Top 10 Moments from GIP: Economic Growth in the UAE

It’s hard to believe our trip to the UAE has come and gone so quickly. Our whirlwind week brought us from soaring skyscrapers to desert safaris, sovereign wealth funds to night clubs, man-made islands to mosques.

Leaving the UAE, I’m left with a few most striking impressions. First, the country is a crazy case of development done right upon the discovery of oil. The UAE is second to none when it comes to the astute management of natural resources. The country’s leadership truly did an exceptional job diversifying the economy beyond oil and gas, allowing the relatively oil-poor Emirate of Dubai to become a global financial center and tourism destination to rival few others.

Second, the UAE is a country of stark contrasts. In a matter of minutes you can travel from beach resorts to an urban metropolis, and then drive off into the desert horizon. You can see a man trailed by his four wives in a mega-mall of retailers from Europe and North America. The UAE is home to the planet’s largest mosque, which was built in the past decade. And you’ll find groups of women in headscarf letting loose at pricey nightclubs. Put simply, the UAE is a very unique place, that feels like no where else I’ve ever been.

In an effort to sum up such a jam packed week, I’ll share 10 of the top moments from the trip:

  1. Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi. The massive and beautiful hospital — believe me I never thought I’d describe a hospital that way — that was built two years ago and offers free healthcare to Emirati citizens. In addition to an array of cafes, restaurants, and a salon, the hospital has VIP suites with adjacent hotel rooms for family members to stay.

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2. Shopping malls galore. After visiting so many of the world’s largest malls, it’s safe to say I’ll never view shopping malls the same way again. Dubai’s malls — which all seem to be connected by elevated walkways — don’t just feature some of the stores from back home, they’s feature all of the stores from back home, as well as from Europe, Asia, and a swath of local Middle Eastern retailers. What’s more, inside the malls you’ll find things like indoor skiing, pictured below.

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3. Enviable Office Buildings. Living in New York City, you never expect to return home and feel like your city is filled with old, modest buildings. But after a week in the UAE, that’s bound to be your feeling upon returning home. Pictured below, we attended a meeting at the Dubai International Financial Center, one of the “Free Zones” that allow foreign business ownership.

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4. Camel selfies. During our desert safari on our last day, we rode SUVs through sand dunes, rode camels, got henna tattoos, and watched fire and belly dancers. As nice as it was to be out in the desert, it was crazy to see just how many SUVs of tourists were out in the same part of the desert, suggesting that Dubai could be doing more to promote desert tourism.

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5. The Palm Islands. One of the most memorable company visits was to the real estate developer, Nakheel, responsible for developing the Palm Islands and The World. We toured the original palm-tree shaped, reclaimed land island by boat, seeing the expanse of the project that doubled Dubai’s coastline. I found touring the original Palm Island, Palm Jumeira, to be so fascinating I devoted an entire blog post to it.

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6. The Sheik Zayyed Mosque. The construction of the Sheik Zayyed Mosque was completed less than a decade ago, making it an unusually modern national landmark. Visiting the picturesque mosque was a special break from a week of company visits, as we got to see another side of the UAE, pertaining to the country’s cultural heritage.

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7. Music Hall. It’s rare to have high expectations for a place and to have them surpassed, but that was our experience at Music Hall, a night club in a hotel on the Palm Island that was a unanimous favorite experience from the trip. Featuring a variety show of musical guests from around the world, Music Hall delivered on its reputation set by our professor and TA. We’re proud to say we closed the club down.

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8. Emirates Training College. Touring Emirates Airlines, one of if not the top global airline according to many rankings, training facilities was a treat. During the super interactive visit, we tested life jackets in a lesson on flight safety, learned about flight attendant hair and makeup, and tested the different first and business class seats in an out of commission airplane.

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9. Burj Khalifa. Visiting the 125th floor of the world’s tallest building was exciting even for New Yorkers, used to being surrounded by tall buildings. From across Dubai, you can see “The Burj,” the super modern skyscrapper that is soon to be replaced by an even taller building in Dubai.

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10. Old Dubai. It’s hard to find remnants of the fishing village along the Dubai Creek that was the entire city of Dubai less than a half century ago, but if you look hard enough, you can find them. After touring the souks, frequented mostly by locals unlike in some other Middle Easterern countries, we stumbled across some non-modern boats used for transportation by foreign workers who flock to the UAE by the millions. That boat ride across the Dubai Creek was one of the most fascinating experiences of the trip, as one of the few glimpses into the village that was.

