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City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism

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The city of Dubai, one of the seven United Arab Emirates, is everything the Arab world isn't: a freewheeling capitalist oasis where the market rules and history is swept aside. Until the credit crunch knocked it flat, Dubai was the fastest-growing city in the world, with a roaring economy that outpaced China's while luring more tourists than all of India. It's one of the world's safest places, a stone's throw from its most dangerous. In "City of Gold, " Jim Krane, who reported for the AP from Dubai, brings us a boots-on-the-ground look at this fascinating place by walking its streets, talking to its business titans, its prostitutes, and the hard-bitten men who built its fanciful skyline. He delves into the city's history, paints an intimate portrait of the ruling Maktoum family, and ponders where the city is headed. Dubai literally came out of nowhere. It was a poor and dusty village in the 1960s. Now it's been transformed into the quintessential metropolis of the future through the vision of clever sheikhs, Western capitalists, and a river of investor money that poured in from around the globe. What has emerged is a tolerant and cosmopolitan city awash in architectural landmarks, luxury resorts, and Disnified kitsch. It's at once home to America's most prestigious companies and universities and a magnet for the Middle East's intelligentsia. Dubai's dream of capitalism has also created a deeply stratified city that is one of the world's worst polluters. Wild growth has clogged its streets and left its citizens a tiny minority in a sea of foreigners. Jim Krane considers all of this and casts a critical eye on the toll that the global economic downturn has taken on a place that many tout as a blueprint for a more stable Middle East. While many think Dubai's glory days have passed, insiders like Jim Krane who got to know the city and its creators firsthand realize there's much more to come in the City of Gold, a place that, in just a few years, has made itself known to nearly every person on earth.

356 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2009

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Jim Krane

4 books10 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 66 reviews
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,095 reviews1,131 followers
September 11, 2016
This account of Dubai’s history and challenges isn’t quite a textbook, but it’s much closer to that than the sort of popular nonfiction people read for entertainment. It is quite thorough, covering Dubai’s history, its leaders, the downsides and seedy underbelly to its fantastic growth, and the challenges it faces going forward. The book is organized in academic fashion, in short topical subsections, and would be well-suited to a college course.

For someone who doesn’t know much about Dubai – I read this book for my world books challenge and not due to any personal connection – this provides a good base of information about the place. And Dubai is certainly a fascinating place, going from a desert fishing village without electricity to a world-class city within 50 years. According to Krane, the secret to its extraordinary growth is a line of visionary sheikhs unencumbered by any checks on their power, able to take advantage of Dubai’s few natural advantages and build a diverse economy that’s become a regional hub for trade.

But while Krane writes a lot – more than I wanted to read – about building projects and economic ventures, and seems duly impressed with a city able to become a major tourist destination despite having no cultural or historical sites and to construct the world’s tallest building despite having been a land of illiterate fishermen and nomads only a generation before, he also acknowledges the faults. Dubai’s population is 95% expatriate, but with no opportunity to gain citizenship, especially for the unskilled, poorly-paid South Asian workers imported to build its skyscrapers. It does little to stop sex trafficking in a city that’s 75% male. And sustainability has never been part of its development. Krane presents both the positives and negatives without seeming to choose a side. He also deals with the politics (seemingly a no-go issue in Dubai), acknowledging how one-man rule has facilitated development, but also recognizing that if Dubai wants to become a cultural hub rather than just a collection of skyscrapers, political expression and participation will have to come with it.

The book has two obvious drawbacks and one less obvious. First, it’s dry, organized topically rather than through a narrative structure and focusing most of its attention on economic projects. Second, it’s quickly becoming dated: it was published in 2009, already an age ago by the standards of Dubai’s rapid development and change; there’s a hasty epilogue about the possible effects of the financial crisis, which was only just hitting Dubai as the book went to press. The third and less obvious drawback is that while Krane certainly discusses the significance and influence of Dubai in the Middle East, the majority of his interview subjects are Westerners like himself; to the extent the book gives much sense of life in Dubai, it's mostly the life of Western expats. This is true even when locals could provide more interesting perspectives. For instance, in the chapter about Dubai’s often fatal traffic, Krane writes about an infamous highway pileup from the perspective of a German flight engineer who crashed on his way to work, then includes a shorter section discussing young Emirati men’s love of reckless driving. Interviewing Emirati men instead would have made this section much more insightful and interesting.

