Thoughts on a guided tour of the Gulf

I have set up my office at a Costa coffee shop in the Doha International Airport. My original 4:35 am flight from Doha to Abu Dhabi and then to Amman has been canceled. High winds have apparently shut down Abu Dhabi’s operations for the day. I am being transferred to a Qatar airlines direct flight to Amman at 12:30 pm, which gives me about nine hours of productive work time. With this block of time, I am going to start something that I would almost certainly have put off or ultimately abandoned had my flights gone as planned – a blog entry. I don’t have a blog, but maybe if I write an entry this will motivate me to set one up. So here goes, blog entry #1.

Why am I in Doha?

I am in Doha as part of trip called the Gulf Exchange, organized by a U.S.-registered nonprofit, Project Encounter. This group has donors (of the anonymous variety) who allow for young professionals who are either directly involved in the Middle East (in academia or development for example) or are in what could be considered “strategic” professions like journalism and economics. I’m not exactly sure why they accepted me as an applicant – it could be my undergraduate degree in Mid-East studies or my work in public relations (or a combination of the two). With funding provided by donors, the trip is highly subsidized. Participants pay $400 and the cost of their flight to stay 10 nights in a five-star hotel in Dubai and one night in a (definitely not five star) hotel in Doha. The roundtrip Dubai-Doha trip is covered by the organizers, although work commitments mean that I am missing days 10 and 11.

I was joined by about 22 (the numbers fluctuated a bit) individuals from 11 different countries. Europe was strongly represented, while Singapore and Canada provided one participant each. The plurality of the group were Americans like myself.

Our chaperones/guides from Project Encounter were not from the Persian Gulf region. One of the organizers, Fadi Salem, is Syrian and a top researcher and project manager at the Dubai School of Government (DSG). Fadi was with us for about half the time during the trip, while our two constant guides were Nick Billotti and Taufiq Rahim, an American and Canadian respectively. I’ll start with Nick Billotti, who reminds me of Aaron Eckhhart’s character from the movie Thank You for Smoking.

While Nick was rather adept at deflecting questions about his background, a little research online reveals that he is Dubai expatriate royalty. His father, Nicholas Billotti (senior?) was a senior executive for Turner Construction International, the general contractor for the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. This would explain junior Nick Billotti’s involvement on the Dubai Mall project, the largest mall in world, which sits in the skyscraper’s shadow. He has since founded and runs his own media company based in Dubai. Very smart, charming individual. Despite our intensive and constantly changing schedule and at times cranky participants, it seemed that Nick simply could not be flustered. Unflusterable if you will.

Taufiq, a visiting fellow at the DSG, was the academic version of Nick. Like Nick, he had the type of infinite patience that simply boggled my mind. At certain times during the trip when I thought to myself, ‘Surely Taufiq is finally going to snap at [insert name of unreasonable participant],’ he would always diffuse the tension with a joke. In fact, Nick and Taufiq had an insatiable appetite for jokes. On our many bus rides around the UAE, the two relentlessly pushed us to think of any jokes we knew and recite them for the group. Fadi was the older, more restrained member of the trio and tended to cede the stage to the Nick/Taufiq show unless he actually had something substantive to add to a discussion. We were also joined at various points by Leila Hatoum and her sister Magdalin, two reporters who have provided coverage for the Wall Street Journal and the MidEast Wire.

So these were our guides, all dynamic, highly successful people. Which leads to the question, why would they take their time (as volunteers, Nick said at one point) to found this nonprofit and organize this intensive trip? The official goal of the program is to improve relations between the West (and to a much lesser extent, Asia) and the Persian Gulf region through the cultivation of “cultural ambassadors” i.e. the Gulf Exchange participants. When pressed by me, Nick said that his desire to facilitate outreach and dialogue between the Mid-East and rest of the world stemmed from his emotional response to the events of 9/11 (and presumably America’s subsequent miss-steps in the region). He said that it was personal and that he would talk about it in private. I never had the opportunity to pursue this topic.

