Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Where possibility is a currency
Dubai is fast emerging as a city of economic stability in a region often marred by social, civic, and religious uprisings. As tensions in the Middle East continue to rise, displaced Arab tycoons and entrepreneurs from neighboring countries are redirecting their business to Dubai. Preparations are now in full swing for the 2020 World Expo, the first to be held in the Middle East, and Dubai residents are gearing up to tout the progress of their rapidly-developing city on a global stage. In the meantime, Dubai continues to be a city of superlatives. In January, the city broke the Guinness World Record for the largest fireworks display; in July, plans were announced to build the Mall of the World, the world’s largest mall that will include sections inspired by New York City’s Broadway and London’s Oxford Street. Further, city officials announced plans in March to digitize 1,000 government services over the next three years. The dizzying pace and somewhat haphazard nature of urban development does occasionally undermine Dubai’s progress and threaten to unravel the older neighborhoods such as Satwa, Karama, Bur Dubai, and Deira that have developed over the decades. The city’s original promenade—Jumeirah Beach Road—may appear drastically different today compared to its humble and sparse beginnings as a fishermen district, but it’s not all that unusual for a city in which possibility is fast becoming a form of currency.
Hub for progress
For Dubai, entrepreneurship is not just a buzzword but rather a community movement: Consider this year’s launch of the UAE chapter of EO Accelerator, a resource for first-stage entrepreneurs, and the latest addition to Google for Entrepreneurs TechHub network, Astrolabs Dubai, which is poised for an early 2015 opening. Dubai also hosted the Global App Summit in October, and further plans to spend more than a billion dollars to turn the emirate into one of the world's major innovation hubs.
Known for their love of efficiency, Dubai city officials are rolling out a plan to transform Dubai into a “Smart City,” complete with free Wi-Fi on public transport and in parks, electric vehicle charging stations around the city, and a mobile application that helps drivers find free parking. The plan, which is being implemented over the next three years, promises that 1,000 government services will be accessible via smartphones and also includes a system that will help Dubai residents monitor their water and power usage. This government initiative comes on the heels of popular community-led projects such as Promise of a Generation, which hosts regular gatherings for residents to discuss social and cultural issues.
Dubai residents are finally letting go of the idea that commerce is only done in luxury malls and hotels. Instead, a new trend of street-level transactions has taken hold, with farmers markets like the Ripe Market gaining popularity in 2014. In September, the Dubai Flea Market—which has grown from just a few hundred visitors to 15,000 every week—changed its location from Safa Park to a more permanent location in Zabeel Park, proving there’s a stable market among savvy locals who are eager to haggle.
While Dubai officials highlight their country’s role as a place of economic opportunity, the International Trade Union Confederation asked the United Nations in September to formally investigate the plight of low-income migrant workers in the UAE amidst claims that the country was in breach of ILO regulations due to its reliance on the kafala system, which ties migrant workers to their employers. However this year, the government continued its work to address these allegations, penalizing contractors who do not abide by regulations in place, such as the mandatory mid-day break during the summer months. Moreover, a variety of volunteer and civic organizations, such as Adopt-A-Camp and The Sameness Project provide outreach programs including donating basic food and sanitary supplies, counselling, financial awareness sessions and English training.
Dubai officials continue to push residents to use the city’s recently completed metro system, hoping to achieve their highest daily ridership ever on New Year’s Eve 2014 with 1 million expected passengers. Metro etiquette is still hit-and-miss, but the government has shown a marked effort to educate riders and increase usage by expanding facilities. With the homegrown social enterprise Carpool Arabia now fully operational and the newly-launched Dubai Tram in the plush residential district of Al Sufouh, more and more residents realize they don’t need to rely on private vehicles and taxis to get around.
Dubai continued its ambitious plans for solar energy in 2014, by developing regulations that allow homeowners to install rooftop solar panels. The Dubai Integrated Energy Strategy 2030 envisions a city less reliant on gas and more on mixed power sources, including solar, nuclear power, and clean coal.
Most of Dubai’s residents are expatriates, not U.A.E. citizens (who are called "Emirati"). A vast majority have been living in the UAE since the earlier part of the 20th century, especially in the Old Dubai neighborhoods of Bur Dubai, Karama, Deira and Satwa, which house long-time expatriates of Indian and Iranian origin. Meanwhile, many European, American and other Western expats are increasingly settling in Downtown Dubai and the Dubai Marina. In contrast, most of Dubai’s low-income migrant workers live on the fringes of "mainstream" Dubai, typically housed in worker accommodation in industrial areas such as Al Quoz. An apt illustration of the difference in the lifestyles of expats versus migrant workers: while expats throng the annual Dubai World Cup and Rugby Sevens, a recent Pakistan-versus-Australia cricket match was played to virtually empty stands, as the large Pakistani migrant worker population was unable to attend due to stringent contracts and long working hours.
While trendy lounges and restaurants still maintain their appeal, a growing cadre of low-key establishments are now taking hold. Homegrown dining concepts such as Qbara at Wafi and Pantry Cafe at Al Wasl Square, comedy shows by Emirati-American duo Dubomedy, outdoor movie screenings, and the debut of the city's first street food market, Good Vibes, at the recent Quoz Arts Festival in November are examples of the growing after-work diversions that don’t involve luxury hotels or shopping malls.
Natasha D'Souza is a corporate strategist, freelance writer, and budding Renaissance woman who is constantly astounded at the daring developments emerging in Dubai, the city of her birth. She occasionally pangs for the rusty colors of fall and a pearly white Christmas, but has grown to appreciate Dubai's reliably sunny "winters" and her perpetual tan instead.