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Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:03

Dispatches from Abu Dhabi

Recently, a small group from upstate New York visited The United Arab Emirates as part of a fact-finding and good will effort aimed at understanding a part of the world about which most of us in America are ill informed, but with which there are growing connections in business, industry and cultural matters.


The Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce sponsored the journey mainly so that its member and friends could begin to forge a relationship of understanding with the place that has invested in GlobalFoundries, a high-tech computer chip manufacturing industry now located in Saratoga County at Malta, just south of Saratoga Springs. The influence of GlobalFoundries is already making its mark on business and real estate markets locally.

GlobalFoundries is an investment in America by an international investment company headquartered in the United Arab Emirates known as ATIC, or Advanced Technology Investment Company. ATIC is part of the Mubadala Corporation, which is the investing arm for the Abu Dhabi government. The ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, also the President of the UAE, has recently announced a plan to change the ratio of a 70 percent reliance on oil revenues and a 30 percent reliance of all other revenues, to the reverse of that by 2030. He is joined in this plan by another visionary leader, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai and the Prime Minister and Vice President of the UAE. “Sheikh Mo”, as he is known locally, owns homes and property in Saratoga Springs and is a major player in the flourishing horse breeding and racing industry locally and throughout the world. These two leaders of their respective Emirates are forward thinking men who have great financial backing to be employed toward their goals. They are among the world’s wealthiest people and are listed numbers three and five among the wealthiest royals on the globe.

Since there is little manufacturing now and few possibilities in agriculture possible in the desert culture, the plan is to invest in businesses around the world using the one resource that is plentiful: money. As an example, ATIC, the Abu Dhabi investment arm, now owns three computer chip manufacturing facilities around the world. The first is in Dresden, Germany, another is in Hong Kong, and the latest is in Malta. This high tech initiative is one of many different projects being underwritten by Arab entrepreneurs who realize that oil, their main income source, is expendable and that diversity is necessary for their continued development.

This article takes a look at the United Arab Emirates, a relatively new sovereign nation and its rapid growth from a nomadic culture to one of the most amazingly modern places on earth.

The United Arab Emirates consists of seven administrative units, called Emirates, each headed by a Shaikh (Sheikh is the English spelling), or king, who is the supreme ruler of his domain. Each of the current rulers is the direct descendent of a tribal leader whose earlier ancestors roamed the desert as nomads, eking subsistence from herding, minimal agriculture and some crafts, until some began to settle in waterfront communities where their lives would involve fishing and pearl diving. During the eighteenth century, the area, then known as the Trucial States, or Trucial Oman, developed a reputation for housing pirates. The tribal leaders who emerged from desert cultures had skirmishes over territory from time to time, but somehow, seven strong leaders managed to agree on a division of land into seven sections. In 1958, oil was found in the area, changing these places forever. The UAE was founded in 1971 under a constitution written by the fathers and grandfathers of today’s rulers. It is a unique government in that the constitution only speaks to the relations among the seven units: Each Sheikh or Emir, is the supreme ruler of his emirate. Throughout the last half of that century oil production drove their economy, and during the last two decades, it has changed the entire culture in unprecedented ways.

The area of the Emirates is roughly 32,000 square miles, slightly smaller than NY State. The population is just over eight million, up from four million in 2005. Fewer than one in five (16 percent) are native citizens; the majority comes from over 160 countries seeking jobs in the fast growing local economy. The seven Emirates are: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras al Khaimah, Ummal-Quwain, Fajairal and Ajrman. The UAE is among the higher income nations of the world with a per capita rate of over $50,000. This is misleading in that the original citizens actually have individual incomes in the six figures, calculated in American dollars, provided by direct distribution from the central government. This income is a birthright of an Emirate citizen, and is not a salary for work. Individuals can work or get involved in business and earn whatever they can above the basic subsidy.

There are thousands of multi-million dollar condos and homes everywhere. There is no poverty visible anywhere in the country. There is absolutely no such thing as unemployment. More than 80 percent of the people there come from elsewhere: many Arabs, Asians, and European come into the UAE with work visas of limited duration, after which they must return to their native country. No outsider can become a citizen or own a business, but many foreign investors are pairing up with locals to form businesses and then may be allowed to travel between the UAE and their home. The “ex-pats”, as they are called, make up the work force and are very well paid as contrasted with their homeland wages.

There is zero poverty and all health and education is paid for by the government. The literacy rate is very high, with most people easily conversing in English as their second language. Opportunities for higher education abound, with foreign—especially American—universities popping up throughout the country. With affluence everywhere, there is little or no crime. The UAE has no enemies; it is considered to be a safe destination despite its proximity to Middle Eastern trouble spots.

Our American contingent consisted of 39 folks of many ages from our capital region. It can safely be stated that we were astounded by the sheer magnificence of the Dubai urban area where we spent the majority of our time. Our concentration was in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Abu Dhabi is the largest of the Emirates in the area and has much unoccupied desert area in addition to its modern city, which has to rank highly among the unique cities of the world in terms of architectural variety and the sheer size of the buildings. It is the location of ATIC, which is housed in a modernistic building shaped like a wafer or computer chip standing a few hundred feet high. But nothing we saw in Abu Dhabi compares with the city of Dubai, about an hour away to the northwest. Dubai is obsessed with size and revels in the fact that it has many attractions which rank first in the Guinness Book of World Records. It has the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa (formerly known as the Burj Dubai) standing half a mile high, or nearly two and a half times the size of the Empire State Building. The Khalifa houses the world’s fastest elevator; it carried us from the ground to the 138th floor observatory (a bit more than half way up the building) in mere seconds with no sense of movement except in ear pressure. It also has five of the world’s tallest buildings, the largest golf course (designed by Tiger Woods), the most magnificent horse racing track (featuring an inside -the -oval 400-room hotel, each room of which looks out onto the track), the world’s largest shopping mall, the world’s largest hotel (The Burj Arab), and the world’s only seven star hotel, The Atlantis. One is simply stunned by turning to the next vista, just down the street or around the next corner. “It’s like China on steroids!” remarked one traveler, “Not as huge or extensive, but not to be outdone for the biggest or the best.”

Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi and Sheik Maktoum of Dubai are London-educated, gifted leaders, world visionaries and leaders in a joint effort to move their small part of the world into prominence in business. They have already succeeded in many ventures and are preparing the next generation of leaders to continue the quest. To Western hemisphere dwellers, as we are, the cultural and religious differences to which we are exposed in an Arab nation are huge.

Our trip perhaps is the beginning for us in releasing the cultural biases which separate us and can make understanding difficult. Tourism in the Emirates is now bringing in well over 20 million visitors yearly. Dubai alone has more than 70,000 hotel rooms. Mutual knowledge will grow and our differences will shrink. In 2020, Dubai is planning to host the World Expo—perhaps you should sign on now. Just pick your hotel carefully: Don’t get caught in a place like The Address in downtown Dubai—purportedly the world’s most expensive hotel—which has over a hundred floors of rooms and suites, all occupied and all costing upwards of a few thousand per night!

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