Considering the Dubai-focus of the trip and the incredible access we had to people in the city, I am guessing that the main funders were wealthy Emirati residents of this particular principality. Until the names of all funders are released, one can only speculate. All of our meetings during the trip were conducted under Chatham House rules – meaning off the record – so while I can shoot off a list of people we spoke with, I cannot quote or cite anyone.

Our speakers

The list of speakers from days one through nine is long but worth mentioning, if only for my own personal notes. Unless you are really interested in this topic, I would suggest skipping to the next section. On the first day we met with Saher Shaikh, the founder of the Adopt-a-Camp charity, one of the most captivating meetings for me. The rest of the meetings I have attempted to organize into categories. In the business sector, we met with Sultan bin Sulayem, Chairman of Dubai Ports (DP) World, Christina Charles, Business Development Director at Starcom MediaVest Group, members of Dubai’s Iranian Business Council, Boutros Boutros, Senior Vice President of Emirates Airlines, Sabah al-Binali, co-founder of Saffar Holdings, and the manager of the hotel Atlantis.

Saher Shaikh, the founder of the Adopt-a-Camp

In the film industry, we met with Michael Garin and Mohammed al-Otaiba from Image Nation, a government-sponsored company tasked with building an Emirati film industry; Abd al-Hamid Juma, the Chairman of the Dubai International Film Festival; and City of Life director Ali Mostafa. In the field of visual art we visited the Cuadro gallery and met with its curator, the Barjeel Art Foundation with Sultan al-Qassemi (who is also a political blogger/commentator), and the Mathaf Museum for Modern Art in Doha with Wassan al-Khudhairi.

In the field of politics and governance (and the coverage/analysis thereof), we met with Abdulkhaleq Abdallah from the Cultural Scientific Center in the emirate (principality) of Sharjah, and Hassan Fattah from the Abu Dhabi-based daily, the National. Following our screening of City of Life, we had a Q&A with Mishaal al-Gergawi, a current affairs commentator. In Doha we met with Salman Shaikh and Ibrahim Sharqieh, the Director and Assistant Director respectively of the Brookings Doha Center. We had tours and Q&A sessions at the Dubai Courts with Director General Dr. Ahmed bin Hazeem al-Suwaida along with a similar experience at Dubai Police Headquarters with Major General Khamis al-Muzainah, the Deputy Commander of the force.

We also met with the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and the Emir (Prince, i.e. ruler) of Dubai, Shaykh Mohammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum, at his lovely horse ranch outside the city. He provided us with a wonderful buffet dinner, which is about all I can say considering that the event was off the record. Although the buffet was free, I still made sure that I got my money’s worth.

About the trip

Well, for one it was incredible to be able to sit down with so many people and learn how the UAE has developed over the last ten years. The rise of Dubai in particular is just mind-blowing. Whenever I travel, I always take note of such things as infrastructure and public transportation. In these two regards, Dubai rivals anywhere I’ve visited in the world, including NYC, London, Paris, and Istanbul. The buildings are spectacular and give the impression that it is a true City of Tomorrow. As our guides pointed out, Dubai spared no expense during its period of rapid development, which means that everything you see was contracted with the international industry leaders, regardless of cost. Since Dubai (as opposed to its oil-rich neighbor, Abu Dhabi) produces a marginal amount of fossil fuel for export, most of the development was paid for with borrowed money.

Incredible buildings in Dubai.

State-of-the-art light rail terminal. Like many things in Dubai, it looked liked it belonged on another planet (a more advanced one).

When the 2008 financial crisis hit Dubai, this fact became painfully obvious. Of the four mega projects that involve the absurdly expensive process of dredging (sucking up sand from the sea floor and relocating it), only one development – the Palm Jumeira – will likely ever turn its first dollar. There is no telling if the same will be the case for Palm Jebel Ali, which will not have any functional projects until this year (according to Wikipedia). The third palm, Palm Diera, is returning to the ocean and can probably be considered a complete loss. The famous (notorious?) reclaimed land project, The World, once regularly mentioned by Robin Leach on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, may also return to ocean if developers decide to abandon the project.

