x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

For Arab countries yet to fulfil their potential, the UAE is a benchmark

The emergence of the UAE in the last 25 years must be ranked as one of the greatest economic achievements of our age

I first came to the UAE in December 1979 as a 14-year-old on a school holiday from England. Despite being Lebanese, I had no clue about the region and when I asked my geography teacher – the obvious choice – he stopped to refill his pipe mumbling something about the Trucial States and went on his way. It only served to confuse me even more.

My father was appointed Middle East Airlines (MEA) manager in Ras Al Khaimah – the most northern, arguably the most unsung and certainly the most beautiful, of the United Arab Emirates. A lot was expected from RAK, as the small but resilient expatriate community called it. An oil-led boom was expected and MEA wanted to get in on the act.

At the time, there was only one flight a week, a short hop after the aircraft landed in Dubai and disgorged all its passengers. I say “all” because every time I flew on to Ras Al Khaimah at least, I was always the only one on-board.

Ras Al Khaimah had few delights back then. The swimming pool at the Ras Al Khaimah Hotel was the social hub in the summer and where I discovered the delights of fresh crayfish. There had been plans to build another hotel on the nearby beach but construction stopped soon after it was obvious there would be no oil. The concrete shell remained, a reminder of false optimism.

Television reception depended on the weather. In the summer, the humidity carried the signal for Dubai 33 up the coast but in the milder winters we had to make do with Ras Al Khaimah TV, which as far as memory serves, aired the local news, an episode of Get Smart and a B-movie before going off the air. A few friends had video recorders and rented bad quality pirated films from a dodgy shop in town.

The highlight of any holiday was a day trip to Dubai, where I would make a beeline for the Al Ghurair centre and spend my allowance on the colourful array of pirate cassettes. That was what Dubai meant. As for Abu Dhabi, where my uncle lived, well that was another few hours down the road and I never went.

The last time I visited the UAE was in the summer of 1985 and I haven’t been back since. In 1992, I moved to Lebanon and heard about the development that had picked up pace. “Oh you’d never recognise it now,” Lebanese expats cooed. “The Al Ghurair Centre? “No, no, no. Now there’s this mall and that mall and that hotel and this hotel” and of course I saw the images of the Burj Al Arab and the Palm. But it was only when I stumbled upon a copy of National Geographic in July 2007 and saw a double spread photo of the Sheikh Zayed motorway that it hit home just how far Dubai has come in such a short space of time. Where once there had been nothing, there was skyscrapers.

Abu Dhabi was also emerging as a global powerhouse. Wealthier, but possessing marginally less bling than Dubai, it has made its name through shrewd high-profile investments in industry, sport and real estate to stamp its international bona fides.

Even good old Ras Al Khaimah got its act together, after a fashion. Tourism has picked up and there are more hotels. In 2000, the government established the Ras Al Khaimah Free Trade Zone, while RAK Airways, a low-cost carrier, was launched in 2006.

Yes, the UAE had the resources, but it did not sit on its laurels. It knew that it had to diversify and it developed a game plan – and if you live in the Arab world long enough you will know that game plans are not naturally built into our DNA. And if by some miracle someone devises one (like the late Rafik Hariri’s Horizon 2000 project for Lebanon), there is no guarantee it will ever reach fruition.

Thus given the vision, focus and commitment required to see a master plan through to its completion, the emergence of the UAE in the last 25 years must be ranked as one of the mightiest economic achievements of our age.

For those Arab states yet to fulfil their potential, the UAE is the obvious benchmark. It has established political stability, developed infrastructure, created a global retail and tourist destination and consolidated financial hub driven by a modern business culture, all the while playing a vital role regionally and on the world stage.

As my geography teacher would also say, “It’s not what you’ve got Karam, it’s how you use it.” A++ for the UAE.


Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut