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Sun 22 Apr 2007 12:00 AM

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Far from an ordinary day

Despite being surrounded by half a trillion dollars, Sheikh Mohammed's words were what impressed most.

The day started normally. The car journey from Dubai to Abu Dhabi was the usual 90-minute trip with steady flows of drivers doing well over 200km/hr either flashing past my blue Nissan Tiida in a blur or deciding to hug my back bumper until I lost my nerve and indicated back into the slow lane. Until that is, I started to notice that I was surrounded by Mercedes', BMW's, Maseratis, Jags, bright white Range Rover Sports and Bentley Continental GT's instead of the usual cavalcade of Sunnys, Cherry's and, well, Tiida's. Not that there's anything wrong with a Nissan.

A large UAE flag whooshed past overhead, police motorbikes roared left and right and diplomatic plates came into view as I drove closer to the capital.

Approaching the Emirates Palace opposite the corniche, streams of cars queued up to get into the car park. Once inside, a tide of well over 1000 dignitaries in national dress and a handful of men in suits gathered around the entrance. "There's around half a trillion dollars in this room alone, it's got to be the most expensive room the UAE has ever booked," someone said to me excitedly. Something big was about to happen.

One hour later the queue began moving and we were ushered through the security gates. We finally emerged into a huge auditorium, the UAE's colours projected onto the vast walls on either side of the main stage, while a large statue of an eagle stared proudly down at the assembling crowd. Some time later the various royal families, including HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE and HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, began walking in. Everyone of any importance in the Emirates' political and business world was in the hall, no one had been left out.

If that wasn't spectacular enough, Sheikh Mohammed's words were even more impressive and, more importantly honest, refreshing and, as he continually re-emphasised, urgently needed. Among the calls for an enhanced level of government services to UAE nationals and expats, achieving greater levels of sustainable development and a solid strategic plan to increase competitiveness, lay the real words that brought with them huge bursts of applause and admiration - no one was expecting the Prime Minister to say what he did.

He called the current disposition of each of the six sectors, including the policy-making role of ministries and the cooperation between federal and local authorities "confused", "lacking strategic planning" and suffering from "deficiencies" in the legislative and regulatory framework. He said that federal institutions were "slow paced", that the justice ministry was lagging "20 years behind the times", and crucially that after spending hundreds of billions of dirhams on developing education, healthcare, housing, social welfare, culture, youth and sports, that despite the UAE's spending, the outcome had remained "far below" his and the government's expectations.

The hour between 12pm and 1pm on April 17, 2007, however, was totally unexpected - and far from an ordinary day.

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