I sometimes write a reflective blog post or two and realised that the vision of the West Asian nations – some call this The Middle East, but that’s not right – is quite stunning. The aim is to move from their dependency on oil, and become self-supporting nations using new funding and new ideas to take market share from the rest of the world.
For example, we all know that we would prefer to fly with Emirates or Etihad any day over American Airlines or United. Then this really struck me during my annual winter vacation in Dubai, a place my family love for a bit of sun and sea in January.
When I first visited Dubai, it was way back in 2002. I remember seeing a place that was quite small but growing. Most of the activity was focused upon the Sheik Zayed highway, and there were around a few skyscrapers in the main hub area, but I don’t remember so many. The Dubai International Finance Centre (DIFC) was a newly formed body to turn Dubai into a major financial hub, and the Burj Al Arab sailboat hotel was just finished. The Palm hadn’t been built and there was news that David Beckham and Rod Stewart were investing in some of the new off-plan developments.
Just eighteen years later, the place is brand spanking new and huge and different. I don’t know many other places like it. Here’s an idea of how Dubai has changed in just half a century …
And it continues. For example, a few new developments include the Royal Atlantis Hotel and Palm 360, alongside all the work on the Expo 2020 that starts in October this year and lasts through April 2021.
What stuns me about this place is how it transforms daily. A canal was built through the middle of Dubai a couple of years ago and it involved lifting the Sheik Zayed Road and other major systems higher, diverting traffic and changing fundamental structures. What is amazing is that the whole project was completed without drama in just three years from announcement to opening.
That’s Dubai for you.
For years, I’ve seen the cranes building new projects and for years, I’ve thought: who’s going to buy these places? They’ll never shift this land. But they do. The view is: build it and they will come. Even when Nakheel almost went under, and Abu Dhabi had to rescue Dubai during the financial crisis, I thought it would never succeed as it seems to be succeeding. But it is succeeding. And the tourists and investors come. For example, the main appeal for a European or Russian is that Dubai is a great Winter destination. Sun, sea and holiday in the middle of a freezing European January is a compelling offer.
That’s why Abu Dhabi, Doha and other West Asian nations have tried to copy Dubai’s success and move from fossil fuels to tourism and entertainment. They are all getting there in different ways and with greater or lesser success, and is the reason why austerely Arabic Saudi Arabia is now trying to get in on the act.
Historically, Saudi Arabia has cut itself off from the rest of the world, with zero tourism per se and most foreign visitors travelling for business only. Now the country says it expects to attract 100 million foreign and domestic visitors by 2030 and create one million new jobs in the tourism sector.
By building a brand new city on the Red Sea called Neom.
The mega-city will be 33 times bigger than New York covering over 10,000 square miles in the north-western province of Tabuk. It will also be one of the world’s largest and newest smart cities, with things like cloud seeding to create artificial clouds which will provide rainfall and keep the place fresh and green.
Oh, and tourists will be encouraged to visit Neom with visas on arrival and lax rules on dress code and behaviour, in a similar way to Dubai’s approach. No kissing in public or sex on the beach, but lying together holding hands at the hotel and having a drink of wine is all well and good.
And with a $500 billion budget to invest in Neom, it wouldn’t surprise me if all of this came true too.
The only issue with these Winter destinations for tourists is the political tensions. Can there ever be peace between Sunni and Shiite Muslims? Can Saudi ever get on with Iran?
The political lines in West Asia date back centuries and much of it was fuelled by the British during their Empire days. Therefore, investing in property in any of these countries is also balanced with what will be there a century from now?
Regardless of that negative statement, I am just stunned by the ambitious vision of the West Asian nations. If you really want to track the future of work, life and cities, then watch and behold.