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Thu 9 Jul 2009 04:00 AM

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The world’s fastest city

Author Jim Krane talks to Kat Slowe about the real Dubai, revealing lesser known sides to the city that he will be discussing in his new book, and describing the inspiration for his story.

The world’s fastest city
The world’s fastest city
Dubai’s rise to development is inspired by the visions of HH Sheikh Mohammed.
The world’s fastest city
Dubai may need to reassess its high energy consumption and heavy carbon footprint, considered to be one of the highest in the world.

Author Jim Krane talks to Kat Slowe about the real Dubai, revealing lesser known sides to the city that he will be discussing in his new book, and describing the inspiration for his story.

“A lot of a lot of people who have actually heard of Dubai do not realise that it is an Arab city that is in the Middle East,” author and journalist Jim Krane states. “Too often when I would contact people back in the States, they would always tell me: ‘Oh, you’re in the UAE. Wooooh, keep your head down. Are you in the military?’

“I’d be like: ‘No, I’m a journalist reporting on the place.’ They would say: ‘Wow, I’m going to pray for you.’

“I think: ‘What are you? I have to write a book about this place. You people really just don’t understand it.’”

And so, Krane, an Associated Press (AP) journalist and former consultant to HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, started to detail his perspective of the Middle East. His book, provisionally titled Dubai: The Story of the World’s Fastest City, is to be published in the US this September. In it, he will be giving an account of the impressions he garnered from living in the region and discussing a number of controversial topics, such as the environment, demographics and labour.

Krane was sent to Dubai by the AP in 2004 from Baghdad, where he had been covering the aftermath of the US invasion. To begin with, he was not keen about the idea of going to Dubai to live: “I was sort of hoping for a post somewhere else, some place more interesting, maybe in Europe or East Asia. I knew that there was going to be an opening in Vietnam. I was kind of hoping for that.”

Krane’s desire for ‘interesting’ by this point no longer extended to Baghdad, his experience of which had created in him a vast sense of disillusionment towards the government of his home country, America.

“The last thing I worked on in Iraq was the big US onslaught of Fallujah in 2004,” he explains. “When that was over I left Iraq and that was a major bloodbath, with huge aerial bombardment and a lot of street to street fighting.”

Krane was positioned at a command post behind the front line, obtaining all the intelligence reports. Though there were other reporters who were with troops in the town, he realised he was receiving a broader view from commanders at the post and he also had access to highly classified video streams from some of the unmanned aerial vehicles, which were flying over the city.

While he was there he tells of how he saw ‘car bombs going off and suicide bombers blowing themselves up,’ not to mention the ‘aerial bombardments, gun fights and rockets, and mortars hitting hotels, or restaurant buildings.’ Yet it was not the pure violence that affected Krane the most, but the futility and pointlessness of the actual invasion, which he watched do so much damage to the country and its people.

“In Iraq, what affected me the most was seeing the futility of the US effort, and it just sort of dawned on me that these guys had no idea what they were doing, and they were just screwing things up,” he says.

“By the time I left the country, not only did the US efforts show no improvements, but the place was just getting worse and worse, and more and more violent.

“At the time I had a very low opinion of the US government, the Bush administration in particular, and of these Republican party operatives that were spinning the news to try to get president Bush re-elected, which actually happened.”

When Bush was re-elected, Krane admits he was “disgusted by the whole affair.”

“It seemed like the whole invasion was a huge mistake and that there were these republican operatives spinning the news so that Americans back in the States couldn’t get the true story,” he adds with indignation. “They were deriding the coverage that we journalists were providing and calling us biased. In the meantime, they are presiding over the destruction of a country for no good reason and claiming otherwise.”It was despite — or perhaps because of — the huge contrast with Iraq, that Krane, upon his arrival in Dubai, rapidly changed his mind about the emirate.

“It seemed like an amazing place, actually,” he says, “the contrast with Baghdad, especially, was really amazing.”

“As fast as Baghdad and Iraq was being destroyed, Dubai was rising up into magnificence. [Baghdad] was just being torn down day by day and the exact opposite was happening in Dubai when I got there.

“The upheaval was just stark, there was just as much going on, but it was positive as opposed to negative… Highways being built, power lines being strung, ports being dug, buildings were rising up, skyscrapers, whole new neighbourhoods were covering the sands.”

Krane claims it was the positivity of Dubai after Baghdad which partially “spurred” him towards writing his book: “It was that there was this hopeful place not so far away and that people in the States didn’t really know about it.”

The idea that Dubai could act as an economic model for the Middle East struck Krane with force. He realised that the city acted as a prime example of what the region could achieve — without US help.

“On its own Dubai is becoming a blueprint for a new Middle East,” he says. “It’s becoming an economic model others can use… This all happened completely behind Washington’s back.

“The US has put its emphasis on Iraq and Israel, and Palestine, and they paid no attention at all to what Dubai was doing, or what was going on in the UAE.

