Dear Forbes: Dubai is more than alcohol and bikinis on the beach

A recent article in Forbes asks whether the Dubai government is entrepreneurial in nature and if so whether the government is more entrepreneurial than the people. These are important points to consider and are a frequent topic of conversation. Unfortunately the Forbes article got it wrong.

The article lists four points as to why the Dubai government is entrepreneurial. I will rebut each one and then make my argument as to what is happening.

  1. The Forbes article states that not having large reserves of oil whilst at the same time having richer neighbours could be one reason that the Dubai government is more entrepreneurial. This may be a contributing factor but it cannot be a major factor as there are five other Emirates that have no oil and are neighbours to Abu Dhabi. Furthermore Bahrain and Oman also do not have large reserves of oil and although their governments have made great strides in developing their countries they have not been able to match Dubai’s success.
  2. The second reason given by Forbes is Dubai’s willingness to be different and the examples presented are the ability to consume alcohol and wear bikinis on the beach. I have no idea what the link between the so-called evidence is and entrepreneurship but these activities are legal in four of the five Emirates mentioned above as well as both Bahrain and Oman. A cursory visit to Dubai is hardly enough of an effort to understand the region.
  3. The third reason given is that having entrepreneurial leadership and government is why the Dubai government is entrepreneurial. I’m scratching my head over this one.
  4. The final reason given is “maybe knowing that you have no other options to maintain your lifestyle helps.” This statement implies that the decisions that Dubai made were obvious. I completely disagree with this as Dubai has clearly worked very hard to get to where it is. For example I’m not sure that it was altogether clear in 1985 to most people in the world how important founding Emirates Airline would be to the future of Dubai.

The author of the Forbes article was clearly impressed with what he saw and means well. But reducing the drivers of Dubai’s success to being poor, allowing alcohol and bikinis, and having no other policy choices is misleading at best.

There was vision behind Dubai’s success and, far more importantly in my opinion, there was the successful execution of a global strategy.

The foundation of Dubai’s success lies less in its hydrocarbon reserves, or lack there of, and more in its rich history of regional trade. Geology might not have been kind to Dubai in terms of oil but that does not mean it did not give Dubai any advantages.

The now famous Dubai Creek acted as a natural calm water harbour in a period when building an artificial one would have been prohibitively expensive if not technologically unfeasible. This immediately made Dubai an important regional port and for several centuries the rulers and people of Dubai learnt about trade and the importance of connecting with the rest of the world.

This trading and commercial experience that spanned generations and involved both rulers and merchants is a clear major contributing factor to the entrepreneurial spirit of present day Dubai. In this historical context it becomes easy to see where the seeds for some of the most important pillars of Dubai’s success came from. Companies such as Dubai Drydocks World, Emirates Airline and the Jumeirah Group are all a result of this rich commercial history.

The focus on Dubai’s commercial success belies its equally important political success. The United Arab Emirates was forged by the courageous leadership of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahayan, ruler of Abu Dhabi, and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al-Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, who overcame overwhelming odds and global cynicism to bring together the seven Emirates that today form the UAE. This political union was just as integral to Dubai and its commercial success as any commercial portfolio of companies. The astuteness in creating this union and working over the years to strengthen it is often overlooked by the global media but remains important to the commercial foundations of the Emirate.

The global media continually misunderstands the GCC and continually confuses a social lifestyle that they recognise with economic success. There is no government on earth, least of all Dubai, that has as a measure of success alcohol consumed and bikinis on the beach. It is this shortsightedness that ends up misleading global companies into missing the many business opportunities that are available not just in Dubai but in many other markets in the region.