The grass is always greener on the other side. Saudi visitors and businessmen returning from Dubai seem to come back ever more impressed by the phenomenal growth and development taking place in that UAE emirate. They long for the day when the Kingdom emulates Dubai’s apparent success. A major question, however, does Saudi Arabia really want to be another Dubai? Underneath the glitter and the sophisticated marketing and PR, glitches and cracks are beginning to appear in Dubai’s so-called miracle development bonanza. It behooves Saudi Arabia to sit back and take note.
Societies need to balance their economic development with transformation that takes into account internal social cohesiveness and responsibilities for the wider community. While Dubai has undoubtedly provided its native citizens with the trappings of a comfortable welfare state, a luxury lifestyle and seeming guaranteed employment, the desire and obsession to be the number one in many areas has also created social stress and uncertainty about core family traditions and values.
Success is not only measured in monetary value, nor having the tallest building, the biggest shopping mall, the most up-to-date theme park, the deepest undersea restaurant, or other superlatives. Success is also measured by overall social responsibility to others, especially non-citizens who have transformed Dubai through sweat and tears, but, by all accounts are marginalized as evidenced by the recent work stoppages and labor disputes.
The frenzied development boom is also beginning to take its toll on resource allocation in the construction industry as demand for raw material and skilled labor rockets. Inflation rate in Dubai is one of the highest in the Gulf Cooperation Council and rising. Government planners are beginning to cast nervous eyes at future power generation supplies, water resources and an integrated urban transport system to connect all the massive urban development that is taking place or being planned. Few people are debating looming environmental issues in the rush for development at any cost, as long as the profit margin is right. While Dubai is diversifying its client servicing base to countries outside the GCC, yet Saudi investment still plays an important element in Dubai’s development mania. Foreign multinationals establish presence in Dubai to serve the Saudi market, the largest in the GCC. However, even the most aggressive marketing will not hide the fact that profit margins are beginning to erode given the rising cost of doing business in Dubai. This is creating a sharply divided two-class society of the super rich and an underprivileged, subsistence based foreign majority. This is not healthy for long-term social and economic development for any country.
So should Saudi Arabia become another Dubai? The simple answer is that most Saudi businessmen and visitors long for the application in the Kingdom of what Dubai is famous for — a transparent set of rules and regulations in how to conduct business with minimal bureaucracy and red tape. One marvels at the efficiency of Dubai’s application approvals and the courtesy and efficiency of its technocrats compared to the many mindless hurdles in the Kingdom and other Gulf countries. Dubai technocrats enthusiastically embrace change, and e-government is not just another fancy slogan and a PR gimmick, but is made to actually work.
What Saudi Arabia needs is not an entirely new system and set of rules and regulations, but the correct applications of those that exist to serve the interest of the business and wider community, whereby Saudi bureaucrats see themselves as full partners for a better change. The recent stricter application of Saudi driving laws is one example of what can and should be done, as one is often amazed to see how Saudi drivers suddenly and miraculously transform themselves to near-model drivers when they cross the half way line on the causeway to Bahrain, compared to their erratic driving on the Saudi side. The answer is simple — the implementation and application of equitable and transparent Bahraini driving rules and regulations. The Saudi driver is the same person on either side of the causeway, but the application of rules is what mattered.
This is the lesson of Dubai for the wider Arab world and Saudi Arabia in particular. Dubai is a mind-set, which sees things as a glass being half full and nothing is impossible, hence the rush for the tallest, widest, deepest, and biggest, while in Saudi Arabia we often see obstacles and the glass being half empty. Dubai seems to do thing with a passion and a belief, while in Saudi Arabia we seem to only believe if we are prodded. If we can only apply the fairly decent and fair set of rules and regulations that exist in Saudi Arabia today more expeditiously and responsibly, then Saudi Arabia will have the best of both worlds.
Unlike Dubai, Saudi development will create a less hectic, stressed-out and disorientated society that is more caring with a long-term stable, and balanced economic and social development objective. The recent announcements of the mega Saudi projects and economic cities and zones shows that Saudi Arabia can also construct the biggest and tallest, but this is being planned in such a way so as to take care of the unique Saudi identity and cultural environment. In the end constructing the tallest might not be the best as evidenced by the mammoth towers now taking shape surrounding the Grand Mosque in Makkah.
One day Saudi society will rue the day they rushed into this construction race in such a unique site as Makkah, but it is never too late to sit back and ask do we really want to be like Dubai?
(Dr. Mohamed A. Ramady is visiting associate professor of finance and economics at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals.)