“Lo and behold, Washington now kind of likes what is happening here. Now it wants to sort of co-opt it a little bit and it wants to hold Dubai up as a model, especially to Iran, as the right way to develop and the right way to develop nuclear power. But Dubai’s wild growth had absolutely nothing to do with Washington. Washington was looking the other way.”

Krane adds after a second: “Maybe it’s a challenge for them to take a less interventionist approach and, I mean, let some of these things happen on their own, and not to try to shake up the Middle East, because it is a disaster when you do that.”

But even with his new love for Dubai and his amazement at what he describes as the city’s “incredible achievements,” Krane remains aware that the city has its problems. Many of these, he says, there may still be time to rectify, before emphasising that Dubai may need to reassess its high energy consumption and heavy carbon footprint.

“Their carbon footprint is the highest in the world,” he says. “There are these government subsidies that make energy artificially cheap, so the whole city is built on the premise that there is going to be this cheap gas or cheap energy. The entire city is a model for energy inefficiency.

“There is not really a lot they are going to be able to do to retro-fit these buildings… These buildings that they are building — these kind of glass skinned skyscrapers especially, they just collect heat, so you need to pump all sorts of air conditioning into them just to cool them.

“You can even question whether the middle of a waterless desert is the proper place for a city of two million people.”

In order for Dubai to succeed as a financial capital of the world, Krane argues the Dubai government must start considering how to make it sustainable in the long term. Though, he accepts, to some extent the government’s hands are tied in regard to the maintenance of energy subsidies.“The government subsidises energy heavily as part of its ruling bargains,” he explains. “They do this, basically, in return for political support from the locals… And it’s not something they can roll back easily.”

The second main issue that Krane identifies Dubai as facing is what he describes as the “demographic problem.” He claims that the Dubai population, consisting of only five percent Emiratis, is not sustainable in the long term.

“There is a huge debate going on in the UAE right now as to the best way to handle this demographic problem,” he says. “Before the economic crash it was the biggest problem that the government offices were working on. I was a consultant at Sheikh Mohammed’s executive office for about six or seven months, so I had a little bit of inside knowledge on it.”

According to Krane, there are a lot of different schools of thought as to how to handle the demographics issue. One school, he describes, argues to “reduce the number of Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos, and bring in lots of different groups,” so that no one group could ever rise up.

He claims that there are Emiratis who fear an uprising could happen and point to Singapore as an example.

“They see how the Malays lost control of Singapore,” Krane says, “because the British imported a lot of Chinese and Indian labourers, who became the majority and then just seceded, and became an independent city state. And they say: ‘look this could happen to Dubai. The Malays were about fifteen percent of the population when Singapore seceded from Malaysia. Well, we are just five percent of the population.’”

The government’s most viable alternatives to diversification, Krane claims, are either to provide citizenship to expats or to slow down Dubai’s development, to give the Emirati population time to catch up. However, he says increasing the number of nationals would provide a new difficulty.

“Each new person who gets citizenship dilutes the privileges of the existing Emiratis now,” Krane says. “Your average run of the mill Joe Emirati doesn’t like the idea of granting citizenship, because his privileges are going to be watered down slightly.”

Krane plans to deal with the topics of the environment and demographics in his new book, along with issues such as labour, prostitution, trafficking, terrorism and Dubai’s political relationships.

“I did a chapter on Iran and Dubai’s relationship with Iran, and how it deals so effectively with Iran on one hand, and Washington on the other,” he says. “It is managing to stay friends with both and profit really handsomely from both, and it’s been really good at resisting pressure from Washington, for the most part, to devolve itself from Iraq.”

The author’s admiration is not limited to the Dubai government’s political acumen. Despite his many reservations regarding the city’s development, Krane has nothing but praise for many other aspects of Dubai: “They have accomplished lots of incredible feats against really huge odds. I mean the odds that the little village was going to become this big glittering metropolis that we see before us are so long that nobody would have believed it could happen.”

But Dubai, Krane states, has proved the critics wrong. He professes to admire the liberal laws and traditions in the emirate that have made it possible for Dubai to succeed in the manner it has. “They have been really smart and their timing has been great,” he says. “They have been really willing to take incredible risks that look outrageous even to Western management consultants.”

Eventually, Krane predicts, Dubai could represent the region and surrounding area, becoming the international financial centre it aspires to be.

“If you watch the financial news on CNBC or CNN you will see that the trading day wakes up in the Far East with Tokyo and Hong Kong, and Singapore coming to life, and then they don’t report any corporate results until finally Frankfurt, and then Paris, wakes up,” he says. “So, there is this long stretch of multiple hours when there is no financial reporting going on and Dubai is going to fill that gap in a few years, hopefully. After Singapore reports, then two hours later we’ll get the Dubai stock market.”

Krane concludes with a final message of optimism: “Dubai ignored the doubters and proved them wrong time after time, year after year, decade after decade. There have always been doubters pointing to Dubai, saying, ‘look, that is just not going to work,’ and they have been wrong every time. They have never been right yet. They have been humiliated over and over, and I expect it is going to happen again this time.”

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