Max Boot is quite right that the Middle East needs Dubai, and not only because it embraces modernity and flouts the region’s taboos. It’s also an example of good government, at least by the Arab world’s standards, and good economics if you look past its excesses.
The United Arab Emirates’ most extravagant city-state has a more or less transparent market economy and a degree of personal freedom rarely found elsewhere in the Middle East outside Israel and Lebanon. The government doesn’t micromanage the personal lives of its citizens as in Iran and Saudi Arabia, nor does it smother the economy with heavy state socialism as in Egypt and Syria. Its bureaucracy is efficient — investors don’t spend years acquiring permits and filling out paperwork before they can open a shopping center, a hotel, or a Starbucks. The Islamic religion is respected as it is everywhere else in the Middle East, but clerics don’t make the rules.
Lebanon and Iraq have both been hailed as possible models for the rest of the region, but they aren’t really. Maybe they will be someday, but they aren’t today. Freewheeling Lebanon is more or less democratic, but it’s unstable. It blows up every year. The Beirut Spring in 2005 ousted the Syrian military dictatorship, but shaking off Iran and its private Hezbollah militia has proved nearly impossible. Iraq is likewise still too violent and dysfunctional to be an inspiring model right now.
Many of the skyscrapering steel and glass cities of the Persian Gulf feel like soulless shopping malls. It wouldn’t occur to anyone to suggest that one of these places is “the Paris of the Middle East,” as Beirut has often been called. Dubai’s outrageous attractions and socially liberal atmosphere, however, makes it something like a Las Vegas of the Middle East as a traveler’s destination. And it really is something like a Hong Kong or Singapore as a place to do business.
It features prominently in Vali Nasr’s compelling new book Forces of Fortune, where he argues that the Middle East may finally liberalize politically after it has first been transformed economically by a middle-class commercial revolution. Most in the West haven’t noticed, but that revolution has already begun. And what he calls “the Dubai effect” is a key part of it.
“People in the region who visit Dubai,” he writes, “return home wondering why their governments can’t issue passports in a day or provide clean mosques and schools, better airports, airlines and roads, and above all better government.”
He’s right. Most Beirutis I know look down on Dubai as artificial and gimmicky, but just about everyone else in the region who isn’t a radical Islamist thinks it’s amazing.
It’s different geopolitically, too. The government is more sincerely pro-American than the nominally pro-American governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Michael Yon put it this way when he visited in 2006 on his way to Iraq: “Our friends in the UAE want the Coalition efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan to succeed, and they are vocal about it. While much of the west, including many of our oldest allies, postures on about how the war on terror is a horrible mistake, the sentiment in the UAE is that it would be a horrible mistake not to face the facts about our common enemy, an enemy that might be just as happy to destroy the UAE as America.”
Its leadership has also stepped a long way back from the Arab-Israeli conflict. Neither Dubai nor any of the other UAE emirates have gone so far as to sign a peace treaty with Israel, but they also aren’t participating in the conflict or making it worse. Israeli citizens can and do visit, which is unthinkable almost everywhere else in the Arab world. A rotating tower designed by an Israeli architect is slated to be completed next year. There isn’t a chance that even Egypt or Jordan, both of which have signed peace treaties, would let an Israeli design one of their architectural set pieces.
Dubai has problems, of course, aside from the inevitable bursting of its financial bubble. Its government is a fairly benign dictatorship, especially compared with the likes of Syria and Iran, but it’s a dictatorship all the same. Many of its imported laborers live and work in ghastly conditions, and some are lured there under false pretenses.
It’s flawed, it’s weird, and its overall model of development can’t be ported everywhere else. Only so many cities can build ski resorts in the desert and underwater hotel rooms that go for $5,000 a night. But Dubai’s model needn’t be copied and pasted as-is, and Nasr’s “Dubai effect” is a powerful thing. The city proves to everyone who goes there that when an Arab Muslim country opens up its economy, keeps the clerics out of the saddle, and eschews radical causes, it can build places that are impressive not just by local standards but by international standards as well. If even half its foreign and domestic policies are adopted by its neighbors, the region will be a much nicer place for the people who live there, and less of a headache for everyone else.