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The Disney-like Development of Dubai

Contrary to popular belief, the Emirate of Dubai doesn’t have much oil and it never has. Its leaders recognized early on that it would need to grow other sectors to develop economically, and turned to trade, aviation, tourism, and finance. The Sheik of Dubai set aggressive targets for tourism, and real estate developer Nakheel, one of the most fascinating companies that we met with this week, responded with a creative solution. To create more tourist attractions, beaches, and waterfront property, Dubai would need a longer coastline. The Emirate of Dubai only had 70 kilometers of coastline, and it was already nearly entirely built up.

Nakheel is the company responsible for literally reshaping the map of Dubai through the development of the reclaimed land Jumeira Palm Island (and the new reclaimed land Jebel Ali Palm Island) as well as the World, the archipelago of man-made islands off Dubai’s coast. During our fascinating visit Wednesday morning, we learned about the company’s unprecedented development projects and toured the original Palm Island by boat. We learned that the palm tree shape was chosen because of its local significance, beating out a falcon and an old boat, as well as for the tremendous surface length that would double Dubai’s coastline, adding 70 kilometers of beachfront real estate. We watched a handful of videos about the civil engineering that went into creating the Palm, from projecting sand in a “rainbow” shape from nearby parts of the ocean floor, to vibrating the new sand masses to speed up the compression of particles closer together. Nakheel even transplanted coral that was located closer to the Dubai Port and was in the path of larger ships to its newly created barrier islands.

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Put simply, this was a fascinating visit. But it also raised a tremendous amount of questions. Nakheel doesn’t share information about the costs or profitability of the Palm Islands development. The company’s prepared response about the environmental sustainability is a bit unsatisfying, reporting that the islands could survive a half meter change in sea level and that the region doesn’t suffer from hurricanes or tsunamis. And Nakheel doesn’t share a timeline for the development of its latest reclaimed land mass Palm Jebel Ali, which is twice the size of Palm Jumeira.

Following the boat tour of Palm Jumeira with Nakheel, I visited the island twice to spend time at two different hotels. Some 15 years after the project’s development commenced, there are still portions of the Palm that are yet to be developed. And driving along the outer road that surrounds the palm tree branches one has no choice but to wonder where so many five-star hotel travelers come from. Driving past five-star resort after five-star resort, and as in many other parts of Dubai seeing more construction equipment than people, I really wish there was public information about the occupancy of the hotels or condominium complexes. The supply and demand curves do not seem to meet at a point that will create value any time soon for Nakheel or the Emirate of Dubai.

Zoe Fox ’17

Global Immersion: Economic Development in the UAE

Arriving in Abu Dhabi   

We’ve all seen those side-by-side photo comparisons, laying photos of Dubai in the 1990s next to those from today. From the dusty dessert town on the gulf emerged a souring steal metropolis, whose modern skyscrapers are quite literally second to none other city on the planet. And just as the buildings grew into the clouds above the dessert, so did the land-filled islands off the city’s coast, most notably the infamous Palm Island resort, a global landmark visible from space. Before the semester began, I had a slanted perception of the UAE’s economic development story, assuming that the construction boom was a direct response to the oil boom. I’ve learned during the past six weeks taking Global Immersion: Economic Growth in the UAE that the story is a bit more complex. That the UAE’s darling development tale can also be attributed to astute decisions on behalf of the country’s leadership; most notably, to diversify beyond oil revenue.

 During the six weeks leading up to the trip we were introduced to the complexity, and at times simply incongruous business landscape and history of the United Arab Emirates. We heard from experts on the GCC oil countries, the burgeoning Islamic financial hub in Dubai, and migrant labor in the UAE. But perhaps most interestingly, it became clear that the narrative we’d hear in meetings would not necessarily be the one we’d witness, or have read about in the news. The UAE’s success can be attributed to its oil and its untold stories; its foreign workers who build its skyscrapers and amusement parks.

If I learned one thing in the six weeks leading up to the trip it’s that in this hub of business — where just 1 million of the country’s 9 million population are citizens — there will be the stories we’re told by businessmen and government representatives and the ones that we may not see. I’m excited to gain a deeper understanding of the country and its business landscape over the next week, as we visit Abu Dhabi and Dubai. We will visit local companies such as Emirates airlines, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, and Nahkeel, as well as meet with the Ministry of the Environment, tour the monumental Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and Emirates Palace, and visit some of Dubai’s world famous shopping malls. Stay tuned for what’s in store!

Zoe Fox ’17

Global Immersion: Economic Growth in the UAE