CHRISTMAS of 1976 will always be memorable for me. Sultan Khalifa Al Habtoor, of Dubai, was looking for urban planners who will help the Ruler of Dubai to plan, design, and develop Dubai from the third world to the first. If I remember correctly, I first came across Dubai in one of my uncle’s encyclopedia. It said there, 0 percent paved roads. It even misspelled the country as “Dibai.”
It was in one afternoon that Sultan Khalifa personally met me in Mandarin Hotel. While he was presenting the goals and vision for the development of Dubai, in my mind, I was thinking of what will I do in Dubai? Back then, Manila was probably 100 years ahead of Dubai in terms of infrastructure, paved roads, transportation, and airports. Today, with its good governance for the last 40 years, Dubai is 200 years ahead of Manila.
During the conversation, a specific thought shared by Sultan Khalifa struck me, as these were the specific instructions of the late founder of “Modern Dubai,” His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai. “Design Dubai as if there is no oil. Plan a city for 2 million people (In 1977 the population was 270,000). Create a garden city out of the desert. Travel around the world and take the best practices that we can adopt. Make Dubai a pacesetter city in the Middle East and North Africa in 15years; bring Dubai from the third to the first world.”
I arrived in Dubai as an architect/urban planner with a designation of Senior Planner for the Town Planning Department of the Dubai Municipality. I was one of the first Filipinos and Southeast Asian architect-urban planners in Dubai, and worked with expatriates from more than 20 countries. There were professional, cultural and personal differences and challenges to overcome. I was expected not only to deliver, but to excel.
Sheikh Rashid was well-known to have a hearty distaste for bureaucracy and corruption, a trait that he took pains to pass on to his sons, who also became rulers of Dubai, Prime Minister, Vice President, and Minister of the federal government of UAE. Thus, getting a building built in Dubai is easier than in other countries I have worked in. Permits are given in one day. If there are any objections, these must be justified in two weeks. What is good for business is good for Dubai. The businessmen must have spent more time to study their projects better because it’s their own land, money, and reputation at stake, while approval of the permits by the government only costs six hours’ worth of work. Today, for every Dubai citizen, there are 10 jobs available without a personal income tax.
In the late 60s, the oil boom started. However, Sheikh Rashid knew the city could not rely on its limited oil reserves, since it was far smaller than those of some of its neighbors. He urged and encouraged private enterprise to develop non-oil related commerce like tourism, sports, and shopping centers. Sheikh Rashid also relaxed commercial and financial regulations, as well as maintain its income-tax-free environment, some of Dubai’s enduring traits to this day.
Without cohesive administration of development at large, the town was set to become a messy collage of residential, commercial, and industrial buildings. In a bottom-up approach, the Dubai Municipality integrated structural change with administrative improvement. The local government became the engine room on which all private sector and government development functioned.
What the Philippines can adopt
Transparent information and the use of electronic applications for permits are just some of the remarkable qualities of Dubai’s soft infrastructure. Too much face-to-face interactions become the cause of under the table arrangements. Through e-applications, everything is traceable. It is also much faster to communicate and much cheaper for both the government and citizens.
In recent news, I heard that the new administration is pushing for a 72-hour deadline for government transactions. After the time period, there should be a reasonable explanation for the delay. Without any, it is automatically approved. Apart from strict implementation of laws, the citizens greatly benefited from the incentive of being able to save much money for increasing operational efficiency.
Dubai and the rest of UAE also gave a strong emphasis in mass transportation and pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods. With good and efficient transportation, the citizens, visitors, tourists and the like will be able to move, and attract business opportunities and foreign investments.
Lessons learned from Sheikh Rashid of Dubai
Some people think Dubai is successful because of oil. In reality, Dubai earns only 2 percent in oil. It earns more in tourism, shopping, dining, sports, real estate, and other non-oil revenues. After the 1970s oil crisis, Dubai and the rest of the UAE realized that they needed stronger institutions. They stimulated development and did not over-regulate.
They now have the best airport, seaports, dry docks, transport, LRT, and tallest buildings.
The current Ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister of UAE, H.H. Sheik Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, has made Dubai a global gateway city—with strong leadership and innovation.
Foresight, or long-term and visionary approach to development, is needed to successfully adapt from one resource to another, and support sustainable growth. This is one of the characteristics of Dubai that the Philippine government and the Filipino people can learn from and emulate, along with strong political will, good governance, good planning, and good design.