Overall, this book seems like a good choice for academic or occupational purposes, but less so for the casual reader. It is certainly informative, but there’s a reason I could find it only at my university library.
Profile Image for blackness.
123 reviews
January 21, 2013
Disclaimer: I lived very near Dubai practically visited the city every weekend for 2 years.

This book would be a fantastic read for anyone who is interested in Dubai for whatever reason. I have some very strong feelings about Dubai, mostly negative, and this book helped change a lot of my thoughts about this very interested city.

The book is divided in to basically three sections, and I really enjoyed all of them.

The first section is the history of Dubai. This was my favorite part. It really changed my outlook on Dubai and an its founders. Out here (in the Middle East) the founders of the UAE are generally treated as visionary saints by the local population and anywhere from idiot novaue-riche tacky billionaire to greedy despots by the expatriates.

Reading Krane's version of their history impressed me because there really were some genius moves that didn't involve waking up on top of an oil reserve that cemented Dubai's place in the world. It also explained some of the common questions of everyday life out here: Why is the labor class Indian, the retail sector full of Phillipenos, and why are there so many Iranian in the souq and car sales. Who is Al-Futtain and why is the name on every other car. Also there are great little details about the various neighborhoods in Dubai that used to be separate villages. This whole section of the book makes driving around Dubai a whole different experience.

The second part of the book reads like an advertisement for Dubai's ruling leader and all of his wonderful things he has done. This is WELL KNOWN in this part of the world. If anything Dubai is great at, it is letting others know what it has accomplished and why it is amazing. This was the least interesting but still fun to read because of Krane's periodic gossipy stories along the way.

Then the third part, the difficulties and underbelly of the glitzy city is well handled. Dubai is frequently a the punching bag for expats and honestly it is quite easy to mock, but Krane handled the critiques honestly and very even handed.

This I think was the books greatest accomplishment: Krane's ability to critique without falling into mockery and jadedness, as well as shining a light on the great things about the city without becoming another propaganda brochure.

I highly recommend it to anyone living out in this area.

Profile Image for Mohammed Rasheen.
67 reviews131 followers
February 4, 2017
When my grandfather first came to Dubai, early 70s, he crossed the Arabian sea in a dhow, like most of the people did during those times, from Bombay without a passport. My mother said there was no contact from him at all for around 4 months, no news from him, and no letters except the one he wrote home just before he left the Bombay. And then it started coming after long wait which had long descriptions about his trip how this dhow stopped some offshores of Khorfakhan how he had to swim to the beach how he managed to find food and places to stay and about the trip to sharjah and then a walk to dubai, about the beaten up pickup trucks and dusty roads.with a single tower of world trade center towering beside the sheikh zayer road,the national highway. His life as an expatriate was starting there and my his family was becoming the family of a ‘pravasi’ like of hundreds and thousands of people who sacrificed his or her life and emotions for the financial security of his closest ones. I knew the reason when I saw my mother was crying watching this movie Pathemari , she said it was almost like how he had described the journey and his dreams and hopes.
from his personal experience he had vowed that he’d never marry her daughter to an expatriate in gulf.

but my father was forced to leave his motherland couple of month before I was born in search of a fortune, and story was similar to the average gulf keralites. And he completed 28years now.

and today,here I am in the same land Alhamdulillah living a cozy life with my dearest ones, and Alhamdulillah in best comfort I dare to dream. And dubai is different now. Came a long way from the day my grandfather first came here. And I can assure it is beyond the wildest expectation he must have had. I really don’t know whether I’ll surpass my grandfather’s or my father’s ‘gulf-time’ because dubai is indeed unpredictable.

city of gold is written in small essays, covering little bit old history(during caliphate), it's modern history(post 1930s),society, government, economy, business strategies and global diplomacy,. And of course her dream to be best in top in the planet in every aspect, like the author concluded dubai has only half way through building it’s physical infrastructure, and after completing the body comes the visionary ruler’s next phase of dubai dream- Building a soul. This book is a quick guide to past and present of this city of dubai, It glorifies this cities brave moves and unmatched speed of growth as well as the system of government and tolerance and global diplomacy, How it started with British(watching the ill-fate of Sharjah and Ras al khaima) and later it dealt with the Iran and USA. This book also criticize how insecure the local citizens feel about their future. And treatment of lowest tier laborers and well as the least concern over the environmental sustainability while building mega islands in the sea. I highly recommend this to everyone who stays or stayed in this city. I am searching for more detailed works on each aspects mentioned in this book, especially history on this land.

