The War Years Part VI: Dubai Goes Global

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    Stepping out for a New Years Eve party in Dubai, 1987. (Photo/via Norbert Schiller)

    Stepping out for a New Years Eve party in Dubai, 1987. (Photo/via Norbert Schiller)


    During my last visit to Dubai, in November, I took time out to drive around the city and just look at all the changes that have taken place since I first moved there in the 1980s. Back then everything from commerce to tourism was centered around the  “Dubai Creek.” Now, I hardly noticed the “creek” as I drove on a network of multilane freeways and bridges that crisscrossed in every direction. Even the Hyatt Galleria, where I once lived, is hardly noticeable with all the new high-rise buildings that have sprouted up out of the sand. I’m sure the Hyatt has had numerous renovations over the years, to keep up with the changing times; but still when compared to everything else, it looks dated.

    If you ask long-term residents of Dubai when they first noticed the Emirate moving from a regional commerce leader to a global player, most will acknowledge that the change began in the middle of the 1980s. The first big initiative to attract foreign investment was the creation of the Jebel Ali Free Zone. Even though Jebel Ali was nearly an hour’s drive from the center of Dubai, it attracted foreign investors because of its tax-free status, large port facilities and infrastructure.

    The second big push onto the global stage was the creation of Emirates airline. Before Emirates airline was formed in 1985, the Emirate of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah (the four Emirates that had airports) and the Gulf countries of Oman, Qatar and Bahrain all shared a single airline, Gulf Air, which was based on the tiny island nation of Bahrain. However, with Dubai looking to become an economic and tourist hub, it was obvious that Gulf Air was in no position to meet Dubai’s growing demands.

    What I find remarkable was that the royal family in Dubai snubbed the richer and more established Emirate of Abu Dhabi (the capital) and founded their own airline, rather than cooperate with the other “United Emirates” to form a single airline. It’s almost as if the Maktoums (rulers of Dubai) were done playing second fiddle and wanted to spread their wings. It wasn’t until 2003 that Abu Dhabi launched Etihad Airways.

    In March 1985, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, then defense minister of the UAE (now ruler of Dubai) along with his uncle Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al Maktoum and Maurice Flanagan, an Englishmen who had worked 25 years for British Airways, launched Emirates airline. The initial investment was 10 million dollars, given by the royal family, and two planes leased from Pakistan International Airlines (PIA).

    With Dubai firmly on the map it didn’t take long for foreigners, particularly those coming from the United Kingdom to move to Dubai in search of work.  The U.K. had a special relationship with Emirates because of their past colonial role, and as a result, British citizens didn’t require visas. As more and more people began to discover Dubai as both a holiday destination and place to start and or to relocate a business, it didn’t take long before brand names and designer labels followed.

    By 1988, Dubai was rapidly becoming the hub of choice for airlines traveling between Europe and Asia. Dubai’s airport Duty Free had already established itself one of the most prestigious retail stores in the world. At one point Dubai Duty Free was the single largest retail outlet for Johnny Walker scotch whiskey. And considering Dubai’s location in the heart of the Moslem world, that was quite an achievement. Not only did Dubai Duty Free reinvent luxury, it did so at the expense of every other duty free shop around the world.

    One of the initial problems faced by many companies that moved to Dubai was attracting customers. Companies tried a variety of techniques but one that proved to be the most successful was sponsoring events such as automotive races, fashion shows and concerts, to name a few.

    The Hyatt had over 300 apartments that were filled with mostly single expatriates on short-term work contracts and Emirates air hostesses, who were looking to have fun. All someone had to do was drop a stack of invitations at the reception, mention on the invite that there was an open bar and like magic, whatever the event, there would be a full house.

    I’ll never forget one late spring day receiving an invitation to attend an evening outdoor cocktail reception and fashion show by some German designer. I assumed that with summer being just around the corner, the show would feature beach attire. Mind you, the temperatures in June, even at night, are in the upper 30s Celsius, with humidity levels hovering between 90 to 95 percent.

    After quenching my thirst at the bar, I meandered over to the catwalk and was in utter shock when I saw the clothing on display. The poor models were strutting up and down the catwalk in heavy wool winter coats, long dresses and wool pantsuits. One couldn’t help but feel sorry for the girls who were fighting against all odds to keep their mascara and makeup from running. To add insult to injury, if I may use and old phrase, the girls had to walk under television lights because the event was being filmed. It was obvious that the designer did not do his homework before coming to Dubai!

    On other occasions I got invitations from airlines and hotel chains that were featuring new destination or package promotions. Shortly after the Iran-Iraq war ended, and subsequently the tanker war, I took a vacation and when I returned, I found an invitation under my door to attend a Black-and-White themed dinner and dance party taking place that very evening. I was ecstatic to be back, and looking forward to going out and meeting up with friends. For the dinner party I decided to wear my new tuxedo, which I had recently bought on a friend’s recommendation.

    My oldest childhood friend, Will, had taken a sabbatical of sorts from his university studies to become a fashion model and travel the world for a few years. He was quite attractive, in a Southern California kind of way, and as a result was immediately picked up by a modeling agent and sent abroad where the demand for his look was at an all-time high. When he learned that I was living the “high life” in Dubai, he decided to give me some fashion tips. “Norbs, take it from me, every time you pack your bags make sure to always include a tux for the formal events and a leather bomber jacket with white silk scarf for everything else; there’s no need for a suit. Whether you’re invited to a diplomatic function in Cairo or a black tie affair in Hong Kong, you will always stand out in the crowd.”

    Dressed to the hilt in my tuxedo, I entered the party and was handed a raffle ticket and escorted to my table. As soon as I sat down I began to chat with everyone there, asking about the latest gossip and speaking about my latest wartime escapades. During my tirade, a woman got up to the microphone and began reading off raffle ticket numbers. I honestly didn’t care about the raffle, so I continued to engage my table in conversation. In the middle of my rant, the grand prize was read out and then the number repeated again and again. They were just about to draw another number when the women sitting next to me asked if she could see my raffle ticket. I handed it to her, while I was still in mid-sentence, and suddenly she blurted out “you won!”

    “Won what?” I replied

    “The grand prize!”

    As I walked up towards the stage everyone was clapping, and honestly I hadn’t a clue what I had won.

    It turned out the grand prize was a round trip ticket to Singapore with a three-night  stay at the brand new Hyatt Regency that had just opened. To this day that is the only time I have ever won anything of significance and can you believe it I never used the voucher.

    I was living the Dubai dream and nothing else mattered, not even an all-expense paid trip to Singapore!


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      • Ken Wilkins

        Yep they were not shy at offering reasonably generous prizes!

      • Ngoma

        Duh..bet you wish you had gone to Singapore after all!