On a tour of one of the high-priced suites at the Atlantis. The hotel is at the far end of the Palm Jumeira, and all the land behind me was relocated there through the dredging process.

Dubai has clearly learned its lesson about reckless speculation in the construction and real estate business. The government has also learned, to a certain extent, a lesson concerning its veritable army of South Asian workers and the Western perception of their treatment. From what we were told, the living conditions have improved dramatically for the tens of thousands of Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, and Philippino workers that fill the majority of the UAE’s construction and service sector positions. What people,  including our Project Encounter guides, did not seem to understand is that regardless of the improvements, the country is still vulnerable to accusations of worker abuse and inhumane treatment. Workers here still do not have a minimum wage and their passports are almost always collected by their employers upon arrival.  Abusive and immoral traffickers still have the means to escape the country when it’s no longer profitable to stick around, leaving behind the workers they trafficked in a pinch.

While the major construction and service providers may follow global standards for worker safety, it does not appear that safety standards are monitored or enforced by the government. The front-page story in the National on the first day of our tour contained a headline about three workers killed when their scaffolding collapsed while working on high-rise buildings. People we spoke to about the issue of migrant worker safety and protections generally echoed the same sentiment; the onus of responsibility is on the private sector employers to improve conditions and rights for their workers.

There must be something in the water that makes everyone from local Emiratis to Western expatriates look at the state of migrant workers and consider it ‘pretty good,’ or ‘much better than before,’ i.e. no need to worry about it anymore. As in the pre-workers rights, laissez faire America, many employers here have no scruples when it comes to the treatment of their workers. It seems obvious that only through government regulation and active enforcement can worker conditions reach acceptable levels. For a country that is especially sensitive to negative coverage in the Western media, it seems to me that the government ought to take the initiative to establish some type of workers ‘Bill of Rights’ that defines a minimum wage that adjusts for inflation, as well as set and enforce minimum safety standards.

The Gulf States and the Arab Awakening

The second area in which the UAE (and specifically Dubai) is a regular punching bag is the fact that they are unapologetically undemocratic. So what has saved the monarchies of the UAE and Qatar from the popular uprisings of other Arab countries? Quite simply, financial stability. Qatar and Abu Dhabi have made sure that their citizens live comfortably with a substantial cut of the fossil-fuel revenues of these states. Dubai has a number of policies that encourage and in some cases force foreign businesses to partner with Emirati citizens. Both Qatar and the UAE have enormous public sectors that employ the majority of their citizens. In Qatar, a figure bandied about yesterday was that 70% of Qatari citizens work for the government; all of them just received a 60% pay raise as of this week. I don’t have the numbers for the UAE, but I imagine it’s similar in terms of public sector employment and per capita income.

The formula for the uprisings in other Arab countries has been serious economic mismanagement and corruption combined with a lack of accessible channels to voice dissent or opposition. The economic prosperity of Qatar and the UAE means that few have financial concerns. For those that do, the leaders have taken steps to buy some of the personal debt from its citizenry. In both Qatar and the UAE, the native population is so small – around 450,000 and 1.5 million respectively – that traditional tribal methods of governance can be effective. This involves the ruler maintaining personal relationships with male leaders of large tribes and families, with major decisions of the country often reached through a group consultative process called the shura. The UAE’s population is divided among six Emirates (the largest two being Abu Dhabi and Dubai), so the number of constituents per ruler is less than that of Qatar.

Trip highlights

Unlike some on the trip who will likely gush about our meeting with the ruler of Dubai and our subsequent meal with him (ok so I am also guilty of name-dropping here), I am not one to stand in awe of an unelected leader. I am incredibly impressed with Dubai and see it as perhaps the only Gulf state that will remain prosperous when we eventually reach the post-fossil fuels era. That being said, the success of Dubai is largely based on the work of people from around the world. Shaykh Muhammad had the foresight to plan for the future and the paradoxical benefit of having little revenue from oil or gas. He was able to attract a critical mass of human capital from around the globe. As a consequence, Dubai has become one of the world’s great cities.

