Cut-and-paste national plans leave people cold

12 February 2012 - 02:01 By Greg Mills

Five years ago, Dubai could do little wrong. Between 2000 and 2005, the emirate's economy had grown by 13%, more than even China. Its free zones, now numbering more than 30, attracted international capital and visitors with their tax-free status and land rights for foreigners.

Money was poured into real estate. By the mid-2000s, construction projects worth $100-billion were under way. Three palm islands were envisaged, so too was a "world" island complex and even the "universe".

These, like the innumerable apartment skyrises, were aimed at attracting nouveau riche footballers and their "wags", Russian oligarchs and others fleeing taxation and other regimes.

The world's tallest building - the $4-billion, 160-storey, Burj Dubai - was the centrepiece of a planned $20-billion "downtown Dubai" development, surrounded by the Dubai Mall, six-star hotels and a lake.

But the dream ended with the global financial crisis in 2008, the emirate's escape route from which was symbolised by the renaming of the Burj Dubai as the Burj Khalifa after UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan in return for Abu Dhabi's support with a $20-billion bailout. The world and the universe were, with other property schemes, put on hold.

Today the emirate has a debt overhang, according to the IMF, of $109-billion, making Dubai's citizens one of the most indebted worldwide at over $400000 per capita.

Regardless, neighbouring Abu Dhabi, the richest of the seven emirates making up the UAE, has put together its own, similar diversification plan, Economic Vision 2030.

There could be little argument with any of its targets from an African (or any other) perspective, most notably the need to build a "sustainable economy... primarily through diversification ... enlarging the economic base, encouraging entrepreneurs, small business and foreign direct investment ... developing National Champion enterprises to act as economic anchors". The key enablers, too, could be replicated across a number of settings: energy and gas, petrochemicals, metals, aviation and defence, pharma-ceuticals and biotechnology, tourism, healthcare equipment and services, transportation and logistics, education, media, financial services, and telecommunication services.

Abu Dhabi's government aims to increase GDP by more than five times by 2030 (and GDP per capita by more than 50%), doubling non-oil sector GDP (to 64%) by 2030 and nearly halving reliance on the oil component, to 36%.

However, Economic Vision 2030 has so far proven a lot easier to draft than do. While identifying models from around the world and studying and even visiting them can easily be arranged, replicating them is far trickier. And it seems few consultants are willing to break the diversification template of a world-class airline, real-estate, infrastructure, a logistics' entrepot with free zones, and a Formula One track and race.

The fingerprints of such foreign consultants are everywhere, ensuring problems of originality, specificity, prioritisation and ownership. As one observer based in Abu Dhabi has put it: "They do such a cut-and-paste job on these plans that I have seen them use slides with Qatar's name on them when referring to Abu Dhabi."

Moreover, it is very difficult to justify the existence of one, let alone three or four, regional airport "hubs", for example, in nearby Qatar and Bahrain along with Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Rather than governments detailing complex yet largely banal visions, perhaps they would be better off identifying "paths" in which the role of their citizens as active participants is identified, where their actions and choices matter, and where it is the private rather than the public sector which is at the centre of growth.

Without this, Emiratis, like others, inevitably ask about such ambitious plans: who for, and what for?