If Dubai can do it


3A city where the impossible is possible

Now is the perfect time for a Filipino to go to Dubai, to neither live nor work, but simply to see how a strong vision, genuine compassion, and unwavering dedication for country can change a peoples’ life, no matter what the odds.

The words of His Highness Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, emblazoned on the first floor of the world’s tallest building—Dubai’s pride, the Burj Khalifa—imparts this truth more succinctly, and with unquestionable authority. He says, “The word impossible is not in the leaders’ dictionaries. No matter how big the challenges, strong faith, determination and resolve will overcome them.”

Besides this 828-meter high feat, the rest of the city is the absolute proof of his words, with its breathtaking skyline; Dubai’s prosperous global business climate; its astonishing manmade wonders; and the very decent and proud quality of life of its people.

141The group of nine journalists, including The Sunday Times Magazine, which joined Cebu Pacific Air’s maiden flight to the Golden City of the United Arab Emirates from October 7 to 10, had the good—and eye-opening—fortune of experiencing the exciting tourist haven that is Dubai, but with the kind of appreciation that goes beyond scenical awe.

Thanks to the brilliant emirati (the name given to citizens of all seven cities or emirates of the UAE), Prof. Dr. Norman Ali Bassam Khalaf, our tourist guide—and an accomplished zoologist, ecologist and geologist—The Sunday Times Magazine had a first-hand account of how Dubai in particular surged from extreme poverty to become the most expensive, and perhaps the most world renowned, city in the Middle East.

‘From zero to hero’
Dr. Norman, as the group fondly called him for the three-day trip, is both an extremely generous and knowledgeable man. Not only did he impart the history of his beloved city—the second largest land territory in the UAE after the capital Abu Dhabi—but he enhanced everyone’s appreciation of Dubai’s development with very personal and engaging stories about himself and his family.

At 51 years old, Dr. Norman experienced first-hand the darker days of Dubai, before it leaped to prominence over the last five decades.

“We were very poor,” the professor began the abbreviated history lesson against a contrasting backdrop of moving skyscrapers, some even laden with gold. The tour bus was traversing Dubai’s main thoroughfare, Sheikh Zayed Road, as he held the microphone.

“Just some 50 years ago, we all lived in palm huts along Dubai Creek [which runs northeast-southwest through the city—Wikipedia], because that was our only strategic source of livelihood,” he sai.

While every other pedestrian in Dubai today is dressed in a business suit, Dr. Norman enumerated the three occupations that existed in pre-cosmopolitan Dubai as fishing, pearl diving and ship trading.

“And just as I speak with my sons today about the latest Lamborghini or Jaguar, my father used to talk to me about the teeth of our donkey, because that’s how we got around in those days,” he added as a matter of fact to an incredulous audience. “We had no cars, because we didn’t have a single street, and you would surely not find Dubai mentioned on any map 50 years ago, as well.”

He even talked about having to wait for the sand to settle at the bottom of a glass for a drink of water; seeing his first light bulb only in the 1960s; and an educational system that comprised of only four years.

“But, as we like to say here in Dubai, we went from ‘zero to hero’,” he proudly remarked. “Today, the water that comes out of our taps is of the highest quality; we have huge power stations supplying electricity to this worldwide business city; and our students always look beyond university for masters and doctorate degrees.”

Stuff of fairy tales
Dr. Norman’s revealed his children often tease him about churning out “fairy tales” when he talks about his Dubai of old.

How could they not think so, when the standard of living in Dubai today is rated as the 22nd most expensive in the world (Wikipedia), along with a list of record-breaking feats that are simply everyday sightings for them—the world’s tallest building; the world’s largest man-made resort, the Atlantis at The Palm (which houses the world’s biggest suite, costing roughly P1 million per night); the world’s only seven-star hotel the Burj Al Arab; and other endless fascinating facts that are all second nature to them.

How did it all happen?

“We discovered oil in 1966, which was far less than Abu Dhabi’s. But with a clear vision, our leader, Sheik Rashid, put the money the country generated to good use,” Dr. Norman replied.

Dubai’s poster boy
For the Sheik, education was crucial in Dubai’s development, so much so that since the city had hardly any schools to speak of, or a proper curriculum for that matter, he sent the best of the best students of the basic Quran School to study abroad for free. One of them happened to be the future Prof. Dr. Norman Ali Bassam Khalaf.

“I was first sent to Qatar for university, then I went on to do further studies and completed my masters in the United Kingdom, and then my doctorate in Germany,” Dr. Norman presented his credentials. “The government paid for my entire education, and on the day I gained my PhD, Dubai’s ambassador to Germany at that time was at my graduation, and as he congratulated me, he told me, ‘Your country is waiting for you’.”

It was a very important time for Dubai’s own scholars to return home so that they could help the government oversee the work of consultants and professionals from all over the world who were hired to build the entire city—from the water systems and power stations to roads and railways, the economy, and of course their own educational system.

“When we, the emiratis returned home, the government tasked us to work alongside those they hired to develop Dubai, and they were surprised that educationally, we were in the same level as them.”

Despite having seen the Western world, never did it enter Dr. Norman’s mind to settle elsewhere because of the opportunities his country had afforded him and fellow emiratis in his same situation.

“We have a strong sense of service to our country,” related the PhD-holder who reports as a tourist guide when the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing calls on him to show around important foreign delegations.

“How could we not serve our country, when they provide us our housing, our education, and every basic need in living,” continued Dr. Norman. “We are well taken care of by our government, and the least we can do is to give back to them.”

As the next three days of discovering Dubai ensued for The Sunday Times Magazine and the Philippine delegation, so did a rollercoaster ride of pleasure, thrill, excitement, disbelief and discernment. The positives on the list can be explained by this article’s sidebar on the city’s dazzling tourism destinations, while the more curious sentiments arise from our own nation’s realities.

Granted that the Philippines is not an oil-rich nation, it is still abundant in natural resources, with a people that, like Dr. Norman and his fellow emiratis, are bursting with potential. Besides these, taxes are dutifully paid by hardworking individuals, while overseas workers, continue to help drive the economy.

There are also gigantic foreign investors present in the Philippines, just like in Dubai, who recognize the country’s assets, and therefore boost government revenue in the process.

So even in a much smaller scale, the same elements that can be found in that fairy tale land in the Middle East also exist in these 7,107 islands. Given these, when you, a Filipino, find yourself in the Golden City of the UAE, you will surely wonder, “If Dubai can do it, why can’t we?”

Not that anyone asked him, but somewhere in his sharing, the wise poster boy of Dubai, Prof. Dr. Norman Ali Bassam Khalaf, provided the answer: “To have money alone will not solve the problem of poverty; it all depends on a good leader with a good vision to make the impossible possible.”

The sad truth is, it was just a rhetorical question, because we have all known the answer for a very long time—much, much longer than 50 years ago.


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