Profile Image for Bridget.
924 reviews85 followers
April 30, 2011
I'm not sorry I didn't read this book before moving to the UAE, but I do wish I had read it sooner after our arrival. It answered so many questions I've had about Dubai over the last few months, and I loved all the great "insider" stories. I also appreciated the very even-handed treatment of Dubai - the author neither fetes Dubai undeservedly nor dismisses its oddly triumphant successes. It's tempting to characterize the UAE as a backwards qausi-nation of migrant tribesman who subsisted for a milennium in abject poverty before falling into oil wealth in the latter half of the 20th century. Although this may be a true assessment - and it's the perspective I saw when living in other Arab countries - it is not a fair one. Dubai really is an amazing place. I liked this passage, which describes what I love about this city:

"Dubai is simultaneously the planet's most cosmopolitan and tolerant city, a beacon of peace and prosperity where all of mankind is welcome - as long as you work."

The book is very slightly out of date, which is understandable considering the pace of change here. Specifically, Dubai Mall seems to be doing extremely well for itself these days, and the metro is up and running.

Great book. Very close to five stars.

Profile Image for thereadytraveller.
127 reviews26 followers
October 6, 2019
If you’re one of the more than 16 million international visitsors that are likely to travel to Dubai in the next 12 months and looking for a book to provide you with all the background history on the United Arab Emirates best known Emirate, then Krane has written the book for you.

City of Gold is a very readable account of how a range of bold moves made by its ruling family, the al-Maktoums, managed to transform a small Emirate, that only switched on the electrical lights in 1967, into a regional powerhouse despite the absence of significant oil supplies (Dubai only had 4% of the UAE’s oil reserves).

Whilst at times it can be a little bit fawning on the Emirates rulers, it also achieves a modicum of balance by describing some of the issues the Emirate faces having imported more than 90% of its population in order to build the city into a modern state. Recommended reading for anyone visiting the UAE or has an interest in how a country that was a real backwater and numbered only 80,000 people as late as the 1930s has been able to radically transform itself under "tribal autocracy" rule.
Profile Image for Laura.
435 reviews22 followers
November 13, 2021
Córdoba remains the pinnacle of Arab achievement. When it fell apart after 1031, the Arab world sank into a long and debilitating decline. It has never regained its greatness. Córdoba is Sheikh Mohammed’s archetype for Dubai. He wants to re create this ancient spirit of learning and tolerance. But his ambitions go beyond that. He views Dubai as the engine that will drag the Arab world into a renaissance. Not an economic engine, per se, but a model of effective governance and self-reliance. (Krane)

This is a dated book, written over a decade ago. It still has appeal however as it describes the history of Dubai and the Emirates, their rise from a Bedouin desert society into one of the most discussed cities in the world. The books is also weirdly split into two parts - one where the author gushes on the Emirati rulers achievements, and another, written possibly after Krane left Dubai, where he finally depicts the UAE in more realistic tones.

Having recently visited Dubai and having very little expectations, I actually found the city exciting. Not so much for its skyscrapers and and beaches and five star hotels, but for the boundless energy of the people who live there. It is young and busy and it certainly surpasses in energy some of the oldest capitals in Europe. As Krane says, Dubai's geography makes it central to the shifting world politics, from West to East, and there's much to be said for being in a location so close to India and Iran, providers of cheap labour and also of incredible intellect.

