I was in Dubai recently. It is a fascinating place. In many ways it looks and feels like a utopian vision of the future. There is much to admire and a lot to learn from how Dubai works.
Contrary to my preconceptions it is not just an oil rich arab state. In fact Dubai is significantly less oil rich than other Arab states, it’s wealth and its history are that of a trading post. Well placed geographically Dubai has long been a hub of trade in the middle east and that tradition continues today with Dubai airport being a major transit centre, and growing at a speed that the owners of Heathrow would have fantasies about.
Dubai is a curiously democratic, autocracy. Strictly it is a monarchy, ruled by a family with no elections and minimal social inclusion in the governing process. However it is not like an old fashioned European monarchy or like a dictatorship, but more like a business aiming to make a profit.
Less than 20% of the total population are locals, everyone else is from everywhere else, and you cannot be there without money or the sponsorship of an employer and property ownership rights are limited. Like most businesses old people and unemployment are rare. And while there is no voting as such, it is largely an opt in society. If you don’t like the rules or the system you can resign (i.e. leave). If you don’t conform to the rules or have a role, you can be disciplined or fired (i.e. leave).
It is not then a nation, as such, it is a different kind of entity. Elitist in the sense that only an elite can be there. There appears to be little room for mavericks who live on the margins, for artists and inventors – unless they are sponsored. There is even less room for the old or less able.
Whatever we think of Dubai and other places like it, they are social experiments that are already running. They are already affecting our own society too, they attract successful people and businesses with very low taxes – for example. Autocratic government and empty deserts mean that they can be decisive and ambitious in their building projects. Ironically it is also oil rich Arab states that are leading in some areas of renewables with Saudi Arabia announcing hugely ambitious projects last week
and Abu Dhabi developing their Masdar City
The question they ask of Europe/North America and Japan is – what do we want to be in this new world?
Where can we lead and how can we prosper?
In answering these questions, perhaps the first thing to consider is our form of government. It took us centuries of conflict and challenge to end up with pluralistic democracy. The decision making process may be slow, cumbersome and painful (in ways which more autocratic governments find amusing), but it is far more inclusive.
Autocratic decisions may be faster, but inclusive decisions are almost always better – in the long run.
What do you think? Please comment and discuss here.
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