League of great cities: Distinguished panel gives the verdict on Dubai

What makes a good city? Is it somewhere without which you would be tired of life? Is it a place that never sleeps? Or is it simply your kind of town?

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What makes a good city? Is it somewhere without which you would be tired of life? Is it a place that never sleeps? Or is it simply your kind of town?

An eminent gathering at Dubai’s Armani Hotel considered just that question yesterday, and more specifically gave their views on where Dubai stood in the global league tables of great cities, and what it had to do to advance further up that league.

Michael Bloomberg knows a thing or two about this matter. Former mayor of New York, capital city of the world to its admirers, he is also UN special envoy for cities and climate change.

He said that great cities were demographically cosmopolitan, economically diversified and environmentally aware. Although it was only his first visit to the UAE, he counted Dubai as a great city “and I already can’t wait to come back”, he said. Praise indeed.

A distinguished panel agreed that cities were the growth engines of global economic growth, and that Dubai was a coming force in that urban wave.

Reem Al Hashimi, in charge of the plans for Expo 2020, told the audience that Dubai was a symbol of hope for many people in a troubled region, and that the Expo was an event for the whole Middle East, with Dubai just happening to be the host city.

Arif Naqvi, founder and chief executive of the Abraaj Group, is a great proponent of what might be called “urban determinism” – the belief that cities will be the driving forces for global economic growth for the future.

He is also a great believer in the economic power of Dubai, with its hinterland of between 2 billion and 3 billion people a short plane ride away, as well as its productivity, economies of scale and innovation that are the key ingredients of urban success.

Marios Maratheftis, regional head of research at Standard Chartered, thought Dubai’s adaptability and willingness to learn from the financial crisis of 2008 was the essential factor of the city’s economic makeup.

“Dubai pulled out of the crisis after a year; Europe has nearly lost a decade,” he said.

Ashok Aram, chief executive of Deutsche Bank in the region, praised Dubai’s “audacity”, the fact it was the “living room” for much of Africa and Asia, and the fact that it was diversified away from dependence on a single industrial sector. “If you dream big, once in a while you screw up, but that’s all part of the DNA,” he said.

So it was positive vibes all round about Dubai and its future among the world’s urban elite. Except that, once the panel drilled down deeper into the subject, some doubts and reservations arose, as if the city’s elite were keen to inject a note of realism into the picture.

Ms Al Hashimi pointed out that, regardless of Dubai’s reputation as a safe haven for the rest of the Gulf, it too was vulnerable to regional economic pressures, like the oil price decline. “When the region struggles, Dubai struggles,” she said.

Mr Maratheftis pointed to some of the shortcomings of Dubai as a financial centre. “I would like to see the development of a local currency debt capital market, along the lines of Singapore. This is lacking at the moment,” he said.

Mr Aram took up the theme about limits to Dubai’s potential as a top five financial centre. With only a comparatively small domestic economy, an underdeveloped capital market, perceived weaknesses in the legal system and an inefficient and expensive telecoms system, Dubai had some way to go, he said.

Even Mr Naqvi, one of the city’s biggest fans, thought that the very freedom of the economy sometimes worked to the city’s detriment, as when different parts of Dubai Inc competed against each other. “It doesn’t always work well, perhaps some more coordination is required,” he said.

The final word was left with Mr Bloomberg, who contrasted Dubai’s international airports with the three airports in New York – “all of which would be an insult to the third world”, he said.

“New York and London should wake up to the fact that Dubai is a threat to them,” he concluded.


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