The book however obviously misses the recent controversies surrounding Dubai, only skimming the experiences of many a foreigner after the economic crash of 2009, when many Westerners fled for their lives. That is a chapter that Krane chooses to simply skip, and perhaps contributes to the short worldwide memory of how some decent folk were treated by the UAE back then. Similarly, human rights issues are summarily depicted. 2.5 stars.
Profile Image for Matthew.
305 reviews1 follower
December 25, 2017
I read this book in anticipation of my graduate program’s intercession trek to Dubai. I wanted to get a general overview of the city so that I could really understand what I was seeing and get the most out of my time there. This book did not disappoint*. It gave a concise but thorough history of the city and its rise to the global stage. It also introduced me to the founding fathers of modern Dubai: Sheikh Rashid, whose vision saw Dubai transforming from a small village on the edge of nowhere to become the center of commerce for the Middle East, and his son, Sheikh Mohammad, whose dedication and drive have brought to pass much of his father’s vision.

The book also provides an overview of some of the most distinctive characteristics of Dubai. I was shocked to learn that the city did not even have electricity until the 1960s, when we were putting men on the moon! I was also appalled to learn that slavery was legal in Dubai until 1963, and many former slaves are still living and working in the city, though it is a subject that no one talks about. The book describes the rise of the Emirates airline, as well as the perils of driving the streets of Dubai. It goes into detail on the dredging of the gulf to create the Palm islands, and the vision that gave rise to Burj Al Arab. Though it is a bit dated (2009) and still refers to the Burj Kalifa as the Burj Dubai, I feel like it was a good introduction to the city, both the good and the bad.

*After completing my trip, this book was excellent preparation. If you are going to Dubai, I highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Shane.
18 reviews
October 8, 2012
The last quarter of this book is when it really gets going and becomes hard to put down. Great insight into Sheikh Mohammed's decision making process and how he factors in being an in between of the US and Iran, and explains why democracy will likely never become prominent within the country.. Found the overall history to be fascinating, and even after living in the area for two years, Krane was able to clarify things that I had previously believed. If interested in how to build a city and major international hub in 20 years, read this book. It's your blueprint.
Profile Image for Rachel Carter.
11 reviews
March 17, 2010
Fascinating. I simultaneously wish that Dubai didn't exist, and that I could move there.

Krane is a journalist for the Economist, and has a lot of flair for storytelling. He discusses many aspects of Dubai, including it's tribal system of government, middle-eastern culture and history, feats in engineering, environmental and labor issues, and current local and global economic situation.
Profile Image for John.
206 reviews26 followers
October 31, 2009
There are thick layers of fog in this book and gorgeous sunshine. As in the city of Dubai, the history seems useless. If it's happening now it seems to take on the graceful arc of the Burj al Arab hotel and glimmer in the desert sun.
Profile Image for Shana.
1,156 reviews23 followers
September 26, 2012
This book confirmed my preconceived notions that Dubai is both a strange and fascinating place. It doesn’t quite fit the mold created by other countries in that region, yet it’s not quite Westernized either. It seems to walk a fine line, but a zigzagged one, if that makes any sense.
Profile Image for James.
5 reviews2 followers
March 18, 2013
I really enjoyed reading this book. The beginning (History of Dubai) was the best part of the book. This was very interesting throughout and it gives an honest, un-biased telling of the rise of Dubai. I am already recommending this book to other co-workers.
Profile Image for Jacqie.
1,569 reviews70 followers
February 7, 2022
This is an overview of the history, culture and politics of Dubai. The author was once a journalist based in Dubai so he's got an understanding based on living there as well as his sources. It does feel like he didn't want to burn any bridges when writing this book, so you'll probably want to read between the lines a little.

The early part of the book was the least effective, at least for me. The author writes a quick overview of Dubai's history, and a lot of the anecdotes felt like they weren't telling the whole story. I wasn't too impressed with that part of the book, but once the author reaches the 70's and later, which was when Dubai began to build itself into a city of gold, things start getting pretty interesting.

I first got really absorbed in this book with the description of building the Burj al Arab, the giant hotel on its own island that is shaped like a sail. Part of the splash that Dubai has made in the world has been because of its cutting edge, instantly recognizable architecture, and the Burj al Arab was the first foray in that direction. Reading about the construction, it becomes clear that the upside of having an autocratic government is that things get done after one person makes the decision- no bureaucracy, no committees, just give the word and it must be done. That means that decisive aggressiveness in a ruler is rewarded. There are also obvious risks with this way of doing things. But this is how Dubai was built. The ruler decided that Dubai needed information system technology. So he built Internet City, a business park and neighborhood where he deposited the tech workers that he'd recruited and then set them to building it all from the ground up. This model was used for many of the systems that Dubai needed.

