The other side of the bridge: Studying and emulating DubaiWritten by Dan Johnson | | email@example.com
For the past few years, I’ve been privileged to use this column to share my thoughts and observations with readers of Toledo Free Press about Toledo and Northwest Ohio.
Most of the columns have focused mainly on matters related to our regional economy. It has been interesting and instructive to study cities in the United States and around the world that have achieved a strong record of economic development. We have identified cities and regions where growth and development are occurring even during this severe global recession. We happen to be living in such a place. Dubai.
We live in an area of Dubai that is older, more diverse and historic if you think of history in terms of decades rather than centuries. I also spend a couple days each week in Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates, separated from Dubai by a hundred miles of rapidly developing desert. These two cities — Dubai and Abu Dhabi — are the largest in the United Arab Emirates, have very different populations, characteristics and economies. While reliable figures for the whole country are a little hard to come by (each Emirate conducts its own census), the United Arab Emirates population censuses in mid-2007 estimated a total population of 4.1 million, roughly a third the population of Ohio. Serious efforts are under way to improve census-taking throughout the country and to coordinate these efforts with other nations in the Gulf region. Geographically speaking, United Arab Emirates is also a small nation roughly the size of Maine.
Given the small size of the country, one might ask why Toledo should be interested in the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Like the vast majority of Americans, I had very little knowledge of this place, its people and culture before coming here a year ago. However, from the time we landed in the United Arab Emirates to the present, I am reminded daily why this is a unique place, not only in the world, but in the Middle East. There is a vibrancy that, even in the depths of this global recession, trumps the negativism so common in other regions of the world.
This vibrancy attracts thousands of visitors and tourists every month from all over the world. Sports, shopping, the Arabian Gulf, five and seven star hotels, innovative architecture, man-made islands and international cuisine, in addition to the genuine hospitality inherent in the Arab culture, make Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates places of great interest and attraction. But as attractive as these well known features are, I sense that many people are drawn to the Emirates, perhaps even unconsciously, by the bold vision, vigorous entrepreneurship and drive to achieve international standards exhibited by the leadership of the cities and reflected throughout the nation in its rapid demographic growth, unparalleled economic development and diverse quality of life.
A more important reason to know and understand the United Arab Emirates is its philosophy of moderation, tolerance and respect for different cultures and religions and its openness to Western thinking, ideas and higher education. The United Arab Emirates, an Islamic society, seems to me to be offering a genuine hand of friendship and partnership to non-Islamic countries, cities and institutions.
There are many reasons and strong arguments for cities like Toledo to explore and pursue business, education, cultural and economic relationships with Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates. Business leaders and public officials are coming here daily from cities all around the world to study the country and its economy and to build partnerships. There are some powerful lessons to be learned from the rapid economic and population growth of Dubai and Abu Dhabi that would benefit Toledo and other American cities.
In 1975, Dubai’s population was just 183,000, smaller than Toledo’s. By 2007, just 32 years later, Dubai’s population had grown to more than 1.5 million. Dubai’s population growth and the rapid expansion of their economy has been so phenomenal that it has become a significant topic of research and study. One of the first major studies of Dubai’s economy was published in 2003 (Jeffrey Sampler and Saeb Eigner). It outlines “a model for how this large-scale rapid growth has been achieved and pinpoints the reasons for Dubai’s success.”
Dubai’s economic success, according to this study, is the result of the following factors:
- “Leadership that is visionary, inspirational and embraces risks that is demanding but supportive, and that builds confidence
- A leanness of organizational structure and bureaucracy, which helps to speed things up
- Openness to outside influence and competition, and to the views of all stakeholders
- Good communication channels and access to decision-makers.”
Interestingly, there is not a single factor in Dubai’s success that cannot be duplicated by other cities and regions. I’m not surprised that “leadership” is at the top of the list. Study after study documents the critical importance of leadership and vision for successful cities. Willingness to take risks is also a common theme found in the cultures of expanding cities.
While every city and region are different and each must find its own path to successful development, there are common principles that have been identified in growing metropolitan economies. These are the qualities that researchers have identified in the Dubai community that are linked to its growth and success.
We have found living and working in Dubai interesting and enjoyable. We are also observing a very different approach to business and economic development, as well as a different way of life. Like every city, Dubai has its problems and issues. Some of them are quite serious. But the drive for becoming one of the world’s greatest and most successful cities is unrelenting and contagious. It is no wonder that it is becoming an object of study and emulation by other cities and nations.
Dan Johnson is provost and COO, Zayed University, United Arab Emirates. and UT president emeritus.