For me, listening to Salman Shaikh from the Brookings Doha Center was the singular best event of the trip. I have never heard such an informed, brilliant analysis of regional issues in my life. It was like listening to Spock explain the Middle East with a British accent. This is a guy who, given the full diplomatic bag of carrots and sticks that the U.S. has available, could bring a pax americana to the Middle East for a hundred years. Of course, America’s fractured political system and a strong, right-of-center Israeli lobby cripples our ability to act as a fair mediator in the region, thereby making such prospects impossible.

Q&A with Salman Shaikh (right, speaking) and Ibrahim Sharqieh (left), the Director and Assistant Director respectively of the Brookings Doha Center.

The wrap-up

I ended the trip with many remaining questions and suggestions. One question that I was left with was why our guides for the trip – Nick, Taufiq, Fadi, Layla, and Magdalin – are so passionate about promoting a country that would never allow them to become Emirati citizens. If they cross the royal family or prominent Emirati citizens, there remains a serious question of whether the criminal justice system and rule of law would be able to protect them from expulsion, imprisonment, or worse. On the last day of the trip, the press reported that three Emirati brothers were given a small fine and a several months in prison for beating a Canadian couple who had taken their table at the Dubai IKEA. According to the reports, the woman was eight months pregnant and had her jaw broken by the attackers. After knocking the husband unconscious by a blow to the back of the head, one Emirati attacker was only stopped from beating the unconscious man with a chair by concerned onlookers, the primary good Samaritan being Syrian.

With a light slap on the wrist for endangering an unborn child and what could be considered attempted murder, the same state-of-the-art Dubai Courts that we had visited days before gave these Emirati thugs a slap on the wrist. There was not even the added shame of having their names revealed in court documents or the press, as Emirati laws shield the identities of all parties in any criminal case.

There is also the issue of a high-ranking member of the Abu Dhabi royal family being a sadist who enjoys torturing people on camera. With intrepid members of our group bringing up this case in multiple Q&A sessions and with our guides, I must question again whether there is something in the water in the Emirates. Time and time again, we were told that the fact that there was even a trial involving this prince represents “real progress.” The fact that he was found not guilty of all charges, despite there being videotape evidence of him torturing a former Afghan business partner, is dismissed as being secondary in importance.

On a trip planning level, I would also have loved to sit down in an informal setting with members of the Iranian community in the UAE, representing around 10% of the population. Rules that applied to our session at the Iranian Business Council prevented substantive discussion on the issue that was at the forefront of everyone’s consciousness: Iran’s nuclear program and the growing threat of military hostilities involving Iran, the U.S., and Israel. Arranging discussion outside of the council’s headquarters (in which political discussion is strictly forbidden) would have been incredibly valuable considering how rarely a group of Americans, Europeans, and Iranians get to be in a room together and can speak off the record.

Well, that’s all I have. I’m amazed that this piece became so long, for which I apologize to anyone still reading it. To the organizers of the trip and your anonymous funders, I give my sincerest thanks. To the other participants, thanks for all the laughs, questions, debates, insights, and sensitivity about my burgeoning waistline from eating Indian food, dim sum, crepes, and glass upon glass of mango lassi at our hotel’s incredible breakfast buffet. If I thought this piece could be any longer, I would add more about the incredible value of sharing this experience with so many thoughtful, intelligent people who I was able to exchange analysis and perspectives with on the events of each day.

For anyone interested in applying to this program, you can access the application here. The deadline is April 1st, and I highly recommend putting your best effort into it.


Japenga, at the Dubai Mall. Standard Dubai marketing of product as “elite” and “fashionable.”

Indoor skiing at the Mall of the Emirates.

Me pretending to give a deep and insightful lecture at the Dubai School of Government. In fact, I was purely going for the photo op and babbling some gibberish when this photo was taken.

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