I will not hide my joy to see the previously-exalted “Dubai model” unravel in Arab eyes as nothing more than a mirage. Many Arabs, seeing the astronomical rise of the city-state, had convinced themselves that the path to the Arab renaissance was through Dubai.
Who could fault them? Dubai was, unlike any Arab city, on the map. Fine hotels, skyscrapers and high-end shopping were no longer luxuries to be found in Western capitals, but now in an Arab city as well. This stood as superficial proof to many Arabs that Dubai “had made it.”
But, alas, Dubai has not made it. The global economic recession is not hitting Dubai hard in the sense that America is being hit hard. The U.S. is strong nation with the world’s greatest economy. But what the global recession is doing to Dubai is unveiling its hollow shell.
It increasingly looks like the city never had much in the way of substance, but, rather, simply offer cheap and quick fun and, possibly, money. The foreigners who previously inhabited Dubai to the tone of 90% are quickly leaving. And abandoning cars too. About 3,000 cars have been found abandoned at the international airport. Further, Dubai is canceling 1,500 work vises a day. Some government insiders say the figure is a lot higher. Either way the state is forcing out at least 45,000 workers a month. The construction boom has ended, tourism is down and entrepreneurs have shut down. There simply is no demand for such workers any longer.
What the fall of Dubai will hopefully do is to install in the Arabs a lesson that simply establishing the framework of Western institutions while not lead to prosperity. The West is prospers not because of nice trading floors at Wall Street, but because the culture is open, tolerant and creative. And that mix is what breads entrepreneurship. It is that which leads to long-term prosperity. I recall a prominent member of the al-Maktum, the ruling family in Dubai, who told The Washington Post that democracy was unnecessary for Dubai’s prosperity. After all, he stated, democracy is simply a means to an end; the end being a higher standard of life. As that prince saw it, Dubai could circumvent the traditional way to wealth. It was simply a matter of values when it comes to adopting a means to get “there.” But democracy is more than a means, it is the means to prosperity.
The lesson Arabs should take from the fall of Dubai is that if one wants a society as thriving as that in, say, New York, then one was to understand that the key element missing in Arab society is freedom. And that freedom is necessary for a society to be reborn. For the renaissance. It is not enough to build Western-modeled institutions and then to not allow them to flourish. Unfortunately, Dubai has not learned that lesson. A new media law in the city-state will fine journalists about $272,000 for the vaguely-defined charge of offending the nation’s honor. Many interprerate the law is nothing more than an attempt by the royal family to save themselves from bad press as the city’s journalists continue to report on shrinking economy.
Dubai has two options. Either respond to the economic crisis by becoming repressive or set the stage for a new order of democracy. One option will secure Dubai’s decline, the other will offer the chance of a rebirth.
Let’s hope the al-Maktums have the vision and wisdom to choose the latter. And let’s hope that Arab will learn from Dubai that the Arab renaissance begins when Arabs embrace freedom and liberty.