December 06, 2009  |  permalink

Don’t Write Off Dubai

For all the Schadenfreude over Dubai—a city, as we hear ad nauseam, that was “built on sand,” as it was smugly summed up with an ironic undergraduate epitaph from the poem “Ozymandias” (“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”). But we should tone that down, because Dubai built itself in America’s gilded image: a debt-fueled “service economy” pleasure dome of beachfront real estate and megamalls, side-by-side with seething inequality and conflicting belief systems, each tolerant of the other only when shopping.

And if the emirate’s finances are buckling under the weight of its white elephants, they’d invested heavily in our bubble economy, from Barneys to the W Union Square, paying, in retrospect, much too much. The emirate’s biggest American misadventure by far is its 50 percent stake in CityCenter, the $8.5 billion gambling complex opening this week on the Las Vegas Strip. Dubai finally came to its senses last spring, suing owner MGM Mirage for breach of contract and trying to wriggle free, but the two sides eventually settled. CityCenter is presently worth barely half of what its uneasy partners paid for it.

It also looks rather like something that would be built—in Dubai. But for all the chuckles over developments like a suburb of artificial islands in the shape of “the world,” in fact, the resource-poor emirate did exactly what it was supposed to do during a decade when borrowed money was cheap and the price of its neighbors’ oil rose from $20 a barrel before 9/11 to nearly $150 last summer. Just as the bulge-bracket banks, hedge funds, and private equity firms leveraged themselves to the hilt to take advantage of these conditions, Dubai leveraged itself twice over—its debt is greater than its GDP—to build a city expressly designed to separate its neighbors from their money. In hindsight, this sounds crazy, but only in hindsight.

At the time, the Persian Gulf’s oil states were growing at a rate of 6 percent a year, while India was growing at 9 percent, and even African nations were benefiting from the commodities boom, while China couldn’t get enough of their oil. They were all dressed up with no place to go, so Dubai’s leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum and his lieutenants set out to build the world’s ultimate crossroads, a trading hub and playpen for the world’s nouveaux riches.

Clearly, they got carried away. But rather than a cautionary tale, Dubai has improbably become the model city of the Middle East. Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain are all busy building instant cities and sculpting islands in a bid to finish what it started and divert the world’s new wealth to their own doors. They have the advantage of petroleum reserves, however, to tide them through the downturn.

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But Dubai isn’t finished yet, and there’s a lesson in that for us. Dubai might be stalled now, but it leveraged itself into becoming the region’s Hong Kong of sorts, boasting its largest port, largest airport, biggest and most profitable airline (Emirates, which flies the super-jumbo Airbus A380 to New York), and a no-questions-asked philosophy that has made it a smuggler’s paradise. Its melting pot of a middle class is composed of the best and brightest fleeing Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran. Thanks to them, half of Sheikh Mohammed’s experiment has a future.

Most importantly, Dubai is now the Western terminus of what the Royal Bank of Scotland’s chief China economist Ben Simpfendorfer calls the “New Silk Road,” the renewed trade between the Arab-speaking world and China. It’s China’s gateway to new customers in Africa and the Middle East—to whom it hopes to sell all the goods Americans are too tapped out to buy, in exchange for oil. Those are customers America needs if it hopes to get the economy back on track.

One of the great ironies of Dubai is that it was built with money repatriated to the Gulf after 9/11, following the Patriot Act and the ensuing hassles to obtain a visa. America is indirectly responsible for both Dubai’s rise and fall. And we’ll need it to rise again.

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October 17, 2009  |  permalink

The Evolution of Cities, at TEDxAtlanta

This past September, I was invited by Unboundary’s Tod Martin to speak about “the evolution of cities” at the first TEDxAtlanta. For those of you unfamiliar with TED, it’s the preeminent conference for progressive techies, designers, business types, and so on. It may be the only conference where the scheduled programs is the whole point of going (as opposed to schmoozing in the hallways). No one leaves their seats.

But it’s hard to build a brand around an annual event, and so TED has branched out with its TEDx satellites—smaller, locally hosted events in TED’s image. I was fortunate enough to crack the opening lineup of the inaugural Atlanta event, which will run three times a year. Photos are available, but no video, unfortunately. I’ve cut-and-pasted a few of my prepared remarks below.

Greg Lindsay at Tedx Atlanta

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion.  He is also a partner at FutureMap, a geo-strategic advisory firm based in Singapore, a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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Articles by Greg Lindsay

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The State of Play: Connected Mobility in San Francisco, Boston, and Detroit

Harvard Business Review  |  September 24, 2018

Why Companies Are Creating Their Own Coworking Spaces

CityLab  |  July 2018

The State of Play: Connected Mobility + U.S. Cities

Medium  |  May 1, 2017

The Engine Room

Fast Company  |  January 19, 2017

The Collaboration Software That’s Rejuvenating The Young Global Leaders Of Davos

The Guardian  |  January 13, 2017

What If Uber Kills Public Transport Instead of Cars

Backchannel  |  January 4, 2017

The Office of the Future Is…an Office

New Cities Foundation  |  October 2016

Now Arriving: A Connected Mobility Roadmap for Public Transport

Inc.  |  October 2016

Why Every Business Should Start in a Co-Working Space

Popular Mechanics  |  May 11, 2016

Can the World’s Worst Traffic Problem Be Solved?

The New Republic  |  January/February 2016

Hacking The City

Fast Company  |  September 22, 2015

We Spent Two Weeks Wearing Employee Trackers: Here’s What We Learned

Fast Company  |  September 21, 2015

HR Meets Data: How Your Boss Will Monitor You To Create The Quantified Workplace

Inc.  |  March 2015

Which Contacts Should You Keep in Touch With? Let This Software Tell You

Inc.  |  March 2015

5 Global Cities of the Future

Global Solution Networks  |  December 2014

Cities on the Move

Medium  |  November 2014

Engineering Serendipity

New York University  |  October 2014

Sin City vs. SimCity

Harvard Business Review  |  October 2014

Workspaces That Move People

Inc.  |  April 2014

The Network Effect

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