Dubai The Model?

Westerners who travel to the Middle East often pass through Dubai and sigh deeply. “If only the rest of the Muslim Middle East were as free as Dubai,” they say before flying back to Amsterdam, London, New York or wherever they call home. <?xml:namespace prefix = o />

Dubai is a city of about one million people and one of the seven hereditary sheikhdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Dubai's ruling family, the Maktoums, have built a forward-looking, prosperous and relatively liberal enclave in a region where those three qualities are rarely found together.


In Dubai, alcohol is legal. Christians can build churches. And many grocery stores sell pork. These three measures seem unimportant to people in the West, but they all put Dubai years beyond most of the Muslim Middle East in terms of tolerance for outsiders and for different faiths.


I worked in Dubai from late 2004 to June 2005. In many respects, Dubai certainly could serve as a model for its much larger (and more conservative) neighbors, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.


The Maktoums want their city to become one of the great global entrepots of commerce, like Hong Kong or New York. They know Dubai cannot rely forever on its energy sector to fuel its prosperity. 


To integrate their city into the global economy, the Maktoums constantly seek out advice from outside the country. This sets an example for their subjects. If entrepreneurs in Dubai want to build something — whether it is a hotel for foreign tourists or a legal code for Dubai's growing banking hub — they seek out foreign experts, without hesitation. Dubai is fast becoming a global crossroads as a result.


In contrast to the rulers of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Maktoums have confidence in themselves and their people, and do not fear the outside world as a source of cultural pollution. Nor do they appear to want Dubai to become a world leader in exporting either Islamic revolution or extremism. Rather, the Maktoums have emphasized peaceful economic development as their goal (although Dubai hosts a massive annual aviation show that includes a large military component).


If more Middle Eastern elites shared the Maktoums' courage and pragmatic openness to foreign trade and investment, as well as their pious but restrained religiosity, it could only help the region.


Economically, Dubai is certainly a model for the rest of the Muslim Middle East. In terms of its political status quo, Dubai does not shine nearly as bright. For one thing, Dubai is definitely not a democracy — and neither is the United Arab Emirates. Many Westerners frequently become mesmerized by Dubai's glitz and overlook this.


Dubai has a working stock market, rule of law and a fairly honest police force. (Unless you happen to be Indian — another story for another time.) It has no elected parliament or legislative branch, no political parties and little state transparency, however. Dubai may be a benevolent despotism, but it is still a despotism and its political culture is fiercely autocratic.


Dubai may allow the freedom to drink alcohol, but thanks to repressive attitudes prevailing in the federal UAE civil service, the city does not do so well when it comes to other personal freedoms. Displays of public affection can result in a large fine, for example.


Also, the UAE censors the Internet. The state-owned communications monopoly blocked a local blogger in July, for posting an allegedly offensive satire of life in the Emirates.


The media face severe pressure at times to follow the government line. Foreigners working in the newsrooms of Dubai's older daily papers quietly bear the wounds (thankfully figurative) of past tangles with officials eager to shape the news.


As open as the UAE is to outsiders, its press law is not going to win any awards from the ACLU. The text of this law (which I encourage you to read) leaves no doubt that the authors believe in a highly regulated press.


Dubai's dedication to participating in the global economy as something more than just an energy supplier is commendable. Over time, Dubai's example should exert a salutary influence on the policies of its neighbors. Still, Dubai has a long way to go before it becomes an equally inspiring political model.


Considering how hopeless the cause of economic and political liberalization in the Middle East appears at times, half a loaf is definitely better than none.