It's truly awe inspiring to think about just how quickly this city has become a big international player. This was the purpose of its rulers and they are succeeding. Dubai does not have a ton of oil, but it does have great positioning in international trade waters, and it's set about making itself indispensable. Another goal has been to make Dubai an attractive place for ex-pats and tourists. Dubai has made itself a sophisticated city with world class restaurants, fabulous shopping, and all the modern comforts and conveniences. It's glitzy and dazzling, the new place to be and to make oneself wealthy.

Of course, nothing is perfect, and the author does shed some light on the plight of the guest workers who are by far the most numerous inhabitants of Dubai. (Perhaps 20%, if that, of the people living in Dubai are Emiratis). These guest workers can never become citizens, they have no voice, and many many of them are exploited for labor or for sex. Energy consumption is unsustainably high. And I can attest to just how terrifying driving on a Dubai highway can be.

The end of this book is far better than the beginning. The author balances out the rosy portrayal of the success story of Dubai with the downside as well. It's certain that Dubai has become a major player on the world stage after basically willing that into being. I wonder what it will do next.
Profile Image for Jennifer Pletcher.
760 reviews4 followers
March 17, 2019
This book is about the city of Dubai - one of 7 cities in the UAE. A city that is not even 60 years old and has transformed from a dusbowl to one of the richest cities on the planet. It is one of the fastest growing cities. Even though it is surrounded by some of the most dangerous places in the world, it remains one of the safest.

The author uses this book to report about the people of Dubai. He delves into the government (the crown prince and royal family that makes all the decisions), the migrant workers, the citizens, the expats....he talks to all groups. It is a roller coaster ride of the book where you see all the amazing things about Dubai (how its citizens are actually given free health care, a monetary stipend, free schooling, etc) and the hardships that lie outside the peripheral vision of the tourist (the small villages that are over run with immigrant workers living in terrible conditions). Like every country there are pros and cons, delights and evils, and this book touches on them all.

What The Crowned Prince built is amazing. The billions that were spent over such a small amount of time and what Dubai is just 60 years after it became a city would blown any visitor away. You have to see it belive it.

The book was written in 2008 and updated in 2010, and at that point, UAE did have high debts from its real estate growth. I was trying to search the internet to see where it stands now, because when we were there in 2018- it was still growing and still building. We were told by our driver that they have more money than they know what to do with. Searching the internet, though, and you will get conflicting reports. I would love to read an updated book on this city to see how things are going for them.

I encourage you to read this book to learn about the 3rd richest country in the world. And then I encourage you to visit. You will not be disappointed. It was truly magical.
Profile Image for Sally.
102 reviews
November 7, 2018
A worthwhile read for anyone who wants to understand how Dubai became what it is. I am going there in a month, and I’m sure I will be grateful for the layers of context this book has provided when I experience the city. My only quibble is that the book is a bit oddly structured and somewhat underdeveloped in the second half, but it’s nevertheless pleasantly readable throughout.

The book was published in 2009, with an epilogue addressing the effects of the financial crisis on Dubai’s growth; it would be great if the author published a new edition with an epilogue addressing Dubai’s recovery in the past ten years. There were many times when, as I read, I wished I had more current information at hand to deepen my understanding of how Dubai’s history has manifested in its present.
Profile Image for Shalaj Lawania.
90 reviews9 followers
August 22, 2021
For some reason, for all matters pertaining to Dubai, finding good books is a challenge. Either they are excessive glorifications or extremely desperate attempts to expose a 'dark underbelly' to a city that's grown too fast for comfort.

Jim Krane's City Of Gold is definitely the most balanced book I have read on this fascinating city. Well researched, sharply edited with good writing, this book is a comprehensive journey of Dubai's evolution in the 20th century, with the good and bad highlighted in equal measure.

