The Dubai brand, which is strong and vibrant,
needs to be redesigned and re-launched in order to
counter the criticisms, both serious and frivolous,
that are being levelled at the emirate. Dubai’s
handling of the current financial crisis and her
willingness to be more transparent are both under
scrutiny. Getting the right messages across will set
the scene for the next phase of Dubai’s growth.
Dubai’s success has been a stunning global phenomenon. From modest beginnings little more than a decade ago, the tiny Emirate turned itself into a magnet for exhibitions, conferences, sporting events and, above all, investors as it set out to build a thriving economy based largely on services, communications and regional trade.
But as Dubai enters what one might call its third phase of development, some believe that the reputational challenge it faces is acute. They point out that the dynamic image of an ambitious City State riding an economic boom has been tarnished by the current financial crisis, and has at times been under sustained attack from the western media, notably in the UK.
For many in the international media and capital markets, how Dubai reacts over the next year or two will be seen as a measure of its flexibility and maturity. Given its level of borrowings, the present financial downturn is likely to have a more pronounced effect than anything that happened in the wake of the first Gulf War, or after 9/11, when regional growth stalled but soon resumed its upward trajectory. This time, the crisis seems set to usher in a period of greater uncertainty that calls for a more measured policy and communication response.
Above all, there appears to be a growing consensus amongst commentators that Dubai must consider how, notwithstanding its political culture, it can become more open and transparent about the economy, the state of its finances and its growth strategy in the years ahead. This is important both for inward investors into the region and for companies in the west targeted by the huge sovereign wealth funds of Dubai and its neighbor Abu Dhabi. At the same time, Dubai needs to remember that its story is fundamentally a good one and that it should therefore start to reassert some of the characteristics that will give it an edge over larger countries in the current crisis.
Dubai’s situation is all the more understandable when you consider the breathtaking speed with which it has entered the mainstream of the international economy. Its modern history, after all, comprises no more than half a century. A pivotal moment came in the late 1950s when the present Ruler’s father, Sheikh Rashid, set about dredging the creek to provide a proper harbour for the dhow trade in the Gulf. Within a decade he was planning the biggest dry-dock in the region and in the 1970s the largest port in the Middle East. These projects were initially received with skepticism, on the grounds that Dubai had no need for such huge white elephants, but Rashid ignored the criticisms and ploughed ahead with the plans. His bold vision has subsequently been more than vindicated.