February 12, 2014 By Mujeeb Rahman

A Vision That Does not Rust Away

a_0A hot topic for discussion in the Doha Debate, brilliantly anchored by Tim Sebastian, was: ‘Dubai is a Bad Idea’. The debate has been aired by YouTube and is accessible at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kORAjIrT3b4. As soon as Nasser Ibn Ghaith, famed Emirati economist, countered the title motion, Tim quipped: ‘Is there a structure of good governance in Dubai, where it rests with one man, to whom decisions are referred and, if he wants, asks others to shut up?’ Nasser ibn Gaith retorted: ‘It is the same man who built Dubai from nowhere.’ It is the same man who allowed people across the world – Arabs and non-Arabs – to come to Dubai and prosper.’

It is wrong to take account of the achievements and failures of this one man from whatever we have conceived and imagined about him. It is wrong either to locate this one man’s involvement in the society within the framework of the nation he and his forefathers founded brick by brick. In post liberalization era, nations do have a little responsibility for its success and failures – whose touchstone is the unpredictable economic vicissitudes. Globalization has made the very concept of nation brittle. We situate nation in the realm of treaties, transactions, exigencies, understandings and behavioral codes, which we identify as global and to which a single man’s imaginations, dreams and expectations are adapted. So the success or failure of Dubai can’t be understood as the success or failure of the person with whom we identify the city. As Nasser ibn Gaith says, there are thousands of models in which Dubai can chart its way ahead

The one man we mentioned here, however, is not a single man. Whoever rules Dubai or the whole emirates for that matter represents the hopes and ideals of two great visionaries, Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid – Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum – who are the founding fathers of the United Arab Emirates. Their philosophy of nation building and their dreams of the nation have been documented in the works of Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum – son of Sheikh Rashid who is now the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and the ruler of Dubai. The philosophy and ideals that went into the making of the whole nation have been specially narrated in Sheikh Mohammed’s recent works – My Vision: Challenges in the Race for Excellence (2009), Spirit of the Union: Lecture on the Occasion of the United Arab Emirates’ Fortieth National Day (2012); and Flashes of Thought (2013), the last in the list being the focus of this review.

Flashes of Thought is an expansion of the interactive Question and Answer session held as part of the Government Summit in the UAE in February 2013. Some personal notes and Sheikh Mohammed’s innovative ideas on leadership, time management, professionalism, sportsman spirit etc rescues the book from being a drab policy and vision statement. It is at times a delectable motivational book and at times poetry.

One of the important characteristics of Sheikh Mohammed’s thought is its capability to blend the wisdom of modern statesmanship with traditional and even Arab cultural wisdom. He gives advice to business leaders who visit him from the uncertain and unpredictable ways of his predecessors and the very nation. He often sprinkles the quotes of Prophet Muhammad and the Quran in the book. On the occasion where he draws parallel between governance and horse-riding, he quotes the Prophet’s words (Goodness is tied to the forelocks of horses until the Day of Resurrection). The resilience of the Emirates, which often hits the iceberg of unpredictability during the sail across the competitive market economy, does come out of the modern economic thought – had this been the case, the US could have easily recovered from slump – but the Arabian spirit of solidarity, patience and endurance, values which made the United Arab Emirates possible. Sheikh Mohammed’s book does not only address politicians and leaders, but all of us who want to contribute the potentials and creativity for the well-being of others.

Two chapters in the book are especially relevant in the context of the developments in West Asia, as they deal with the challenges of the Arab Spring. There are several theories about the influence of the Arab Spring on the rest of the region. In a research article published in Middle East Policy titled UAE, the Arab Spring and Different Types of Dissent, the responses of Arab monarchies to the Arab Spring have been clearly discussed as lessons they have learnt from the experience. There is ‘the social contract in monarchies, especially in the Emirates, which is capable of providing enough jobs and housing and has been malleable enough to expediently transmit a series of additional quick-fix packages since 2011.’

Sheikh Mohammed does not employ the language of a cautious, fearsome nation head who considers dissent as a worrisome menace. He considers the unrest as a consequence of bad governance and the ostrich policy of ‘believing one’s own lies.’ He stands by the people and their potential to strike back against the very instance of governmental misdemeanor. He says: “The influence of Social Media was growing; many truths were being unveiled and people’s patience was wearing thin. The explosion was imminent.” He adds: ‘People want government that provides excellent healthcare, education, housing, justice and safety.’ This is a pro-active attempt to go beyond the zeitgeist and the wind of change and, as in the foundation of Dubai port, a wisdom addressing the uncertain future. The success of this philosophy lies not only in providing people with the benefits of government but also in making them participants in the process, to which, we can hope, the majlis modal of tribal democracy will evolve.

There are many issues that Sheikh Mohammed does not address in the book, the environmental economics being one among them. In the context of climate change and the occurrence of rapid environmental hazards, Sheikh Mohammed’s vision should be pushed to that frontier as well and it’s a serious omission in the book. Also, one might not be convinced by the idealization of Burj al Khaleefa, if one reads it in the context of the real estate bubbles that caused the meltdown. However the book is more relevant for what it speaks about than for what it keeps mum on.

‘Dubai is a bad idea,’ says Simon Jenkins, the award winning journalist who had an illustrious career as the editor both of the Times and London Evening Standard, in Tim Sebastian’s Talk Show. He cites Dubai’s incapacity to control unbridled capitalism as the reason. For him, the ideas of London, New York, Tokyo, Delhi and Beijing – cities where capitalism enjoys a free ride – are not bad. Surprisingly, he does not consider the very idea of capitalism as bad; he thinks it is good. (He seems to be suggesting, as one participant noted, that the very idea of Gulf is bad.) Of course, Dubai does play a pivotal role in machinations of the global economy. But, as said earlier, the very idea of traditional solidarity built in the Arab culture has recovered Dubai from the shocks of the global economic order. There may not be a second opinion on the fact that the very idea of crony capitalism and its motive for profit is bad. But here is a leader who has a clear cut vision about welfare and progress and an earnest desire for implementing them within the restrictions of a hostile economic order.

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