Dubai, UAE’s pathbreaking city of the future, is on display for Israelis

REGIONAL AFFAIRS: This sense of safety and order, of regulation but not burdensome bureaucracy, is not only on display, but it is what businesspeople say attracts them here.

THE EXQUISITE Dubai Marina. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
DUBAI – Dubai is spread out along the sea, offering picture-perfect vistas that build to a crescendo as one takes a taxi from the downtown area, with the iconic, towering Burj Khalifa skyscraper, to the Dubai Marina and locales like the Palm and Bluewaters.
It’s at the same time hard to adjust to the grandeur here, as it is easy to feel at home. That contrast comes in waves. At first the city is too big, with the Dubai Mall so large that one feels lost even in the most modest toy store. One clothing store is so large that there is a supermarket inside it. One is almost surprised not to find another outlet of the store inside the supermarket that is inside the store.
On the other hand, Dubai is so full of international brands, from the line of Lamborghini and fancy car dealerships on Sheikh Zayed Road to the new plastic cups at Starbucks that come without straws. Without straws doesn’t seem like such a revolution, but in a world rapidly moving from plastic to those off-putting cardboard straws, it all makes sense.
And Dubai makes sense. It’s a postmodern smart city. It’s the city of the future, but it’s a future most of the world will not obtain. While many cities in the West are declining, beset by lack of social cohesion, crime, even riots and ethnic and religious tensions and political extremism; and cities in the global south have to manage massive poverty, Dubai has achieved something unique.
Why is it unique? It’s the little things. There are no masses of armed police with automatic rifles festooning the airport and attractions, like one has in the US, Europe and some countries. There do not seem to be police everywhere, but at the same time taxi drivers say that if they drop you off anywhere except safe or marked stops, they could get a fine.
This sense of safety and order, of regulation but not burdensome bureaucracy, is not only on display, but it is what businesspeople say attracts them here.
PNC MENON, an Indian-born Omani businessman who pioneered his Sobha development company to build unique residential areas not only in India but also in Dubai, emphasized how stability and safety are key to the success here.
I sat down with Menon as part of a trip to Sobha’s Hartland development near the center of Dubai. Spread out along 8 million square feet (743,000 sq.m.) of flatland near the Meydan horse racing track, the massive development will have up to 25,000 people moving in over the next years. It has its own schools and a mixture of housing, ranging from fancy villas that cost millions of dollars to normal apartments that are priced in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It’s a strategic area, says Sobha’s staff, and the apartments are built with the highest standards through what they call backward integration. This basically means they build everything themselves, not using contractors, and sourcing materials with the latest German standards. A tour of the apartments shows the quality workmanship, high ceilings and well-appointed, large living rooms.
Hartland is an example of Dubai’s accomplishments: Taking desert and turning it into a residential living space with schools, pools, areas for kids, a shopping center and security, along with eight thousand trees to make people feel they have greenery.
For Israelis visiting Dubai – and Israelis came in by the thousands this week in the wake of the Abraham Accords – what is striking about Hartland is how much it feels like what Israel’s pioneers wanted to do: Make the desert bloom. Israel has accomplished that, but not always with the level of attention to quality construction that Sobha is pushing for. It is built on a larger scale in many ways, with an indoor skating rink in the mall, artificial islands, and pulsating bars and restaurants like the Cove Beach club with its exquisite bar located near the breeze that comes up from the beach and caresses its way through the trees to the seated guests.
Dubai is different. The larger villas at Hartland have a room for a driver and a maid, an example of what residents expect to have in their homes.
TIMES HAVE been difficult, with COVID. Taxi drivers said they have seen wages decrease as international travel ground to a halt in the spring of 2020 and has returned only by half.
But the United Arab Emirates in general is pushing a variety of initiatives that have transformed this area in the last decades. It was already a unique country, rising from the desert, but it has anchored its residents, who come from almost every country in the world, by pushing a national narrative of tolerance and coexistence and new rules for residency and business entrepreneurs that give people more opportunities.
The city seems so natural as a destination for Israelis and Jews that it seems plausible Israelis will be part of the fabric of the UAE, and Dubai especially. From taxi cabs to the malls I heard Hebrew and saw men in kippot in a way that felt safe and welcoming more than most European countries are to Jewish men who wear a kippah or Star of David. The past exclusion has given way to a rapid embrace.
In retrospect this seems obvious. Not only should Israelis be welcomed in every country in the world, and should Jews be safe everywhere, but normalization is the basic aspect of engagement between countries; even hostile countries have relations.
The Abraham Accords came about as a result of unique circumstances and pathbreaking vision by the UAE and Bahrain, as well as a push from the Trump administration.
Israel has always been open for these relations, and average Israelis want to play a greater role in the region and contribute to the success of places like the Gulf. Now it can happen. Credit is due to many people.
In the end, those who gain the most are average people and local businesses, from taxi drivers waiting in the queue at Dubai Mall, to the Sal restaurant at the Burj al-Arab, and the Shisha lounge at Ninive at the Emirates Towers; from hi-tech entrepreneurs to properties like Sobha Hartland, where Israelis can now consider a second home that offers them a unique, welcoming, safe place to enjoy all the Gulf has to offer.
When you go to Dubai, you’ll find a new world awaiting. Go with respect and to listen and enjoy.