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A Face without a soul

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This marks the final night in Dubai. Since day one I have been searching, exploring and experiencing the many facets that this land has to offer.

The first thing that struck me here is the similarity with our very home, Singapore. Both development history were centered around a river or creek, providing a source of income, trade and life to the city. Of course Dubai really spurred to life with the discovery of oil in the 1960s, but Singapore capitalized on her human capital after gaining independence in 1965. Since I’ve just ended my trip in Dubai, I will focus more on her in this post and save Singapore for later.

Both cities are suffering from what I call a “growth fetish syndrome”. Dubai is engaged in a construction boom in biblical proportions. These people are obsessed with sky scrapers I tell ya. The bigger, the taller, the better. And I have not even mentioned the malls. These mega structures are everywhere, with different themes, but rather similar shops. They run risk of being white elephants and it hinges on whether the economy can sustain the growth it has been experiencing for the past 5 years. So far, the 4 that I visited was rather empty, and I promised myself never to visit a mall in the next month at least, totally sicked of them. Sometimes you just want to shop in a place with more heart, with more local flavor attached to it. Just like Singapore, it aims to be a financial hub and leisure destination. On the pipeline are Dubai land, which is Disneyland times two, Universal Studios, two more Palm islands for private residential projects, Trump Tower, and yes, the all important F1 race circuit.

Singapore like we all know are also developing Sentosa into a world class recreational island, bringing in Universal Studios as well, along with theme parks. And while we do not have enough sand to build a “palm” like island, we sure can match that by building world class private residence and resorts on our man made beaches in Sentosa. Not to forget, the casinos too. To be honest, I am not a fan of man made beaches. The “palm” island is definitely a construction marvel to be applauded and the houses there are made of dreams. But I was not impress by the shore line that led up to the houses, or what you call the branches of the palm. The so called beach front just did not have the “zing zing” factor.

Another similarity is the that the dilution of culture is apparent, with the influx of foreigners.I guess it is inevitable, being open economies, but the amount of Indians and Filipinos in Dubai is startling. Plus, throw in a mix of its less oil rich neighbors from Syria, Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, and what you get is a truly cosmopolitan city. As a tourist, it is really difficult to meet a local United Arab Emirates (UAE) citizen on the streets. Dubai is like a production factory, where most Indians will be your blue collared workers, Filipinos, your front line service people, and the Arab neighbors your Taxi drivers. I emphasize the word “most” as this is just based on my observation. I feel a sense of elitism too. Most locals are either landlords or business owners as they benefited form the boom of the UAE. And I quote a taxi driver ” you will not find locals driving a taxi as they are very fortunate” The course of development has created a fast buck mentality where the wealthy foreigners move in, Asian workers are exploited and locals benefiting from the state’s wealth. This has created a very distinct but unspoken hierarchy throughout Dubai. I spoke to an Indian security guard who works at the newly opened Dubai Mall. He regrets leaving his home for Dubai especially since the economy entered a recession. His monthly salary is only 575 AED or around 250 SGD. Its ridiculous, especially if you consider that the cost of living in Dubai is on par with Singapore, even though its currency is smaller.

The infrastructure is a work in progress as well. The Metro, which is equivalent to out MRT is set to be opened on 9th Sept 2009. In fact, they have a monorail which takes visitors in and out of the “palm” island, very much like the one we have in Sentosa. And guess who are the operators? SMRT! Yup, I actually met a few Singaporeans from SMRT training the Filipino operating staff. Another similarity is Dubai’s own Salik on the roads which is like our ERP system. Most of ts flyovers, tunnels and bridges do charge a fee and are deducted via a card affix in the vehicles. I wonder whether they are using the patented Radio Frequency Identification technology by Singapore for our ERP systems.

While the buildings have been splendid, I find the planning of the city awkward and fragmented. Iconic skyscrapers look lonely and adrift as they sit in sandy isolation; the city’s buildings are far too removed from the essential infrastructure that makes any city work. Its relentless quest of desert development has caused much urban sprawl. This leaves me to conclude that the city lacks a metropolitan heart. Moving around, you get a feeling of soullessness: one minute you are next to a towering skyscraper feeling enclosed among the opulence of a top-end hotel; the next you are moving through patches of barren desert past trudging columns of foreign workers. It just lacks the buzz of Time Square or Hong Kong. Of course, my conclusion might be harsh considering that Dubai is still a work in progress. I am looking forward to see how it will turn out to be in 5 years time. The key now, to be a world class city is its ability in sustaining the world’s interest.

On a final note, like all my travels, I take pride in understanding and gaining different perspectives I especially enjoyed the desert tour which was a true eye opener. At least I have finally understood the hype that is surrounding this state of Dubai. The trip certainly triggered many thoughts.

Every country wants to be a hub, be it leisure, bio medical, financial, etc. Every country wants to have the infrastructure to boast about. Globalization makes it easier by importing and reducing the cost of development. However to be a true world class city, it is paramount that the people are not sacrificed in the quest for growth, or it will lack a soul.

Till then, farewell Duabi, and good evening Singapore.


Written by Nabs

May 20, 2009 at 4:27 pm

Posted in MIND, Travels

Dubai Indulgence

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Another month, another trip, boy I could get use to this…

Next destination DUBAI! Let me dwell a bit into the history.

WAYYyyy back: Dubai was once controlled by the Byzantine and Sassanian empires. Islam only came into picture with the spread of the religion from Northern Arabia.

Still way back: In the 19th century, some 800 members of the Bani Yas tribe, led by the Maktoum Family, settled at the mouth of the creek in 1833. The creek was a natural harbour and Dubai soon became a center for the fishing, pearling and sea trade.

Not to far back: In the 20th century, the late Ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum began investing in infrastructure in particular its harbour facilities, to convert Dubai into a export hub. Similar to Singapore, its geographical advantage and close proximity to India, plus its free trade zone policies made it one of the most dynamic ports of its time.

With the discovery of oil in the 1960s, more developments were invested in. Domestic projects like schools, hospitals, airports were built to attract more immigrants to the region. By then, Dubai’s formula for development was becoming evident to everyone – visionary leadership, high-quality infrastructure, an expatriate-friendly environment, zero tax on personal and corporate income and low import duties. The result was that Dubai quickly became a business and tourism hub for a region.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Dubai took a strategic decision to emerge as a major international-quality tourism destination. Investments in tourism infrastructure have paid off handsomely over the years.

And the rest they say is HISTORY…. I will leave it as it is here and see for myself the man made wonders that Dubai has to offer. It actually balls down to the vision of the royal family and the formation of the United Arab Emirates, with Dubai being part of it of course; that contributed to the massive investment flow into the economy. Its a way for the Arabs to show the world what they are capable of as well, besides terrorism. Only issue I think is the problem of “the bubble”. This economic phenomenon is ever present whenever a country is obsessed with growth. Too much too fast will result in a deflationary spiral that will have detrimental effects on the country. Just look at Japan…This of course can be prevented with good governance adopting its fiscal and monetary pressures. Its all about balance I say. So, on the surface, I hope I don’t see half completed projects, empty malls, spraying the city.

Plus plus, I want to explore the Islamic banking climate over there. Is it that hyped out to be? Can it really be an alternative to conventional banking? I hope I can be enlightened.

Till then Ma as’ salamah, Ilalliqa


Written by Nabs

May 20, 2009 at 4:25 pm

Posted in MIND, Travels