Imagine for a moment that you’re a de-facto ruler of a relatively wealthy country. The wealth is dependent on a resource that is slowly depleting, and is on course to be fully used up in not-so-distant future. What do you do? Option A is to do nothing and just enjoy the wealth while it still exists. Option B is to use the existing wealth to diversify into other, more stable, and longer lasting wealth generating assets. Most countries blessed with oil typically fall in the former camp: Angola, São Tome, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia. Dubai, on the other hand, has been successfully building a thriving economy that’s becoming less and less depending on oil with each passing day.
So, how do you do it? Well, if your country has been blessed with oil and not much else (sand withstanding), you have to create everything else yourself.
I spent a week in Dubai (one of the seven Emirates or States of United Arab Emirates) staying with a friend (whom I incidentally met via this blog). A week later I’m still processing everything that I’ve seen in this land of mega shopping malls, mega skyscrapers and mega dreams.
It doesn’t take long to see Dubai’s grandioseness. It begins as soon as you land at Dubai’s International Airport. The building itself, the second largest building in the world, is literally unending: it takes a minimum of twenty minutes from the gate to get to customs and exit the airport. Next comes the taxi ride to your hotel or apartment, where you witness a slew of skyscrapers (both finished and unfinished) as far as the eye can see. Dubai has been compared to Las Vegas or Miami, but not Las Vegas nor Miami have a 7-star luxurious hotel in a shape of a sail build of the mainland and connected by a private bridge, nor the tallest building in the world.
My fascination with Dubai was in trying to understand how a country with nothing but oil, sand, and unbearable heat most of the year has so magically transformed itself as one of the most important destination for tourism and business alike.
Walking around Dubai, you barely notice the locals of this Emirate (city-state). The Emirati are the de facto citizens of this country, even though they only compose less than ten percent of the population. The others are the expatriates, brought out in droves to build this country. Of those the majority are the Indians, Filipinos, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Chinese. They’re involved in all aspects of the economy, from the actual construction (Indians), to cab driving (Pakistanis), to service (restaurant waiters, etc – Filipinos).
The other major expat group are the North Americans and the Europeans who are mostly doing white-collar office jobs in the oil and finance industries.
It’s the only country (out of 50+ I’ve been to) where it’s not unusual to be greeted by a Filipino hostess, waited by an Indian waiter, having your water filled by a Pakistani water boy, and your food prepared by a Chinese cook — all in a prestigious five-star Italian restaurant.
The metro is the world’s longest at 75km, and is spotless clean beyond belief — the metal literally shines like a mirror. There’s no graffiti and any kind of public defacement anywhere.
Too hot to walk to the metro station? Take one of the taxis roaming the streets. Don’t worry, they’re all completely metered with a standard trip computer. No annoying haggling and you’ll never get ripped off with a shady driver.
Although the expatriates never pay taxes in Dubai, they never become citizens either; constant renewing of a temporary residence permit is the norm. Maybe that’s why the country is completely safe, even late at night — attempt or commit any crime and risk immediate deportation and a future travel ban.
It’s a great system where one can earn copious amounts of money while enjoying the benefits of a stable society.
Things aren’t all peachy in this paradise, however.
First, there’re the questionable conditions endured by the laborers that have actually built Dubai’s skyscrapers, road and other infrastructure. From the taxi drivers I’ve spoken too, they’ve seemed to enjoy being here and working. The wages are higher than what they receive in their home countries, otherwise they wouldn’t come here.
Second, Dubai is certainly not for everyone. It can be a tough and lonely place for an average single male where all expat woman (local women are off-limits) are either married or being scooped up by wealthy foreigners and locals alike.
The guy to girl ratio is around 5:1 to 7:1 in most places I went. One night, I saw two British girls elegantly dressed in flip flops and beach shorts being constantly hit on by all kinds of guys in a span of an hour. One of the girls wasn’t very attractive from a distance, and upon seeing her in better light became downright repulsive with an unattractive chubby face (consisting of 2 or 3 chins) and less than impressive body. Nevertheless, she was having the time of her life that night — and probably every night.
The rest of the single girls are without a doubt spoiled by the virtue of just being and working in Dubai — never mind that they’re all lowly waitresses or store assistants. A typical Russian/Ukrainian girl from a small no-name city in Russia or Ukraine carries a certain air of superiority, making her unattainable to all men, except the higher status ones.
It’s a country of status and extreme capitalism where having a normal expat job just doesn’t cut it. One can have a great time with a lot of money, but I guess that goes for everywhere in the world.
Overall I liked Dubai, but only from a point of view of a successful case study on how to build a world-class destination from absolute scratch. You won’t find me returning there anytime soon, though.
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James Maverick used to work in a cubicle as a code monkey in Silicon Valley. Then, in 2007, he quit his job and a one-way ticket to Brazil. Ever since, he continued to travel, visiting over 85 countries and living in more than a dozen of them. He loved his location-independent lifestyle and has no plans to live in America.