Dubai's Dreams Turn to Dust

Middle East-based MBA student faces an uncertain job future

Dubai is a land of extremes.

On the one hand it is a part of the Middle East and what is arguably a very conservative Muslim region. On the other hand it has tried to become a modern metropolis and a regional trade hub. Though the two are not mutually exclusive it has been difficult to balance the aspirations of the government with the inherent insular culture of the region.

It has had notable successes in its goals of becoming a trade hub but has had to deal with issues of sustainability and, sometimes, sanity of what it has been doing. Lots of titles have been given to the city state; "The Vegas of the Middle East" is what comes to mind most often. Life in Dubai is very different from the rest of the region; from creating the world’s tallest building to the world's largest man-made islands, Dubai has seen remarkable growth in the past 10 years.

Dubai’s current fall from grace has been quite traumatic for both the region and the city state. Personally, it has meant that I will have to look elsewhere for employment after completing my MBA. Originally, I had planned to seek employment with a large multinational company in Dubai after completing my studies, now I plan to stay in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for a bit longer or to look elsewhere.

Stories of people leaving their brand new luxury cars at the airport with a "sorry" note, and of record numbers of school-leaving certificates issued are stark reminders of the fact that a large part of Dubai’s population are foreigners, people who will or must leave when work dries up. Dubai’s special economic zones, or “cities within cities” as they are called, were meant to inspire entrepreneurship but are now empty ghost towns. By some estimates office space occupancy has fallen to 50%, a scary thought since a large part of the city’s GDP is derived from real estate.

To say all is well would be grossly misleading, but to say that Dubai is dead and buried would be equally spurious. Not everything is doom and gloom. The first monorail project in the region was recently launched with much fan fare and the opening of the Burj Khalifa was another landmark in the history of the region.

The capricious nature of the world of finance has hurt almost every country, Yogi Berra, the famous baseball player, once said, “the future ain’t what it used to be.” Singling Dubai out for lack of foresight would be unfair. There are signs of recovery in the region; The Middle East needs Dubai almost as much as Dubai needs Foreign Direct Investment to survive.

Dubai is a place where almost any culture can find something familiar enough to be comfortable. It is not exactly a melting pot but rather a place where differences are better tolerated than in the rest of the region.

As for me, I still have a year left to study before I decide where I want to move. By then, Dubai may have recovered to the point where it will be a feasible move, or other places in the region might also start to look attractive: Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have been doing well recently. It’s hard to say what will happen a year from now, but I know I will be keeping a close watch.

To borrow terms from academia I would say Dubai’s future is deterministic but not predictable, i.e. the previous state will determine the next but the current information cannot be used to predict what that future will be.

Syed Husain has been a Saudi in Chicago, a Chicagoan in New York, and an Indian in Saudi Arabia. Right now, he is in Saudi Arabia working at a bank and is studying for the Cross Continent MBA program at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University

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