The gathering of talent in the Gulf recalls a golden age

Abbasid-era Baghdad once attracted the brightest and best; now cities like Dubai are part of a thriving network of markets and people

Doha and Dubai, above, have topped a list of the world’s most competitive job markets. Bloomberg
Powered by automated translation

Across the Gulf region, dynamism, energy and hopefulness are in evidence, qualities that are seemingly missing, at least to all outward appearances, from the traditional centres of commerce in Asia, Europe and the US.

The contrast may seem unsurprising given how inflation is undermining economic activity, as well as pay packets, in the UK and the US, with the eurozone in recession and China witnessing slower growth than expected in the first quarter of this year. The number of job cuts on both Wall Street and so-called Main Street are also rising.

Yet given the links between the Gulf economies and the rest of the world, it is remarkable that confidence is so high in this region. The following question must be asked: will the malaise eventually affect countries in the Gulf, or are there enough specific drivers of growth for the region to continue to experience such positive trends?

For example, Doha and Dubai have topped a list of the world’s most competitive job markets, recording the highest number of candidates on average applying for new roles within a week of a listing being posted on professional networking site LinkedIn, according to a report by online CV builder Rounding off the top five most competitive job markets was Istanbul in Turkey, Johannesburg in South Africa and Abu Dhabi, said in the report, which tracked job applications in February in 130 cities and every state in the US.

Anecdotally, my own experience is in line with the jobs report. Many people do seem to be seeking opportunities here. There is a healthy and regular flow of announcements about new investments and projects, and attendances at conferences and exhibitions appear to be high. In Riyadh, executives and officials can be regularly heard repeating the refrain that they are “making history” as the Saudi capital undergoes a rapid evolution of its physical, social and business landscape.

Overall, I have been getting a very 2007 vibe about the current year. I am yet to decide whether or not we will subsequently tip over into a 2008/2009-style crash and financial crisis – like we did more than a decade ago. But given I have now lived through several booms and busts – notably the 1980s property crash, the 2000-dot com bubble and the 2016 oil price collapse (not to mention what occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic) – I can be forgiven for having feelings of vertigo.

On several occasions, when those epic downturns were only in first flush, we believed the Gulf would chart its own path, only to be sucked into the vortex not long afterward, proving that no economy that considers itself open and international will be able to truly decouple from events beyond its borders.

It will be left to future generations to decide if we are creating a distinctive intellectual climate in the 2020s similar to that of a thousand years earlier

This, however, does not prevent me from getting a little carried away with another perspective derived from such a contrast of fortunes – that perhaps we in the Gulf are finally reaping the rewards of 25 years and more of good economic management while the same cannot be said of other regions. It may also be time for a nation such as the UAE to be universally recognised as the global benchmark in terms of where people want to live, work and raise a family. It is not unprecedented for an Arab country to have that position.

When I consider what is happening in this region today, I am reminded of what the historian Justin Marozzi wrote in The National about the golden age of the Abbasid Empire, from the ninth to 13th centuries, when “poets and writers, scientists and mathematicians, musicians and physicians, historians, legalists and lexicographers, theologians, philosophers and astronomers, even cookery writers” flocked to its capital.

“The movement of great minds to Baghdad was as extraordinary a phenomenon as the sweep of Arab horsemen from the Arabian desert during the world-changing conquests of the seventh century. Culture required leisure, leisure required wealth, and wealth flowed from patronage and a booming economy. With a swagger born of vast political and economic power, Baghdad evolved into a peerless cultural centre befitting the seat of a dazzling empire,” Marozzi wrote in his book Baghdad; City of Peace, City of Blood.

Of course there was a resultant property boom in Baghdad – it all sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?

It will be left to future generations to decide if we are creating a distinctive intellectual climate in the 2020s similar to that of a thousand years earlier. But we can be in little doubt about the present-day impact of the impressive gathering of talent in the Gulf.

The result is a thriving network of markets, interconnected through the people who criss-cross from one major urban centre to another, as well as shared cultural, social, economic and political objectives.

Published: June 30, 2023, 5:00 AM