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Up the Creek
on 25 September 2014
Dubai conjures up many images. For some it is the epitome of tacky bling, for others it is the land of Christians, pork, alcohol and prostitution; it is the new holiday destination, replacing Miami and the Costa del Sol; it is the city-state entrepôt par excellence; it is the place of the man-made palm islands; it is the place of impossibly high towers in the desert built by of thousands of imported, exploited workers; it is the place of a spectacular financial and property crash. Dubai is all these things and more but the most important thing is that everyone has heard of Dubai, and that was the original plan.
This fascinating book takes all the images of Dubai and puts them into context. It is written by a journalist who has lived in the region and knows Dubai well. As a journalist he keeps the sentences short, readable and authoritative and he relies heavily on interviews for his sources. The author keeps you interested and makes you want to turn the page.
Dubai is one of the emirates of the United Arab Emirates, née Trucial States. You have probably heard of Abu Dhabi, Dubai's much bigger neighbour and with great wealth from oil. You may have heard of Sharjah, but have you heard of Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah or Umm al-Quwain? These were once better-known than Dubai. Dubai was originally a small village on a creek on the lower Arabian Gulf coast. Some oil was found but not too much. Modern Dubai is a product of one man, his vision and his risk-taking. The reason you have heard of Dubai is because of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum and his son Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. This is the story of the Maktoums and Dubai.
As soon as he took over Sheikh Rashid introduced electricity, piped water and built an airport even though there was one already in next-door Sharjah. Most importantly, he raised money from his local merchants and Kuwait to dredge Dubai Creek, which was silting up. This ensured the future of the re-export trade. Sharjah did not dredge its own harbour, which silted up; its airport is now a backwater in relation to that of Dubai. Sheikh Rashid's innovations continued, and the rest is history.
THE PAPERBACK is 320 pages long plus Notes (mostly references to sources quoted) and an Index. Unfortunately there is no Bibliography, although some books are repeatedly referenced in the Notes (see Comments). There is a section of 8 pages of black and white photographs. The font is readable but it is a little small, presumably to fit the entire book into the paperback format. There are also two very useful maps, one of the UAE and the surrounding countries and one of Dubai. The book's 18 chapters are grouped into 4 parts: Dubai Stirs, Dubai Emerges, Blowback: The Downside and Dubai's Challenge. Thus all aspects of Dubai are covered from the history of the early days through the recent accelerated growth, the dark underbelly of this growth and the future challenges that Dubai faces.
THE FUTURE: Dubai is a city-state outlier of globalisation, joining the small club that includes Singapore and Hong Kong. The author draws an historical comparison between modern Dubai and the former Venetian Republic. What are Dubai's limts to growth? If it stops accelerating into the future will it be unable to sustain itself and collapse? There should be another book about Dubai in 10 or 15 years so that we can find out.