04 January 2008

Meritocracy is the key to Dubai's limitless ambitions

The ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, likes to spy on his own people. In that, he is upholding a modern Arab autocratic tradition. Dubai's ruler, however, is not looking for conspirators, fifth columnists or political opponents. He's looking for talent.

Sheikh Mohammad's "spies," known as "mystery shoppers," fan out across government offices to observe and grade the efficiency, competence and attentiveness of local officials. Those who receive poor marks are quietly rebuked, while those who impress move into an informal Dubai fast-track, receiving increasingly more challenging tasks, greater responsibility and more scrutiny. If they survive those tests they gradually enter the rarefied air of the Dubai high-flyer executives, the dozen or so movers and shakers who are transforming the Gulf city-state into a major regional and global trade, tourism, transport, technology and financial services hub.

This survival of the fittest produces a top-notch government elite, not one stocked with cronies and family members of the ruler - and might just be the key to Dubai's remarkable rise. While Western capitals search for an Arab "democratic model," Dubai is providing an Arab "meritocratic model" that underpins its successful growth and development.

The Dubai elite will be severely tested in coming years as the emirate's ambitions seem to have no limits: By the year 2015 it aims to treble its GDP, create nearly a million new jobs and continue its torrid pace of development and growth. It is currently building what aims to be the busiest and largest airport in the world; it already attracts more tourists than India; it remains the third largest global re-export hub; its real estate developments - from islands in the sea to towering skyscrapers - are now legendary and its partially state-owned companies are investing in places from Jakarta to Japan, from New York to New Delhi, matched and even outpaced at times by private Dubai-based developers and investors.

A key player in charting the rise of Dubai is Mohammad al-Gergawi, the dynamic and influential minister of state for cabinet affairs, chairman of the state-owned conglomerate Dubai Holding, and Exhibit A of Dubai's meritocracy. Gergawi was first discovered by a "mystery shopper" in the mid-1990s. He consistently outperformed in his government assignments. When tasked with creating a high-tech zone in the late 1990s, he had a small office, a shoestring staff and limited resources. Today, Dubai Internet City houses leading technology giants and Gergawi heads a conglomerate of some 30 companies with 30,000 staff.

In another Arab state, Gergawi might have become a frustrated bureaucrat or would have turned away from government to the private sector as do many of the elites in the Gulf Cooperation Council states. Had he grown up away from the GCC, he might have become an Arab immigrant in Europe or the United States, joining the millions of Arabs who have left their homeland in search of greener economic pastures.

Yasser Jarrar, a Jordanian management expert who works as an adviser in the Dubai government's main strategy office headed by Gergawi, was one such immigrant in 2002, before he was scooped up by the Dubai recruiting machine and enticed away from his post as a newly minted professor in Cranfield, England. "Five years later, I'm still here," Jarrar says, recalling how his first visit to Dubai shattered the stereotypical view he had of Gulf Arabs as "unproductive and inefficient."

But it's not only business, management and investment high flyers who seek a piece of the Dubai dream. Indian middle class managers, Iranian techies, European architects, Chinese traders, Central Asian students, American engineers and, increasingly, global members of the media and creative class - film-makers, journalists, artists, production hands - have made their way to Dubai, contributing to what seems to be emerging as a critical mass of talent driving the city-state forward.

The "build it and they will come" model has served Dubai well in the past. From the dredging of the Creek in the late 1950s to allow larger ships to the creation of massive man-made ports and the more modern clustered "city" free trade zones, Dubai officials seem to have taken the motto of their late ruler, Sheikh Rashid, to heart: "What's good for the merchants is good for Dubai."

With a "local" population that makes up only 10 percent of residents, Dubai is truly peculiar; thus talk of a Dubai "model" enters shaky ground. Egypt cannot suddenly import half a million South Asian workers to construct buildings; Saudi Arabia cannot import thousands of bankers when so many Saudis need jobs; and countries like Syria and Jordan do not have the luxury of being away from the front lines of Middle East conflict as does Dubai.

While much of the Middle East is burdened by a steady brain drain, Dubai has managed to cut against the prevailing grain by both nurturing local talent and drawing in leading regional money managers, traders, bankers and consultants in what is amounting to a brain regain. An ambitious young man in Karachi, Cairo, Tehran, Jeddah or New Delhi no longer instinctively sets his sights on Europe or the US. The Dubai School of Government (DSG), for example, has managed to attract three leading Saudi women PhD professors away from Europe and the US along with an array of top thinkers from the Arab world and a smattering of World Bank executives. Whether or not Dubai might offer a model matters less in this instance than what it is actually doing: keeping Arab talent in the Arab world.

The DSG executive president, Nabil al-Yusif, is an Emirati national who rose to prominence not through flattery or political intrigue, but through his ability to chart government performance indicators. On the back of that success, he recently led the study for the 2015 Dubai Strategic Plan, pulling together a disparate array of advisers and consulting with some 3,000 individuals to produce a substantive document that resembles something that a major multinational company would generate.

Filled with graphs, charts and projections, the strategic plan lays out areas of projected growth and notes how the government intends to maximize those sectors. In the way it was presented - Sheikh Mohammad standing before an audience of some 2,000 people using power point and taking questions - and the detailed projections it offers, the strategic plan offers a level of transparency and expectation rarely seen in autocratic states.

And why not? The last time Sheikh Mohammad unveiled a 10-year strategic plan was in 2000, and Dubai had surpassed most of the targets by 2005. While other GCC states may have more wealth than Dubai, whose oil revenue accounts for less than 5 percent of GDP, its secret weapon is not so mysterious: talent. To achieve its 2015 targets it will need to continue grooming local talent and attracting international and regional talent.

As a critical mass of the world's professional elite increasingly sees Dubai as an attractive destination to live and work, it will benefit from this transient, mobile and knowledgeable pool of workers. "The hardest part about taking a job in Dubai," a former World Bank executive joked, "is the dozens of CVs I get from colleagues asking me to help them find one too."

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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.