building in the world, attracting 80 million visitors in the 12 months to June 2014.

What makes all this even more fascinating is where it’s all taking place. In the Middle East. This region that has sadly become synonymous with bad news, from horrific civil wars that lead to the killings and displacement of innocent civilians to the destruction of millennia old human heritage. Barely a day goes by without one of the world’s leading tragic news items having come from the Middle East. Except that is for Dubai.

Apolitical nature

The news from Dubai makes one wonder whether the city is actually in the Middle East at all. Development, construction, expansion and investment are synonymous words that one comes across when reading about Dubai. Contrast these with others cities from the region over the past few years and the disparity becomes evident. Dubai’s apolitical nature means the city can rise above regional schisms such as the Shiite-Sunni divide and political squabbles. Here people from all over the world come in search of a better life and work for their family’s wellbeing and future.

There are of course certain matters that should be addressed in Dubai and the UAE on a federal basis. Labour exploitation issues for instance need to be settled once and for all as soon as possible. And the relationship between citizen and state needs to shift to the realm of institutions. This can be achieved through the strengthening of the UAE’s Federal National Council and the devolution of further powers to it. There are encouraging steps that are being taken which hopefully can be accelerated. The UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash previously alluded that universal suffrage would be introduced in the UAE by 2019. Additionally the UAE recently issued labour contracts for domestic workers as part of its improvement of working conditions for expatriate labour.

The UAE was the first in the region to introduce electronic cards to monitor the payment of salaries to guest workers, it has introduced various laws to protect children and empowered women to work as judges, cabinet ministers and diplomats. We have witnessed other states in the region follow in the UAE’s footsteps whenever the country takes such pioneering steps. The UAE therefore carries a great deal of influence not only with regional states but also with citizens of the region who wonder why similar projects failed to materialise in their own countries.

Through the further strengthening of civilian institutions, the UAE can lead by example and demonstrate that a gradual opening up process is a much safer option than unpredictable and sudden political changes that have characterised the region in the past few years. I have also previously advocated the introduction of a system of naturalisation that can only enhance the UAE’s soft power and positive influence around the world.

Dubai today is no longer merely a prosperous city but a beacon of hope for tens of millions of youth in the region that a better future is indeed possible. Many of this Arab youth from the Maghreb to the Gulf, as well as those in Iran, South Asia and East Africa may not have a chance to visit Dubai for financial reasons or due to visa restrictions but all of them can explore the idea of Dubai and hopefully implement the best of Dubai in their own countries. Already government officials identify Dubai as model to follow. For instance, it is not uncommon to read about ambitions of cities in Nigeria, Sudan, Rwanda or Angola who want to be recognised as “the Dubai of Africa”.In that regard Dubai would do well to reenergise the Mohammad Bin Rashid School of Government that under its previous name of Dubai School of Government trained many of the region’s technocrats and administrators in better governance. What better way to spread Dubai’s successes and influence to the region?

Dubai has become much larger than a city, it is now an idea.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a UAE-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter at