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Tue 17 Mar 2015 05:42 PM

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Middle East misses out on Bloomberg competition to improve cities

Contest backed by former New York mayor to help Middle East leaders generate innovative ideas is postponed

Middle East misses out on Bloomberg competition to improve cities

A competition backed by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and intended to help leaders in the Middle East generate innovative ideas for how to improve their cities has been postponed, it emerged on Tuesday.

The Mayors Challenge is run by the former mayor’s philanthropic foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies.

The foundation has held two competitions so far – one in the US in 2013 and one in Europe last year – that awarded cities cash prizes of up to $5 million to help them execute original ideas for tackling urban challenges such as climate change, population growth and resource depletion.

Past winners have included Barcelona, Santa Monica, Chicago and Stockholm.

The foundation was hoping to launch the competition in the Middle East “in the coming year”, opening up the challenge to cities across the GCC and beyond for the first time, the former NYC mayor told an event hosted by Bloomberg in Dubai.

But he added a decision had been made to “focus on India and postpone this [the Middle East competition] for a while”. The foundation is supporting a separate ‘smart city’ initiative in India, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Speaking to Arabian Business after the event on Tuesday, Michael Bloomberg insisted there was no negative reason why the Middle East had not been selected as the subject of this year’s challenge – it was simply because the foundation “had its hands full with the India project”.

There are currently no plans to open the Mayors Challenge to Middle Eastern cities in 2016, a spokeswoman for Bloomberg added.

The competition is intended to celebrate compelling solutions for problems facing cities, and share best practice among city leaders from around the world.

At the event in Downtown, business leaders discussed the challenges facing Dubai and other emirates. Dubai, in particular, they agreed, is an “anchor” for the global growth economy, and its “newness” enables it to quickly adapt to shifting trends and market forces.

However, Dubai also faces challenges in ensuring its development is environmentally and socially sustainable, and in retaining a transient, non-national population through tough economic periods.

Bloomberg said: “One of the problems is that if it’s so easy for people to come and go, then in bad times they leave.”

Ashok Aram, chief executive of Deutsche Bank Middle East and North Africa (MENA), added that Dubai experiences substantial remittance flows out of the country because of its large expat population. He said he did not think this harms the emirate, as it boosts neighbouring countries’ economies and money “in turns finds its way back into the UAE”. However, he called for the development of pension funds and other local investment institutions to encourage expats to have more of a financial stake in where they are living.

Meanwhile, the collapse in the Russian rouble will have an impact on Dubai’s tourism industry, noted Marios Maratheftis, chief economist at Standard Chartered Bank. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the country changes tack and begins trying to attract tourists from a different market with a more affordable offer.”

Her Excellency Reem Al Hashimy, UAE minister of state and managing director of the Dubai Expo 2020 Higher Committee, insisted Dubai will play a big role in environmental sustainability. The Expo site, she said, will be 50 percent made from renewable materials and powered with renewable energy. “Dubai has moved beyond the superlatives and there is a real desire to learn how to make [our development process better]. It’s important to park the ego.”

Arif Naqvi, founder and chief executive of regional private equity firm the Abraaj Group, responded by warning of the dangers of hubris. “The DIFC was a classic case of ‘build it and they will come’,” he said, referring to a practice that real estate developers in many countries consider too high a risk.

“In some ways it’s mindboggling how many people did come [more than 1,000 companies were registered in DIFC by the end of 2013]. Then you stop and realise that it’s the only business hub between London and Singapore.”

He added: “I’m struck by the humility of the UAE’s leadership. Hubris – when businesses and governments become complacent about what they have achieved and can still achieve – is dangerous for cities.”

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