Unfortunately, Dubai's accelerated growth that inspired this book in 2009 never really stopped, so many elements of the second half are quite dated now. But if you were around Dubai till that decade, then it would still make sense - loads of it.
61 reviews12 followers
March 21, 2019
Growing up in dubai since mid 70s I thought I knew all about dubai, until I read this book

only then, I had to undervalue myself

in real, I knew less than 10% of this book

places like Grey McKenzie, have seen it. but, did not know when it started and how

people tell of dubai from 1970s, but, the story goes back to 1830s

very interesting read, it puts you into mesmerisation of the stories no one previously told

exceptional ! don't think that any other book would have more contents than this. well researched.
2 reviews
April 19, 2020
Great comprehensive writing covering the region's history from before the Bani Yas Tribe all the way to the rapid transition of the city today. What I liked about this book is how it explores and connects various perspectives, with increasing day-to-day examples toward the second half of the book that make it engaging and easily relatable. If you want to best understand Dubai, and to a smaller extent the Emirates in one book, this is a solid choice.
57 reviews
May 18, 2022
Great book although it focuses more on the financials then I would have liked. I was more interested in learning about the history of Dubai, its role in the region and role in the Emirates. However the last chapter about the problems dubai faces was really good and spot on in my opinion. This book is more then 10 years old however so a lot of the info especially about markets and economic trends is pretty irrelevant now.
Profile Image for Paul.
674 reviews12 followers
September 16, 2017
4.5 stars

A fascinating book charting the rise and stumble of Dubai and the UAE as a whole. A great insight into the allure, opportunities and challenges of an increasingly globalised society. A shame that the final chapter is a bit wet - otherwise 5*s would have been richly deserved.
Profile Image for Rinku.
873 reviews1 follower
May 15, 2017
The antedotial testimonials coupled with the journalstic facts were a perfect combination. I learned a lot from this book.
Profile Image for Sayde Scarlett.
Author 5 books19 followers
December 22, 2017
I'm a long-term resident of Dubai, and this is one of the fairest accounts of the city-state's history. It's also incredibly readable, informative, and lucidly written.
Profile Image for Eric.
180 reviews5 followers
April 15, 2020
It was interesting but felt extremely dated now that it’s a decade old. Spent most of the second half looking things up to see what the current state of everything was.
June 26, 2021
Good read

Insights on Dubai’s ride from sand to the skies. Would love to see a new updated edition covering the new developments…
Profile Image for Stevie.
161 reviews12 followers
April 29, 2014
Dubai: The Story of the World’s Fastest City by Jim Krane is a fascinating and enlightening book about the development and the grandiose personalities that pervade Dubai’s historical landscape. The book is divided up into the historically positive developments of Dubai and the drawbacks of its aggressive growth alongside with its future challenges. Mr. Kane does an exquisite job painting the story of the rise of the late Sheikh Rashid al Maktoum who took risk by “betting the farm” on a handful of infrastructure projects and public policy that paid off handsomely in the face of naysayers. The current ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammad, who is the son of the Sheikh Rashid has followed in his father’s footsteps to make Dubai famous. The author writes with great detail, through personal interviews, historical research, and firsthand experience while living in Dubai, and leads the reader on a journey through the rise and complexities of a city that had legal slavery until 1963 and no electricity in the 1960’s while other countries sent rockets to the moon.

The author does an even handed job at portraying the positive effects, as while as the often unseen negative ones, of the rise of Dubai. The city’s ruler aims to make Dubai the greatest city in the world in education, healthcare, finance, and most every other industry, and with a treasure trove of wealth, little bureaucratic red-tape due to democracy, and a ruler with a grand vision the reader comes to believe that more improbably aspirations have been pursued. For western readers it will come as a shock that most Emiratis, as the citizens are called, favor the understood negotiation of loyalty to the leader in exchange of protection and physical benefits. The major blowbacks of the quick and feverish development of Dubai, along with light regulation, lay in the rise of women in forced prostitution, unlivable conditions for the lower class migrant workers, and blatant disregard for the environment. Furthermore, the author’s interviews with key figures in the Dubai economy, such as Tom Wright who built the legendary Brj al Arab, are among the most interesting tales in the story.

