Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mishaal al Gergawi: Mapping Dubai

While looking for information on Geekfest, and subsequently flipping through The Shelter's website, I came across an unexpectedly evocative name - that of Mishaal al Gergawi. Having last seen this name attached to a fairly active and very opinionated Zawya blogger account, and no less curious about the content of the presentation, I fired off an eRSVP.

The choice of venue was most appropriate. The Shelter is a cathedral to creativity, functioning as a hangout bay to entrepreneurs and artists, and even as an office to some. Housed in what can only be described as a giant concrete barn, its versatile space lends itself well to all kinds of events, and was spilling over with attendees for this one.

Gergawi, for those unacquainted, is a young Emirati patriot, and expresses this patriotism through reformist criticism. He writes stuff some of which he himself admits few of us expatriates could easily get away with, and demonstrated last night his unabashed style of delivery in oral form.

Much of what he said, as one audience member pointed out, are no-brainers. Then again, as George Orwell noted, "to see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle." He took the audience through the landmarks of the modern history of Dubai, starting with the Dubai Quality Awards (which he called the true beginning of Dubai's growth), the construction of Burj al Arab and the Emirates Towers, the expansion of the airport and Emirates Airlines (which put Dubai on the world map as a hub), the hiatus between '99 and '03, the creation of the Executive Office, and the start of the new boom in the mid-noughties (marked by the completion of the DIFC).

When he came to the crash and the "hangover", he singled out a number of shortcomings in the system, such as overconfidence in refinancing, the ridiculous scenario of uncommunicative government entities up-bidding one other, the situation of managers of multi-year endeavors being measured by the quarter. Later noting that quality healthcare and education are among the major hallmarks of a civil society, he put the spotlight on the most regrettable lack of both private and public interest in these vital but less glamorous and headline-grabbing sectors (hence the descent into tackiness, superlatives, or both).

Emirati-ness was also one of the topics he touched upon, including the unity of the emirates. Presenting a neat frequency chart, he illustrated how the boom brought identity into the spotlight, while calling bluff on some of his less xenophilic countrymen's challenges to expatriates to pack up and leave. His noting that Emirati citizenship is "not a handicap" in need of special protection against competition was especially relevant, given that the top story of the day was the elimination of explicit quotas in the private sector for Emiratis.

He took the state to task for either over-regulating or under-regulating, and for being weak with enforcement where it counts, providing examples of an art gallery that required special permission to have music, and a bought share that was in effect unilaterally refunded. He pointed out the difficulty of policing small contractors who live from project to project, as well as the lack of localized state-legitimized recruitment (and idea I especially like), as among the major reasons for the poor state of the blue-collar workforce.

All the same, he noted that Dubai still has the best infrastructure and cost-benefit balance for doing business in the Middle East, and likened the over-investment to that which eventually paid off for the city of Miami. Deriding both the local and western media for opposing extremes of delusion, he advocated a more balanced view of Dubai's failures, and freedom to criticize the same. He struck many chords (mine, certainly) when he tore into the irony of having the world's tallest tower in a city that still does not have a reliable door-to-door address system.

Well, the presentation itself was also impressive from a graphics/animation perspective, and concluded with a long audience discussion/Q&A session, which could have gone on for much longer had that been allowed. I may not agree with everything Gergawi writes, but his words last night rang true for anyone who has lived here long enough to see both the good and the bad sides, and cares enough to call for change.

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