Social media stars have been shamed for living it up in the Gulf state, but that’s just the coverage its ruler wants
The view from the terrace of Roka restaurant in downtown Dubai is as optimistic as you’ll find anywhere these dark days. It’s not just that you look out over the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper. It’s the people, mostly Britons, among them the former stars of reality TV shows, on extended holidays. They look happy, flexing tanned muscles, sipping dirty Martinis and posting pictures of themselves on social media.
Yet when they get back to their beachside villas and hotel suites, the mood of many diners changes. Hostile messages ping in from Instagram and Twitter followers locked down at home in Britain, accusing them of failing to observe government warnings on non-essential travel. The 260,000 Britons, including leading influencers and footballers, who have flown to the desert city state since travel restrictions were lifted last year, have recklessly spread the virus to Dubai and brought it back to Britain, critics say.
Social media accounts have been set up to name and shame the worst offenders; the suspicion that some went on sponsored freebies only adds to the rage. Earlier this month the United Arab Emirates (UAE), of which Dubai is a part, was removed from the UK’s list of travel corridors. Returning travellers must now self-isolate for 10 days when they get home.
Critics of “Covid Casablanca” question why the city state is encouraging tourism while the rest of the world shuts up shop. But the most shocking thing about the outrage over Dubai’s business-as-usual approach is that anyone is shocked at all. Dubai has spent years going against the grain in its breakneck promotion of the trade, transport, tourism, property and retail sectors that make up its economy. They are the reason for its success — and it is not going to stop now.
It might look like any other sun-kissed coastal business and leisure hub but Dubai is also something simpler: a giant family business, headed by Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. He is the kind of chief executive ruler Donald Trump could only dream of being, presiding over a land of liberal financial laws and limited democracy, and his business plan is straightforward: when others zig, zag.
Thirty years ago Gulf leaders were socially and economically conservative. Most emirates had tiny populations and no significant businesses outside oil and gas. Strict laws on everything from alcohol to homosexuality discouraged westerners from investing or settling. “Our cities were inward-looking, one-camel towns,” jokes one Emirati.
British-educated Sheikh Mohammed wanted none of that. He invited the world to come and invest to make up for dwindling oil revenues. To get things going, he started an airline — Emirates — with two jets leased from Pakistan International Airlines and built a new airport terminal with a snazzy duty free. Using an army of migrant workers whose poor treatment has been well documented, he created the Burj Khalifa; the world’s biggest shopping arcade; an island in the shape of a palm tree; and the region’s answer to Canary Wharf, the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC). He plumbed the state with superfast communications infrastructure and added seven-star hotels, beach resorts and a snow park so people could ski despite the 50C heat.
Westerners and rival local leaders sniggered, dismissing him as too big for his dishdasha. But he dug in. To lure the skilled expatriate workers he needed to make his economic experiment work, he offered a tax-free lifestyle, officially relaxed laws on alcohol consumption and unofficially turned a blind eye to other social issues that rival emirates clamp down on. Unmarried couples, and gay couples, live together in Dubai.
His liberal attitude does not seem to extend to his own family, however. In an interview with The Sunday Times in 2019, the sheikh’s first wife revealed how he kicked her out of Dubai in the 1970s and has not allowed her to see her daughter since. The sheikh is also alleged to have kidnapped and imprisoned two of his other daughters.
These scandals do not appear to have dented his business plan. Indeed, his contrarian strategy reached new heights last year when, to gee up economic growth after a lockdown-induced economic contraction, he established diplomatic and economic relations with Israel, something unthinkable even as recently as April.
“Dubai’s competitive advantage is being a place where ‘the normal rules’ of the Middle East do not apply,” says Matthew Page, who studies Gulf economies for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It’s a pirate entrepôt — where all are welcome as long as they help to create wealth.”
And it’s working. Emirates is the world’s largest international airline by miles flown. Dubai’s airport has long overtaken Heathrow to become the world’s busiest international hub, with almost 90 million passengers in 2019. The DIFC has become the financial centre of the Middle East and Dubai Mall is the most visited place on earth.
The sheikh now spies another opportunity to prosper by going against the grain: he wants to create the world’s “safe space”. Thanks to the UAE’s young population, outdoor lifestyle and strict rules on social distancing and mask-wearing, Covid infection rates have been low. The country has recorded fewer than 800 deaths among its population of nearly 10 million. A fast vaccine roll-out — its rate is second only to Israel — means almost all inhabitants, including migrant workers, will be inoculated by the end of this year, ministers say. That has helped Dubai to reopen its economy to leisure and business travellers. Ministers have negotiated travel corridors wherever they can. With nowhere else to fly to, every Tom, Dick and Muhammad has come.
New infections have surged since Christmas, rising from about 1,000 cases a day to 3,500 a day. But business remains good. Emirates’ aircraft are two-thirds full on average, says Sir Tim Clark, the airline’s British president. Hotel occupancy rates increased to 71 per cent last month, according to the hospitality analyst STR. The influx has helped to drive business confidence to the highest level since March. Economic growth this year is forecast to rise by 4 per cent, after a 6 per cent fall last year.
Will the outcry over Dubai’s Covidiots damage its long-term appeal and prospects? Quite the reverse. The sheikh is probably enjoying the publicity. The more people who know his Singapore in the sand is open for business, the more dirhams will flow into the economy, and the more his family business will grow.
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Source The Times