Six days in Dubai have been a head-turning experience. I first went there in 1972 as a Gillette brand manager when it was a small port town, then as a Marketing Manager at P&G in the early 80s, and again as regional CEO of Pepsi-Cola in the 90s. I’ve made four trips in the last decade as Saatchi & Saatchi CEO, and let me say first up that it is entirely possible to have a Zen-like experience in Dubai. For me this was a beautiful quiet hotel residence One&Only Royal Mirage, being accompanied by family (Rebecca and her cousin Luisa), tennis, the sound of the beach very close by and shady trees.
But step outside and meditation is immediately over. Dubai is a confronting experience. It’s massive, it’s focused, it’s been very well thought about (a seaplane tour of the city – New Zealand pilot of course – reveals a masterplan). In between mid-morning levitation and a foot high stack of faxes to process, I gave one presentation (P&G Dubai, fantastic to have continuity with the same, albeit a tad bigger group, that I was part of 36 years ago), one speech (to the Dubai advertising community where I said the work needed to get more emotional and less functional), had a book launch (Lovemarks, The Lovemarks Effect, Sisomo and One in a Billion) at Borders in the Mall of the Emirates (that's the one with the indoor ski-field), a regional Saatchi & Saatchi heads meeting, a client dinner and several media interviews.
One of Saatchi & Saatchi's clients is Nakheel, a government-owned property development company that announced last week that they are to build 100 new shopping malls (in between building housing for three million people). Another client is Atlantis,The Palm, which will bring uncompromised resort experiences and sensations to Dubai. I went on the hard-hat tour of the close-to-completed resort at the center of the crescent of The Palm Jumeirah; the 1,539 room ocean-themed destination, marine habitat and water thrill park opens in September. Red Bull is also a client, a perfect attitude for the city of altitude. The Burj Dubai has just been topped at 160 stories (project director is Greg Sang, a New Zealander who started his career as an engineer managing Takapuna’s water mains). A commonly quoted stat is that about 20% of the world's cranes are in Dubai (what is lesser know is that most of them are owed by one guy from India). A new airport, the world’s biggest, is being built with six parallel runways. It’s a car place like LA; one time at the lights there were five Toyotas spread out in front of me and a Lamborghini behind.
The Emirates is planning for 15 million tourists in a decade’s time (oil is just 6% of the current economy), with hundreds of billions of dollars being invested in infrastructure and real estate developments. It’s Vegas without the casinos. Nearby Abu Dhabi, currently the richest place in the world, has the Guggenheim and Louvre coming. Self-doubt and therapy are not part of the Dubai landscape, this is a place that’s going for it with unbelievable confidence. The Middle East has been a recent byword for conflict and war. Trade however has been in the DNA of Arab nations for a few thousand years, and the Emirates are showing a different hand that will change the perception of the region.
'Does Dubai have a soul?' is one question that passes a visitor’s lips. The number of neighborhood mosques suggests that the question is rhetorical. I think that the challenges for Dubai lie in harmonizing its relationship with nature, which will take only so much building and buffing; in balancing its spiritual integrity with a consumer paradise; in transforming a carbon-intensive urban/desert environment into a green/blue sustainable oasis; in being genuinely new rather than simply replicating; and in leveraging the power of riches for the benefit of the world’s poorest. It’s energizing to be in a place which has do-it-really-big vision. Dubai is all about FREDA (focus, re-invention, execution, distribution and accountability). Go Dubai.
Photos: One&Only Royal Mirage; Mall of the Emirates; Atlantis, The Palm; Burj Dubai under construction