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A week in Dubai

By Andrew M. Mwenda

I spent the first week of this month in Dubai. Now I first visited Dubai in 1996. It was, I thought then, a big city. I have since visited this desert town almost every year since 2002. But compared to today, the Dubai of 1996 was a small well-knit city, cozy and personal. You could literally walk the streets window-shopping from one shop to another and feel connected to it. There was an occasional shopping mall or arcade, but one could count these on the fingers on one palm. There were also many hotels within walking distance of each other.

Walking down any street you could accidentally bump into many Ugandans visiting the city and walk down to a nearby to café to gossip about President Yoweri Museveni’s schemes to keep power, corruption in the government, and institutional dysfunction in our country. Dubai airport itself was beautiful but familiar – not different from other airports around the world in size or grandeur. But one felt that the place was different, that something big was happening. It was all in the air, a beehive of activity.

Compared to now, Dubai of 2004 (a decade ago) was a little town. Today, Dubai is not just a city. It is a mega city, a sprawling metropolis with a jungle of sky-scrappers, twelve lane streets, air-trains, flyovers, shopping malls, all clans of the most expensive cars, golf courses, tennis courts and the world’s tallest building, the world’s most expensive hotel etc. The old city is almost dead. The new one is impersonal, connected only by technology. Although it looks magnificent, today’s Dubai also feels artificial. It lacks character – like many North American cities. Today’s Dubai may be flash with money but it lacks the kind of taste one finds in Paris, Brussels, and Rome.


But how did it all happen – in just ten years? Dubai defies everything that has obsessed our public discourse over the decades in regard to how to transform a country. Anyone following debate on economic development in Uganda (and Africa generally) would hear such words as democracy, human rights, governmental accountability, bottom-up policies, freedom of speech and association, free and fair elections, separation of powers, political participation blah blah blah… All too often, we argue (echoing the language of London, Brussels, Washington and Paris that the absence of these governance “fundamentals” is a major part of the explanation for our economic backwardness.

I write this article with a lot of humility because I am a passionate believer in these principles as well. I am the archetypal product of a Western education – imparted upon me from birth by reading western scholarship. However, Dubai’s rapid transformation from a fishing village to a sprawling metropolis in a generation defies everything I have believed about economic transformation. In that country, the citizens hardly participate in the politics of the country through elections, or free assembly and publicity. The leader (an Emir) literally decides what is good for the country and a bureaucracy (itself largely staffed by foreign technical experts) implements his vision for the good of his people. And it works.

I belong to the free market variety of thought. But even here my ideological outlook is defeated by facts. The government (to be precise, the Emir and his family) literally own almost everything – the airline, hotels, banks, insurance companies, real estate, telecommunications, even taxis are all owned by the state (or the ruling family). It is difficult to distinguish the private (or personal) wealth of the ruler of Dubai from the public assets of the state. Power is centralised and almost personalised in his hands – he makes all the fundamental decisions. There is no parliament to restrain his hand, no judiciary to balance his power, no press to expose scandal, and no civil society to agitate for the interests of the citizens.

The Emir runs the country like a business – him being the CEO. He hires and fires personnel at will; has an army of international experts to manage the large businesses. Love or hate his ways, the system delivers for his people. The citizens of Dubai have one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, the highest standard of living and equally the best social welfare system of any country. Service to the citizen is not a result of civic organisation and pressure but rather seems to come from the conscience of the ruling elite to make a difference in the lives of their people.

Indeed, governance is very paternalistic. Most citizens of Dubai you meet and talk to describe the ruler as kind and generous. People approach him with personal problems – whether financial or marital and he offers assistance and guidance. He is both a head of state and a father figure to his citizens. Even foreigners from other Arab nations and the Far East who work in Dubai describe him in such personal terms. One cab driver told me that sometimes he drives himself in his car without any security detail. That once when a traffic police officer stopped him and gave him a ticket, he showed up at a police station to pay his fine. This may be true or just a myth. But regardless of its authenticity, this story forms part of the narrative of how power is exercised.

I am not suggesting that Uganda adopts the governance model of Dubai. However, the lesson we learn is that what makes nations successful is the ability to find public policies and political institutions that their people understand. Part of the problem of Uganda (and Africa) is that we spend so much time reciting foreign ideologies chapter and verse but always fail to relate them to our realities. Thus while our problems are local and the demands to solve them are locally generated, the tendency is that when it comes to designing solutions, we retreated to theories drawn from textbooks.

These theories evolved in North America and Europe to explain a specific historical experience – how changing technology drove structural change and all this led to political struggles. These struggles were nourished by existing norms, values, traditions, and shared cultural understandings and therefore produced a specific institutional setup. It is unlikely that one can cut and paste it on a society with different social dynamics and they work. Therefore, a major source of failure in Africa may be this mismatch between demands and solutions.

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