A Farewell To Dubai
By Pranay Gupte
(Published in The Hindu, India’s national newspaper, November 26, 2010)
Perhaps it was the good feeling generated by the visit this week to the United Arab Emirates by the septuagenarian President Pratibha Patil of India, or perhaps it’s the fact that the octogenarian Queen Elizabeth II – whose country, Britain, formerly governed the Gulf region – arrived as a supplicant just as Mrs. Patil left with a bagful of new bilateral business agreements.
Whatever it is, a significant portion of the global media – which treated Dubai with contempt or pity or both during the erstwhile financial crisis – has apparently decided that this emirate should be in favor again. To put it another way, Dubai is back on center stage in a benign role, not to be vilified
I am, of course, delighted that many highly positive articles about
Dubai are suddenly being carried by top publications, including London’s Financial Times, a longtime and predictable critic. But at least the FT’s integrity cannot be questioned, a statement not necessarily applicable to some other British publications, and a few from the United States and Asia – regions where Dubai has extensive investments.
I don't know whether the media have had a conversion on the Road to Damascus. Perhaps their rediscovery of Dubai's attractions and assets flows from the energetic pro-Dubai efforts by communications stalwarts such as Nicholas Labuschagne of South Africa, Naamat Baradhy and Cyba Audi of Lebanon, Giselle Pettyfer of Britain, and Charles McLean of the United States.
These veterans have been retained by Dubai’s powerful media czar, Ahmed Al Shaikh, to manage its global reputation, and clearly they are succeeding – even if Mr. Al Shaikh, who also serves as “media escort” to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, believes that much more needs to be done. And Mr. Al Shaikh is not one to be crossed.
It isn’t an easy job “managing” a sovereign entity’s reputation, particularly that of one like Dubai that nearly defaulted on debt-service payments a year ago this month; the emirate startled the financial community by calling for a “standstill” on money owed by government-related companies such as Dubai World to nearly 100 banks and entities. The International Monetary Fund estimates that total debts are around $110 billion, or 160 percent of Dubai’s GDP; but Dubai’s leaders dispute that figure.
We are unlikely to ever know the true figure: there are, after all, many ways of doing the math. It isn’t that Dubai dissembles; it’s just that the system here is unaccustomed to outside scrutiny. But outside bankers and economists have cautioned that if Dubai is to continue on its path toward establishing itself as a truly global metropolis, then its governance system will need to heed the conventions and concerns of the global community.
Disclosure: I have worked with several Dubai entities since December 2007, although not in a public relations or propaganda capacity. My current tenure with the Government of Dubai Media Office ends on December 31, when my resignation becomes effective. My just-completed book on the links between my native India and the Gulf will be published by Penguin-Viking in late Spring 2011. I am currently working on my memoirs of more than four decades in international journalism, and my time in the Middle East – and particularly in the United Arab Emirates -- will feature prominently in this next book, due for publication in 2012.
I admit to being enthralled by the Middle East, a region that I have visited as a journalist since 1971, when the seven sheikhdoms of the Trucial States became a federation under the rubric of the UAE. I have seen Dubai – and the neighboring capital city of Abu Dhabi – rise from the unforgiving deserts of the Arabian littoral.
That’s why those of us who always believed in Dubai's resilience and capacity to weather the financial storm are pleased that media coverage is positive -- and certainly fairer -- once again. I am heartened by the fact that Dubai decision makers are correcting course to focus on the emirate's traditional basics: trading, transportation and tourism, and logistics. This isn't to say that Dubai's financial travails have ended. But debts are being successfully renegotiated, and management methods are being streamlined.
Indeed, Sheikh Mohammed – a longtime friend of India – has appointed a team of seasoned -- and trusted -- technocrats to oversee Dubai's financial recovery and sustainable economic development. In addition to himself, this quartet consists of his uncle, His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Chairman of The Emirates Group; Mohammed Ibrahim Al Shaibani, Director General of the Royal Court and head of the Investment Corporation of Dubai; and Ahmad bin Humaid Al Tayer, Governor of the Dubai International Financial Center, and a scion of one of Dubai’s oldest business families.
They have few illusions of the challenges ahead, but they see their tasks as just that -- challenges. I have no doubt whatsoever that they will succeed. They are men who see great value in strengthening the UAE’s commercial and diplomatic ties with India, this country’s biggest trading partner. And they publicly acknowledge the critical role that India entrepreneurs as well as laborers have played in the making of this modern state.
For anyone who has lived in the UAE for any length of time, it is difficult not to wish Dubai anything but success as it attempts to make a comeback from the financial crisis. The Emiratis are, for the most part, a warm, decent and generous people, and they deserved better than the relentless – and often reckless – media shellacking they received during the financial crisis.
During my time in Dubai, I was witness to the fact that Emiratis generally took such shellacking in stride – and with a not inconsiderable dose of Arab humor and faux horror. I was also witness to the fact that when droves of “friends” seem to desert Dubai during the crisis, India and Indians stood steadfast by their historical ally; the loyalty was very much appreciated and reciprocated by most Emiratis. That says something about both cultures.
(Pranay Gupte is a veteran international journalist and author.)