Aside from the fairly obvious observation that Atlanta-Dubai-Abu Dhabi-London-Vermont is an awful lot of travel to undertake in just over four days, a few observations spring to mind after this latest quick trip.
First, the growth of Dubai has hit some speed bumps, but remains both impressive in scope and slightly unsettling in its implications. There is little doubt that Dubai and its real estate-driven boom have been hit harder than most by the global economic downturn. This article, which appeared in London’s The Independent last Thursday, offers a glimpse of Dubai’s building frenzy in what may prove to be its terminal throes. Even allowing that a lot of construction sites are now sitting idle, it remains astonishing how far down the road toward Abu Dhabi the Dubai sprawl now creeps. The ‘unsettling’ part comes from the fact that we still do not know how deep and broad the financial damage to the emirate has really been and, as The Independent article seems to indicate, finding out is going to be very difficult.
Second, Abu Dhabi has changed a lot since my last visit in 2005. Unlike Dubai, however, the change has less to do with cosmetics than with the structure of the city and government themselves. There is a concerted attempt to modernize and systematize public administration in the emirate. The website of Abu Dhabi’s Executive Council (the main governing body of Abu Dhabi, as opposed to the broader federal government of the UAE) states that the emirate aspires to be “among the five best governments in the world” (when I asked a senior local official who the current five are he mentioned Singapore and the Netherlands). The longer-term question is whether this aspiration can really be translated into reality in a city-state that remains, for all practical purposes, a privately-held family business.
Third, the wave of goodwill President Barack Obama is now riding should not be underestimated. One Abu Dhabian, upon discovering I am American, went on at length about how impressed he was by President Obama’s respectful behavior while visiting a mosque in Turkey last month. This was only the most striking of several such conversations over the course of my trip. Of course, high expectations can also lead to bitterly dashed hopes, so with opportunity comes danger. Still, it was nice to make an overseas trip in which every conversation did not begin on a confrontational note. It has been a while since that happened.