The other Middle East

Editorial Notebook

March 24, 2007|By Ann LoLordo

Iraq is awash in blood. Egypt is a restless, teeming warren. Lebanon is a battleground of religion and politics. Saudi Arabia is a veiled kingdom beholden to oil and Islam. Jordan, the smaller kingdom, is a country of refugees.

And then you have the United Arab Emirates.

It's been 36 years since the British left that cluster of tiny oil sheikdoms on the Persian Gulf, whose tribal leaders then united under the banner of the UAE. In that time, the founder and first president, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, invested petrol dollars and transformed a corner of the Arabian peninsula into a union of seven modern states. Its success has defied the trappings, conventions and stereotypes of the Middle East.

The financial, technology and retail sectors of Abu Dhabi, the capital, and Dubai, its shopping mecca, rival those of New York, London and Hong Kong.

UAE women may wear veils and their rulers favor traditional Arab robes, but the emirates are a bastion of modernity and possess a dazzling array of assets.

It's the new Middle East on overdrive, and it leaves a casual observer intrigued and curious about why here, and why not elsewhere in the region. Among the chief reasons:

Sheik Zayed, who died in 2004, chose not to nationalize the country's oil resources, as was the practice in the region. That kept big multinational oil companies involved as minority partners, and it spared the industry from becoming a national job corps. It also sent a message that the UAE was open for business.

The oil comes from Abu Dhabi, but Sheik Zayed recognized that the country's petrol dollars had to be reinvested in all seven emirates. As economy minister Lubna Bint Khalid al Qasimi noted recently: "Oil for us does not produce jobs; it produces wealth."

The vision has paid off. The emirates may be the fourth-largest OPEC producer, but 60 percent of GNP is non-oil-related, including a bustling tourism industry. UAE is a leader in the Arab world in average annual income ($24,000), college education (60 percent) and literacy (78 percent) along with Internet and cell phone access.

"They reinvented themselves as modern traders," says Marius Deeb, a Mideast scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "It's a demonstration that a traditional Muslim society can open to the world and not have any fear that they would lose their morals and values."

The extent of the emirates' makeover runs to extremes and superlatives. Dubai boasts the world's highest hotel, rising like a huge sailboat in the sea. Abu Dhabi is opening its own Louvre in a leasing arrangement reportedly worth $1 billion to the French. Three world-famous architects, including American Frank Gehry, are designing museums for a new cultural district on the man-made, appropriately named Island of Happiness.

When Halliburton Co. announced recently that it was relocating its corporate headquarters to Dubai, the oil services firm was late to the game. Wall Street giants Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs already had offices there.

Johns Hopkins Health Systems, along with Harvard and the Mayo Clinic, have exported their medical expertise to the UAE.

Recognizing that its oil is not infinite, the UAE last year began a $250 million project to develop renewable energy resources.

But all is not glitter and gold.

Foreign nationals are a majority of the work force, and charges of mistreatment of South Asians in the construction trade have sullied the UAE's image. Officials are pushing new laws to protect workers and punish employers.

A lawsuit filed last year publicized the use of child camel jockeys in the UAE, which has since banned the practice, established a $9 million victims' fund and worked with the United Nations to return the children to their home countries. In business, reputation is as important as what you sell.

The UAE is a young country that's evolving. But the descendents of Bedouin tribesmen have built an island of prosperity in an impoverished region convulsed in violence.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.