WHEN I met the Sheik Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoumof Dubai back in the 1970, I vividly remember the words that he imparted with us before we started designing and building the Dubai of the future. He said: “Design Dubai as if there is no oil. 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 fifteen years, bring Dubai from the third to the first world.” The ruler of Dubai had visionary leadership, strong political will, good planning, good design, and good governance. He loved his country and his people.
When I was name-hired by the ruler of Dubai in the ‘70s, I was in my mid-20s and considered myself very fortunate to have been part of the team that transformed Dubai. I was the only Filipino, the only Southeast Asian. Just weeks ago, I had the chance to revisit the country with my children when we attended the Big5 Conference, the largest construction conference in the Middle East. I also had the opportunity to talk to a community of Filipino professionals through the United Architects of the Philippines (UAP) – Dubai Chapter.
The core of all plans is clear vision. When the Ruler spoke to us, he was clear that he no longer just wanted to become dependent on oil. He knew that the oil would run out in 35 to 40 years. He wanted a city with multiple industries like tourism, sports, shopping, and dining, but a people-oriented city at the same time. Government should help businesses. What is good for business is good for Dubai.
Clear vision is fundamental. It gathers people towards concrete goals, while reaching for heaven like dreams. Who would have thought that instead of fifteen years, the reconstruction of Dubai was done in ten years? They were five years ahead of schedule, more or less due to a unified and inspiring vision.
I recently heard that the present ruler Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is said to have dressed down in plain clothes and would go to places such as coffee shops just to ask: “How can we improve Dubai?” Another iconic story told is that while he was strolling with a fellow leader from another country, an old woman approached them and was pushed away by his companion. He said, “No, let her speak” and helped her up. The old woman said, “I just want to thank you for what you have done for Dubai.” This was the image that was shared to us: A leader who is not above his constituent, but someone who is at the service of his people.
From personal experience, the late Ruler despised corruption. When we were planning Dubai, he instructed the government planning office to get to work and have the plans and designs approved as fast as possible. They were required to respond immediately if they had any objections to the plan. If they did not respond within two weeks, they had no reason to delay any further. In my recent visit, I learned that the planning office does all consultations electronically already! It has decreased corruption, because face to face negotiations were avoided when assessing plans. The conversation can be tracked, and we could see today where e-governance has led Dubai.
Mass transportation and city planning
While I was walking my daughter Karmi, my mind was filled with memories of where I used to work and what I helped design. The true satisfaction of an architect or a planner is not entirely the planning of the city and its buildings, but how the structures help citizens become better people. Dubai is a people-centered city. It is both walkable and bikeable. The pleasure of all nationalities, classes, ages, including seniors like me is to walk kilometers, feeling safe and comfortable. Dubai now has the most modern metro-LRT – the first train with first class and business class.
Whenever it held numerous world leaders summit, and economic summits, Dubai did not experience the traffic we suffered during APEC week. We should ask the question: “Why is that so?”
The answer: because Dubai has planned its infrastructure for transportation 50 years ahead of its time. Citizens do not need to use cars to get them to their destination on time. Buses and trains are more than enough to move them. With well a planned transportation system, there is ease of doing business in Dubai. Even if oil prices are volatile around the world, Dubai has enough economic activity to withstand it. Aviation, tourism, and shopping contribute more to the wealth of Dubai than oil.
When we arrived in the airport of Dubai, I felt so welcomed. The hospitality and the comfort was world class. There is a saying “Before one becomes an investor of another country, he must first become a satisfied tourist.” Back in the 1970’s the Manila International Airport was ahead of its neighbors, better than Dubai airport. We should take a cue now from Dubai and rethink the way we plan, design, and operate our airports.
If you visit the Dubai Municipality, you would see that everyone is encouraged to put forward complaints and suggestions to improve government services in order to make Dubai a Happy and Sustainable City of the Future. All these and more reflect the secret to Dubai’s success: vision, leadership, and innovation.