A lot has changed in the world over the last quarter century, but nowhere is this more evident than in the tiny, Emirate of Dubai, located on the Persian Gulf. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is made up of seven Emirates of which Dubai and the capital Abu Dhabi are most known. When I first landed in Dubai in the mid-1980s, Dubai’s ruler and vice president of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, was already beginning to look toward the future. But who would have guessed that 25 years on, the Sheikh would be able to transform the desert into a flourishing 21st century metropolis.
During the economic boom years of the 1990s, Sheikh Mohammed made it his mission to create an oasis of luxury that would become known as the “economic miracle of the desert.” In the process of putting Dubai on the world’s stage, Mohammed managed to double the length of the Emirate’s coastline by creating two giant peninsulas in the shape of a palm trees and an archipelago of artificial islands in the shape of the world. In a CBS “60 Minutes” special on Sheikh Mohammed, one of the Sheikh’s closest advisers said of his boss, “He’s always asking the impossible, not what you are able to do, but what you cannot do!”
Not satisfied with just doubling the coastline, Sheikh Mohammed went on to create a skyline that rivals the likes of Hong Kong, New York, Singapore and Toronto. And if that was not enough, the Sheikh managed to secure numerous world records in the process, including building the largest indoor ski slope, the tallest building, the biggest airport and the largest indoor shopping mall, to name a few.
A few years back a journalist for the Telegraph wrote, “I took my children to see the aquarium at Dubai Mall. As we stood in the world’s largest shopping mall, in the shadow of the world’s tallest building and peered through the world’s largest acrylic panel to see the fish, I started thinking about the UAE and it’s obsession with world records. ”
No matter where one goes in the United Arab Emirates today, you are never far from a world record, or at least one in the making. The UAE currently has set more than 100 records, most of which are in Dubai. The Guinness Book of World Records recently announced that it was opening an office in Dubai as a way of keeping track of the records being set.
The tanker war
I first arrived in Dubai to cover the “tanker war” for what I thought was going to be a one-month rotation to relieve one of my colleagues. Little did I know that my relationship with the Emirate would last until today. The “tanker war” was a byproduct of the Iran-Iraq War, which by the autumn of 1987 had been going on unabated for seven years.
The Iran-Iraq War officially began following a series of border skirmishes over control of the 200-kilometer Shatt al-Arab waterway that bordered both countries. On Sept. 22, 1980, Saddam Hussein launched an all-out surprise attack, crossing the Shatt al-Arab waterway and capturing the oil rich southern Iran province of Khuzestan and the strategic city of Khorramshahr. Saddam Hussein believed that he would be able to pull this off while Iran was still in a state of chaos following the Islamic revolution. Hussein purposely attacked the Iranian border province of Khuzestan because the majority of the inhabitants were not ethnic Persian, but Arabs who he thought might be more sympathetic to his cause. In the early stages of the invasion, Hussein’s forces had little difficulty advancing against an unprepared Iranian military. However, it didn’t take long for Iran to regroup and mount a counter offensive, which to the surprise of many, most notably Saddam Hussein, not only took back most of the land lost, but continued well into Iraqi territory.
By 1984 the land war was at a stalemate with little or no gains for either side. In an effort to break the impasse, both Iran and Iraq turned the conflict up a notch and began attacking the others’ economic interests. In the beginning, the attacks were limited to seaports and oil facilities, but soon both sides began targeting shipping, particularly oil tankers that sailed to and from loading terminals in the Gulf. The new front in this conflict became known as the “tanker war” and by the time it ended four years later, more than 400 ships, mostly oil tankers, were either sunk or damaged and hundreds of sailors were either killed or injured.
America enters the scene
It was no secret that the rich Gulf Arab countries, were helping fund Iraq’s war machines. Since Iran could not disrupt the flow of oil coming from Iraq, it went after Iraq’s two key allies, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. This meant that all oil tankers entering the Gulf destined to either of those two countries were potential targets. Fearful of a disruption in the flow of oil coming out of the Gulf, U.S. President Ronald Reagan agreed to reflag 11 Kuwaiti super tankers. This meant that the super tankers were now technically under the protection of the U.S. military. In the summer of 1987, the U.S. Navy began escorting Kuwait’s tankers in and out of the Gulf. Unable to attack Kuwaiti oil tankers, the Iranian navy began attacking all maritime ships going to Arab ports regardless of the cargo.
Prior to America’s entry into the conflict, the press coverage of the war was minimal at best. However, once it was announced that the U.S. Navy would be escorting Kuwait’s oil tankers, the story jumped from obscurity to the front pages. Over night, the press corps converged on Dubai, the only country willing to let journalist report “freely.” I put “freely” in quotations because there were restrictions — most notably that journalists were not allowed to mention the Emirates by name, and television correspondents were not allowed to stand in front of any landmarks that could be identified. TV correspondents reporting in front of a palm trees became the norm. Another sensitive issue was referring to the Gulf as the “Persian Gulf.” The Iran-Iraq War created a rift in the region and the Arab states began referring to the Gulf as the “Arabian Gulf.”
Initially, the coverage in Dubai was focused on the “tanker war.” Every day news crews would board helicopters and small planes and patrol the Gulf waters looking for ships that were being attracted by Iran speed boats armed with rocket propelled grenades and other weapons, or convoys of reflagged Kuwaiti tankers being escorted by the U.S. Navy. Beside the U.S., 10 other countries had sent navies to the region to protect their fleet of commercial ships.
After the initial flurry of press activity, things began to slow down as many news organizations downsized or pulled out of the Gulf altogether over the high costs of covering the war. By the autumn of 1987, the news crews that stayed were looking for other stories away from the conflict to supplement their coverage. Dubai was just on the verge of making a name for itself internationally and what better for a bunch of journalist than to witness the birth of Sheikh Mohammed’s “economic miracle of the desert.”