x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Johannesburg holds message of hope for Dubai

The place really has no business calling itself a city, considering its nowhere location, dwindling natural resources and population of transients.

The place really has no business calling itself a city, considering its nowhere location, dwindling natural resources and population of transients whose first loyalty is to a pay cheque. Yet Johannesburg not only continues to thrive, it is by far Africa's wealthiest city, and for Dubai it represents a glimpse of hope for a post-crisis future. Johannesburg's beginnings lie in the fabulous gold boom of the late 19th century, when speculators could hope to kick over a rock and see a gleam of yellow. But soon enough the easy finds vanished beneath the spades of prospectors, and many expected the shanty city that had sprung up overnight to vanish; another Klondike or Eureka City.

Johannesburg certainly had little going for it (the name itself was an arbitrary decision by a couple of bureaucrats with the first name "Johannes", who were asked to lay out a temporary township). The city is 600km from the sea and its only river is so insignificant that most residents still mistake it for an open sewer. Instead of dying, it grew. Former prospectors opened saloons, emporia and other small businesses. More importantly, they opened banks and eventually a stock exchange.

As with Dubai, the flood of foreigners brought money and skills, but they also undermined local mores and values. The Boer farmers who had tended cattle on the fertile land for a century watched in alarm as "uitlanders" - foreigners - brought prostitution, gambling, alcohol and other vices to their country. The Boer president, Paul Kruger, a man who once amputated his thumb with a knife after a hunting accident and who prided himself on having read no book other than the Christian Bible, grew increasingly irritated at the flood of imported perversions.

Kruger's views brought him into conflict with the covetous British who, on the pretext of protecting their citizens from the "uncivilised" Boers, launched a war against the Dutch-speaking republic. Dubai may not have lately endured a rampaging army but the savaging it has been given by the western media may seem no less gentle than regiments of Tommies. In the years since, Johannesburg has survived the Great Depression as well as commodities boom-and-bust cycles. During the apartheid era, it endured foreign sanctions and sporadic social unrest. And since democracy, it has had to fend off competition from Cape Town, the graceful port city to the south.

But last year Johannesburg's GDP stood at US$110 billion (Dh404.03bn). Its economy, once dependent on gold, is now almost entirely based on the service industry and light manufacturing. It has spawned a handful of companies that are world leaders in their sector: the miners BHP Billiton and Anglo American, the brewer SABMiller and the telecommunications player MTN are just a few of them. The city's streets are lined with buildings that reflect the folly, pride and hopes of its builders. Johannesburg is nouveau and tasteless, critics with finer sensibilities like to say, a rebuke familiar to the builders of the tower blocks that line Sheikh Zayed Road. And yet Jo'burg's garish glass and concrete towers continue to hum with activity.

Its survival has always depended on its ability to turn an idea into a buck. Hardly a deal goes down in sub-Saharan Africa without the city having a piece of the action. Like Dubai, it is connected by a spaghetti-strand of airlinks to every major, and many of the minor, destinations within its economic sphere of interest. Its possible in the leafy suburb of Norwood to see a couple of Israeli businessmen sit down over tea with a Lebanese contractor, or a Congolese diamond merchant huddled with a Belgian broker.

Its bankers finance transactions that include gold mines in Ghana and shopping malls in Kenya. Central to Jo'burg's role as the financial capital of Africa, however, is its stock market, which turns over more than $1bn a day. And bonds traded are expected to value 17 trillion rand (Dh8.38bn) this year, Bloomberg says. The scrappy overconfidence that took Johannesburg from a cluster of shacks to the city it is today is reflected in Dubai's own rise from a backwater to a town that cannot be ignored.

The emirate's recent financial and property troubles have dominated headlines in recent months, but it remains the most important trade and financial centre in the Middle East. Banks from Iran, India and the UK jostle to lend to contractors in Iraq, Iran and Morocco. The NASDAQ Dubai, youthful though it is, appears determined to wrest capital-raising from the region's traditional source in London closer to home.

And sure, many who come here do so intending to leave as soon as possible, their pockets lined with dirhams. But Dubai's youthful energy, combined with its ability to ease the path of deals throughout the region, make it likely to outlast the herd of critics now writing its obituary. @Email:gduvenage@thenational.ae