It all began along a creek in the desert
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KAI RYSSDAL: After a week in Cairo, we’ve come to a very different part of the region, from ancient and classical to modern but still-not-quite-defined. Riding in from the airport a week ago, it took me a while to get my bearings because Dubai looks a little bit fake, like most of it wasn’t here 10 years ago, which happens to be the truth.
The lights at night are mostly construction cranes. In the daylight the line of new high-rises and office buildings disappears out into the desert haze. This is the manifestation of Dubai’s ambition, a city that wants to be the most influential place in the Middle East, the hub for everything in this world that can be bought, made or traded. If Dubai can do that, it’ll change the way the Middle East works, from Cairo and Amman to Riyadh and Damascus. It could mean a Middle East that’s competitive with the United States, maybe more collaborative, too.
That ambition’s not an empty one, if you know a little something about what Dubai used to be. The history of this city starts on the water at Dubai Creek. Today the creek’s just a tiny slice of this economy, quaint almost, with the spice and gold souks nearby. A generation ago it wasn’t much more than tidal flat poking inland from the Gulf, but it was the economy in a trading post that catered mostly to gold smugglers.
RYSSDAL: How much? One? Yeah, OK, thank you.
It costs one dirham, about 30 cents or so, now to cross the creek on little boats. They’re called “abras.” Think Disney bumper cars, only out on the water, and believe me when I tell you it’s crazy out there. Dozens of these things, 30 feet long, six or seven feet wide, crashing the docks, hustling for passengers, and they are packed.
ABRAS PASSENGER: It’s quicker.
Traffic’s so bad in Dubai now, it’s worth getting bounced around to save some time.
MOHAMMED GHUBASH: We have been catapulted to this modern world from really the bronze age.
Mohammed Ghubash is the secretary general of the UAE Human Rights Association.
GHUBASH: If you were here 40 years ago you would not have electricity, or medical service, or whatever.
RAMI KHOURI: It’s really very impressive what they’ve done.
Rami Khouri runs the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy at the American University of Beirut.
KHOURI: It’s really not very difficult because they have the money. They bring in the mostly western engineers and architects from Europe, the U.S. and other places, and they bring in the Asian and some Arab laborers, and it’s very easy to do.
And because of that, Dubai has been fundamentally changed. Yeah, we’re in the Arab world, but forget about having to speak Arabic. I’ve been getting by just fine in English all week. Maybe some Urdu would have been helpful to talk to the Pakistani cabdrivers. It’s a weird sense of dislocation. Rami Khouri’s analogy about Dubai goes something like this.
KHOURI: It’s like a business center at an airport in Europe, where people come from different places, the sit down, they have a meeting and they go home.
For the locals stuck in the middle of it though, the feeling is completely different.
GHUBASH: We are the guinea pigs of this modernity.
Again, human rights advocate and Emirati native, Mohammed Ghubash.
GHUBASH: A lot of what will happen here will either be emulated and the model is spread, or, you know, people will be discouraged.
When its oil and natural gas run out in a decade or so, all Dubai’s going to have left is that modernity — that, and its economic ambition. We’re going to spend the rest of this week trying to figure out whether business really can change Dubai and the Middle East, and if it can, what that’s going to mean for us.
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