The author ends the book detailing the challenges and consequences Dubai faces in light of their swift development (at one time have a third of all cranes in the world) and risk taking mentality. Real estate was bought and sold several times before even being built in many cases. With the financial crisis, many foreigners withdrew their money and the whole economy tanked. Dubai was bailed out, in part, by its bigger brother, the oil rich Abu Dhabi, an emirate 120 km south and is slowly recovering from its economic hangover. Dubai has developed within 50 years what took other cities 200. It is a city like no other, and Jim Krane tells the story with wit, balance, and expertise.
192 reviews35 followers
October 12, 2016
Got it for the trip to the region and mostly enjoyed it – first half is a chronological history of the city’s development while the second is a collection of essays on a variety of topics (prostitution, terrorism, traffic, immigration) that play out in an often unusual form in Dubai. Some notes (from the book and the trip):

- Very open to immigration and absence of safety net nicely bypasses the issues faced by Europe and US. In that sense almost self-regulating.
- Stable, same-family rule with bloodless transitions and lack of coups/revolutions for almost 200 years. Not too shabby by middle east or western standards for that matter.
- Demographics. Huge Indian presence (45%?), also Bangladesh, Pakistan, Philippines, Nepal. Local Emirates only 10% (used to be 3% before the crash when many workers left). Partially explains stability as rulers can easily afford to keep citizens happy.
- Oil discovered late, was quickly and smartly spent on infrastructure and remains an insignificant and decreasing percentage of GDP.
- A funky flavor of markets where gov’t unencumbered by lobbying is running the country like a well-managed corporation. In contrast to the west where gov’t invests in private sector, in Dubai it is often the private sector that invests in gov’t-run ventures as those are run surprisingly efficiently.
o Until recently Dubai was sporting a Fukuyama-ish dream of capable merit-based bureaucracy, although in the last 5 years it may have begun to revert to patrimonialism.
- During integration into UAE Dubai sheiks were begging the Brits to delay the independence (fear or Iran and Saudis). Refreshing absence of post-colonial angst and finger-pointing.
- Clever maneuvering between competing interests of Saudis, Iran and US, but is friendly with all. Iranian dynamic is particularly peculiar. UAE is Sunni and is allied with Saudis - both are currently bombing Shia “rebels” in Yemen in a proxy war with Iran. Dubai is a part of UAE yet has close ties with Iran (back in the day Iranian merchants got the city off the ground in the first place, and more recently Iran used Dubai for trade during US-imposed sanctions). And still Dubai’s massive Jebel Ali port is a welcome harbor for American military.
- There are a few theories for surprising absence of terrorism despite non-trivial presence of US military and ostentatious display of western values coupled with liberal-leaning attitudes. Paying for protection, openness to trade that benefits terrorists as much as anybody else, money laundering probably all play a role.
- Overall, given the alternatives in the region, it seems that Dubai’s political and economic model is pretty admirable and should be studied by other Muslim states.
Profile Image for Kristin.
491 reviews
March 15, 2015
This informative and fact-filled book was a highly valued companion on my recent visit to Dubai. The first three chapters describe the city's origins in oil and pearls. They read slowly to me and I wasn't sure I was going to make it through the book. However, around page 60 the city's story starts to unfold more rapidly. I was intrigued by the uniqueness of the circumstances and the vision of Sheikh Rashid. I found the writing on planes, real estate and commerce to be easy to follow and illuminating. Information on neighboring Abu Dhabi and Sheikh Zayed was also helpful. However, there were points where the book lapsed into more detailed descriptions of alliances or people within government roles that were more difficult for someone new to the politics and dynamics of the region.

The later half of the book includes insights to help interpret the current experience that will be encountered by any visitor. Luckily, I read the section on "The Lawless Roads" immediately after making a 1-1/2 hour road trip, otherwise I may not have ventured out! I was also more sensitive to the presence of the work buses, the mixture of the populace, the dominance of malls and the lack of cultural venues. My copy ended with a 2010 addition, bringing an update from the 2008 printed version.

The author does an excellent job of explaining the positive influence that Dubai has had on the region and the world. In particular, it's made significant strides in creating an environment of religious diversity and tolerance. However, he is also clear on the missteps and difficulties that Dubai has created, such as it large ecologic footprint.

Overall, the book left me better appreciating the city's rapid transformation and bold approach to its own development. As a closing statement says, "Dubai forces us to think beyond the rational, to ponder the outer borders of the possible, right where they brush up against the limits of physics." As the author points out, it will be interesting to see where Dubai goes in its next phase of evolution, as it looks to expand education and the arts.
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