Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 6 December 2019

Looking back on four years of progress and memories

The country has evolved at a breakneck clip since the federation was born in 1971 – coincidentally the same year as me.

In the middle of a very dark night on New Year’s Day of 2010, I sat in the back of an Al Ghazal taxi as it crawled at walking pace across a vast, vacant, sandy lot somewhere near Al Salam on what is now the newest section of Delma Street.

We were looking for the One to One Hotel, but the roads in that part of town were as yet unfinished and the taxi driver had never ventured so far east in Abu Dhabi before. I had just arrived, after a 14-hour flight, and was wondering where on Earth I was too.

Fast forward almost four years and I was in the exact same spot last Thursday morning, paying for a Mawaqif parking ticket outside the smart offices of Axa Insurance, ready to renew my wife’s car insurance policy.

The empty lot I encountered back in 2010 is now a suburban oasis of villas and offices, schools, clinics, playgrounds and shops. Such established development in such a short space of time is astonishing. It was literally desert when I arrived and is now a thriving section of the capital.

A couple of days after that arrival I stood near Al Khaleej Al Arabi Street with a former colleague named Brad Reagan. Like me, he had flown in from Brooklyn, New York, to discover the UAE and help put The National on the map.

We counted 47 cranes on the horizon and wondered aloud how that skyline might change in the time we planned to stay here.

Brad’s visit was sadly cut short, but I can tell him now, those cranes have been replaced by an even greater number of tower blocks.

The whole of Reem Island and its neighbouring Al Maryah were all but empty back then. Today, more than a dozen towers reach for the sky just off the coast.

The five impressive arcs of Etihad Towers were but foundation pits. The distinctive pineapple cylinders of the Al Bahr Towers on Al Salam Street were nowhere to be seen. The Anantara resort in the Eastern Mangroves was just a sand bank.

The capital has come a long way in the short time I have been here.

But such rapid progress is nothing new for the UAE. The country has evolved at a breakneck clip since the federation was born in 1971 – coincidentally the same year as me .

This is my last column for The National, as, like almost all expats, I am moving on. This is why I have decided to look back over the business pages of the past four years to remind myself of all the country has achieved from a commercial, economic and financial perspective.

The UAE’s most significant move of the past four years was, without doubt, the restructuring of Dubai World’s US$25 billion of debt in 2011.

The massive undertaking was completed relatively painlessly, thanks to the rigorous organisation and hard work of Aidan Birkett, the former Deloitte man brought in to lead the Dubai World restructuring.

Without the resolution, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the international banking community that the emirates rely upon for bond issuance and much more besides would have remained mired in dispute for years.

The progress made in Dubai’s logistics, trade and property sectors – while the rest of the world languished in economic crisis – certainly would not have been possible had the deal not been struck so swiftly.

The repeal of the bounced-cheque law for Emirati nationals was another great milestone.

Gregor Stuart Hunter, another former colleague, did some great work bringing together the heads of banks, members of the FNC and others affected by the law to start a meaningful conversation among them that perhaps played played a part in the eventual changes.

Now thousands who once faced years in jail are, just like Dubai World, restructuring their debt and learning how to better manage it in the future.

And from this a credit bureau is slowly coming into being, alongside the first shoots of a companies law. All these things have evolved slowly over the past five years or more, and they will continue to do so.

Of course, there are shortcomings and I could complain about the lack of progress in one area or another. But, one thing to remember, there is no reason the UAE should do anything with its vast oil wealth beyond spend it. It has chosen to do something creditable instead. It has chosen to try to build a society that is a fully paid-up member of the international community. And it is essential to remember that this project is in its infancy.

Foundations are being laid in the UAE for a future beyond oil wealth. A future with commercial law, with a credit bureau, with a judicial system recognised by international legal bodies, a thriving multicultural society, world-class universities, museums and art galleries.

I am happy with all that I have achieved in my 42 years – my son Charlie, who was born here, is testament to that. And the UAE should be too.

Perhaps in middle age the country and I should both acquire a better sense of introspection and use it to think long and hard before taking each important turn, especially in decisions that affect the lives and livelihoods of others. But what is sure, for both of us, is that there are much better things to come.


Updated: November 27, 2013 04:00 AM