The last two decades have seen Dubai reinvent itself from a small, poor and quiet fishing village located at the south of the Persian Gulf–Arabian Peninsula to a dazzling city with a vibrant urban life. How did this happen? Home to more than 200 nationalities – particularly those from the Indian subcontinent – the emirate’s choice to welcome expatriates has paid off.
Unlike the Gulf emirates that can count on petroleum wealth, Dubai has wound its way to prosperity by planning carefully and executing those plans methodically. Its airline and luxury construction have made it a popular destination for luxury tourism. Projects like the Burj al-Arab, the Palm Jumeriah and the Burj Khalifa, along with events like the world’s richest horserace – the Dubai World Cup – and the Dubai Shopping Festival, have sustained tourist interest and focused the world’s attention on the emirate.
Over the past few days the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has geared up to celebrate its 40th anniversary. The country is gripped by festive spirit and to mark this occasion, Pranay Gupte – a globally established author and foreign correspondent – has recently published his latest book, “Dubai: The Making of a Megapolis.” Gupte draws on his deep knowledge of the region and its leading personalities to trace the city-state’s extraordinary and fabulous journey through his book. And amidst the festivities, he chats to Dawn.com about his experience in Dubai.
Dawn.com: What took you to Dubai? Pranay Gupte: I have covered the Middle East as a journalist for more than three decades, among other publications for The New York Times, Newsweek and Forbes. In 2007, I was asked by the Government of Dubai to serve as a senior media advisor. Part of my duties consisted of assisting His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum with his English-language articles and memoir.
Dawn.com: Now nearly five years down the line, what are the changes you see in Dubai and how has it transformed? PG: Despite the financial crisis that swept across the world starting in 2008, and also affected Dubai, the velocity of growth has continued in Dubai and in the UAE generally. That growth may not be as rapid as five years ago, but Dubai is a resilient city. I always call it a “lucky city” – a city of enormous positive energy.
Dawn.com: How was it growing up in India in the early 60’s? What inspired you to become a writer? PG: My late mother, Professor Charusheela Gupte, taught Marathi and Sanskrit in Mumbai, and was also a prolific writer. I was deeply influenced by her, and by her writer-academic friends who used to visit our home.
Dawn.com: In the 70’s you often wrote about Middle East. Describe the middle east of 70’s as compared to now. PG: It’s a totally “new” Middle East now. The despots and tyrants are being toppled. But that doesn’t mean that universal democracy has arrived in the Middle East. My own view is that despite all the hullabaloo about “freedom,” the Middle East will witness an evolution of its own form of governance – it may not be along the lines of the Washington or Westminster models.
Dawn.com: You worked for the Government of Dubai for almost three years. How was the experience of working so closely with the Sheikh himself? How would you best describe his way of administration? PG: Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid is a visionary, who has a master plan for Dubai. He is very attentive to details. He’s also a kind-hearted and generous man, one of the most extraordinarily decent world leaders I have met.
Dawn.com: You witnessed the Dubai real-estate bubble burst and also the fact that Dubai survived. What do you think makes it so resilient? PG: Dubai’s resilience largely springs from its ability to figure out practical solutions to problems. There was never any doubt that Dubai would collapse. It has become a world city, and world cities simply do not go down under.
Dawn.com: There are roughly 1.7 million Indians and 1.6 million Pakistanis in the UAE. What has been their impact? PG: They’ve had a very positive impact. They have mixed well with local Emiratis. They have advanced trade and commerce. And the Subcontinent’s unskilled workers have raised huge building projects.
Dawn.com: You have travelled to Lahore and Karachi. How would you compare Lahore and Karachi to Delhi and Mumbai? PG: I love all four cities. I am have great interest in studdying urban culture and its history. All four cities offer rich material for a curious mind and share a time-honoured tradition of hospitality.
Dawn.com: What has Dubai taught you? PG: That opportunities can come your way unexpectedly.
Dawn.com: It’s often debated whether Dubai has a soul or not. Now, after four years of living in Dubai, what’s your take on it? PG: Of course Dubai has a soul. It has history, it’s anchored in tradition, and it has a wonderful Islamic heritage. It has a stunning variety of people. Dubai’s collective soul is matchless.
Dawn.com: What’s your next project going to be and where is it taking you? PG: I have started work on a political dynasty and the 200 years of its political pre-eminence.
Dawn.com: Sheikh Hamdan has been appointed the hereditary Crown Prince of Dubai. How similar is he to his father Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum? PG: Well that is hard to say right now. Sheikh Mohammed’s children have been brought up strictly, and with the consciousness that they are the standard bearers of a long tradition of benign rule.
Dawn.com: How has the experience of writing this book been? PG: As with all books, the process of reporting, researching and writing is seldom easy. Dubai is a very diverse city. That meant I had to undertake extensive reporting on all sorts of ethnic communities, and on the long history of the region. It was a tough book to write. But after Dubai’s generosity to me, I wanted to offer a farewell appreciation in the form of this book.
Tannaz Bandukwalla writes frequently on international issues. She can be reached via email at: tannazb[at]gmail.com