As I begin my journey home to Seattle, I find myself reflecting over the past two weeks in this beautiful and fascinating country. For so many reasons, this trip has been unlike any other international trip that I have taken previously – traveling with classmates, working with a knowledgeable guide, and having access to local businesses that were willing to share their time and transparently share information to a group of MBA students from the USA.
Depending on who you talk to, the UAE has a population of between 8-9 million people, of that only about 1 million are Emirati. What is so compelling about those figures is that the Emirati are the minority in their home country. While protective and proud of their own culture, they also recognize that in order to keep the country running with so many expats that there must be some concessions made. And so, despite the fact that this is an Islamic country, it is possible to drink alcohol, consume pork, and wear what one likes. In return, the expectation is that expats behave respectfully and follow the law (deportation is one very likely outcome for those expats that break the law).
The cities we visited clearly depicted contrasts: haves and have-nots, tradition and modernization, Emerati and expat, religion and commerce, and many more. And yet, somehow, it works here. The national leadership recognizes that to become a global player, the country must maintain both a stable economy and political environment. So while there is turmoil in the region, the UAE has maintained stability and as a result continues to attract expat workers and foreign investment to continue its economic advancement. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are cities under construction – neither of which is standing still. I am certain that in just 6 months the skyline will again look different and that there will be new marvels to behold.
At the close of this trip, I realize that as well-traveled as I had previously considered myself, there is still so much more about the world for me to learn. This trip has expanded my perspective in so many ways – about the world that I live in, my own perspectives and stereotypes, and the critical importance of truly listening and learning from each other. I leave the UAE humbled by how much I have learned in such a short time and hopeful that I will have the opportunity to return again soon.
Seen in the distance, this round-shaped building is our final company visit of the trip. ATIC is in the semi-conductor field and was kind enough to show us through an interactive display about the technology and their company before sitting us down to talk with a recent hire – an American contracts attorney that moved to Abu Dhabi recently to work for ATIC.
Yesterday was our final day of the tour and the last two company visits. On the agenda – Masdar Institute and Advanced Technology Investment Company.
The inset photo is the courtyard for the dorms of the Masdar Institute. The Institue is focused on bringing in students to perform R&D while working on their Masters degree. The degree program is certified by MIT and as such subscribes to similar admission criteria. What is interesting about this Institute is that it is focused on researching sustainability. As the property continues to be built out, the goal is to have it be the first zero-carbon-footprint city in the world and they’re well on their way.
On Sunday, which is the beginning of the workweek here, we visited two companies in Abu Dhabi – the National Bank of Abu Dhabi and the US Embassy.
At the National Bank of Abu Dhabi, we were honored to hear from three different executives at the corporate level as well as several managers from the branch. We heard about their business strategy, for which the conversation started with this quote: “Leaders are not paid to make the inevitable happen; they are padi to make happen what otherwise wouldn’t happen.” (IMD, 2010). They recently started using a Balanced Scorecard (and yes, I had deja vu back to my Managerial Accounting class two quarters ago) and are working to answer the question of “how are we rewarding and motivating people to do more?” It’s a great question and one that most businesses struggle with daily.
One of the most interesting topics of this meeting was the topic of Islamic banking. I will be frank, even with all of the international travel that I have experienced, it never occurred to me that there was any other type of banking than what I am used to in the Western world. Come to find out there are other options, including Islamic banking. I am still not confident in my grasp of Islamic banking, however some of the basics include that interest cannot be charged and that certain types of businesses cannot be financed (i.e. pork sellers) if the business does not align with Islamic law. Two aspects of Islamic banking that really caught my attention are the concept of sharing profit/loss between the bank and the customer as well as charity in which if the customer cannot make a payment that other terms will be developed to accommodate both parties.
The US Embassy. In all of my foreign travel, I have never visited a US Embassy, until now. Sadly, much of what was discussed was clearly noted as off the record, so this will be a short commentary based solely on my own observations. Walking up to the Embassy grounds, the US Flag was flying and a classmate commented – partly in jest and yet partly serious – that it was a sight for sore eyes. Having been here for about 7 days at that time, I will admit that it was nice to see the stars and stripes flying proudly.
There is something surreal about stepping onto US soil in a foreign country. For the time that we were at the embassy, talking with in-the-know Americans, it was as if we had been briefly transported back to the US. The embassy staff kindly took time out of their busy schedules to talk with us openly and frankly about the questions that we asked, about living in the Middle East, and about working for the Foreign Service. All in all, this was a very special stop given the rare allowance that we received in being invited inside.
And yes, I had to try the cappuccino with gold flakes. The flakes are like powered sugar – if you breath on them even a little bit, they fly everywhere. Needless to say, it’s a little messy to drink, but how many times in my life will I get to say that I tasted gold?
A so-called 8-star hotel (to compete with Dubai’s Burj Al Arab, a rumored 7-star hotel), the Emirates Palace is a beautiful sight. It cost approximately $3 billion to build and was completed around 2006.
As luxurious as it is, even commoners like me are admitted as long as you show up in at least a cab. Much of the hotel appears to be layered in gold. For those wishing to partake, they offer a 24-karat gold crusted cappuccino. Between coffees, desserts, and a few other prime dishes, it is said that the hotel goes through 5 kg (approx. 10 pounds) of edible gold annually.
While walking through Bastakia in Dubai this afternoon, I ran into an American couple from Philadelphia for which Dubai is the first stop on their pilgrimage to Mecca. I mentioned that I had just returned from Abu Dhabi and they asked me what my thoughts were on comparing the two cities. My answer in-person was not the most eloquent, however it has been a question that I have been considering for the past couple of days.
Whereas Dubai is filled with skyscrapers, Abu Dhabi seems filled with people. Abu Dhabi feels like a city that people live in. On the group’s first evening in Abu Dhabi, a group of us went to a local Egyptian restaurant where the nine of us sat around a sturdy farm-style table and shared food and stories. After eating more than our fill, we decided to start walking back to the hotel despite the fact that the hotel was at least 5 miles away. The theory was that we could always hail cabs as we grew tired of walking and everyone wanted to enjoy the evening and walk off dinner. Our walk started in a very residential-feeling neighborhood where even at 9 o’clock at night people – mostly men and children – were outside. As we walked, it quickly became unclear who was watching who. We passed a shop baking naan in the traditional sunken oven in which the dough is stuck to the inside walls to bake. We watched from the novelty of seeing bread made in this fashion while the residents watched at the oddity of people watching the basic function of making bread.
Abu Dhabi has cause to boast about the longest waterfront walkway in the world. It is a beautiful walk along the coastline and is clearly enjoyed by the people of the city. On Friday night, families were out late taking walks along the path and renting bicycles and other manual modes of transportation.
Overall, while I have greatly enjoyed both cities, I think Dubai has stolen my heart with its bustle and cosmopolitan feel.