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An Arab Politics-Free Zone

Dubai has viewed the alliance -- engineered by the widely admired president, Zayed bin Sultan Nahayan, who died last month -- as a way to free itself of responsibilities that distract it from what it does best: business.

Dubai's majority immigration population has arrived from the east over the past three decades to build its gleaming infrastructure and sustain an economy based on tourism, real-estate development and industries spun off from the booming tax-free port. Oil accounts for about 5 percent of Dubai's economy, and in the past five years its non-oil sectors have grown at a combined annual average rate of more than 9 percent.

Cranes dot Dubai's marina area. The city-state has been filling in the sea to make way for new construction. (Photos Scott Wilson -- The Washington Post)

Like other tax-free business hubs, Dubai has also become a haven for money laundering, a reputation government officials have sought to shed by tightening banking laws. The government is also moving to change the property-ownership laws that have prevented expatriates from owning their own homes.

In a sign of Dubai's priorities, the world's tallest building -- a more than 2,500-foot spear known as the Dubai Tower -- and a $750 million mega-mall are rising on former military land. Dubai dissolved its armed forces in the mid-1990s, because the federal government of the Emirates had taken over responsibility for defense.

Meanwhile, the city-state is pushing a development scheme of "world firsts." A German consortium has announced plans to build the world's first underwater hotel, to be named Hydropolis. The largest mall outside North America is scheduled to open next year. But that will quickly be trumped by the mall at the Dubai Tower complex, featuring an aquarium, amusement parks, a "floating fashion island" and a "seven-star" hotel, which will be the largest in the world.

Even that distinction will not last long: A still larger shopping center is planned for Dubailand, a collection of zoos, sports complexes, houses, spas, amusement parks and an indoor ski slope proposed by an Iranian investor group.

"A few months ago one of the newspapers did a spoof about a project called Bubble City," said Sohrab Motiwalla, a longtime Dubai resident who tracks development trends. "It was going to be a huge city encased in a glass bubble, suspended above Dubai by helium balloons. The problem was that it took people here a few weeks to figure out it was a joke."

With the focus on business, there is no class of critics pushing for democracy. The Arabic-language news media in Dubai are largely government-owned, and the English-language media largely serve the commercial interests of their clients.

"Self-censorship is a big part of the game," said Shezan Amiji, general manager of the daily tabloid 7Days. "The only opinion we express is that of our readers. We try to stay as neutral as possible."

In fact, the only political protest most people here remember followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a sanctioned demonstration led by the crown prince. Small labor demonstrations also break out on occasion. But the government, worried about how such unrest might affect construction plans, has moved quickly to handle the complaints.

The crown prince, who doubles as the United Arab Emirates' defense minister, holds regular town-hall-style meetings where he can be questioned by anyone from port workers to business leaders. The events are crowded, however, and little actual debate occurs. He also usually drives his own car and frequently dines with friends in local restaurants without a bodyguard in sight.

But Dubai's transformation into Vegas on the Gulf has disturbed some people. Khaja, whose film-school tuition is paid by the government, worries about the potential loss of her city's identity and culture. She chooses to wear the black abaya and head scarf as a nod to tradition, and she left temporarily to study in Canada because Dubai's own universities mostly don't teach the arts.

"We need to slow down," she said. "We have all the glitz and glamour. But it's all about buildings, and that gets boring."

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