Note: This column appeared in The Times (of Northwest Indiana) on November 26, 2009.
“We are caught between Iraq and a hard place — Israel.” That’s what then-King Hussein of Jordan used to say about his home country, a line often repeated by his son, the current King Abdullah. But just because a country is in the Middle East doesn’t mean it is destined for a troubled life anymore.
Jordan’s shared borders with Iraq and Israel have forced it to take on great economic hardship in recent years. A number of Iraqis have fled across the border, in addition to countless refugees from the long-standing Israeli-Palestine conflict to its west.
About a three-hour flight away in Dubai, the story is much different.
I visited both of these cities during the past week and saw the stark contrast up close.
Just a relatively small port city until a few decades ago, Dubai now boasts the world’s tallest building, two of the largest malls in the world, three man-made islands that look like palm trees, and a collection of small islands fashioned to look like a scale model map of the world itself when seen from above.
Although situated in the Middle East, just a stone’s throw from Iran and not far from Iraq or Afghanistan, Dubai has been able to convince the world it is safe to visit. The streets are quiet, most people speak English pretty well, and nearly every advertisement in the city includes a very Western looking couple or family enjoying the sites of the city.
Amman, Jordan’s capital city and home to a number of historical landmarks, is covered by miles and miles of small homes while massive construction projects and tall shiny buildings mark the trip down Sheikh Zayed Road, the main road in Dubai. Makes you wonder if Dubai will be able to sustain all this rapid fire growth while at the same time making it obvious why Jordan boasts an artist’s rending of what their downtown will look like in 2011 in magazines aboard Royal Jordanian airlines.
But the fact that things aren’t perfect in Dubai because of economic difficulties around the world hasn’t dampened the spirits of those in the Emirates about the tourist potential of the city and the hopes of other cities in the Middle East that they can become the next Dubai.
In Kuwait City, which is finally getting back on its feet after being pummeled during the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, and Manama, Bahrain, they look to Dubai as a model for what their cities and the entire Middle East can become. Instead of walking a delicate tightrope between peace and war nearly every day, the people of those cities want to be seen as hubs of innovation. They want to be bright spots on a map of a troubled region.
When I visited Kuwait in January 2008 with President George W. Bush, a driver boasted that they were just 10 years behind Dubai. His simple comment made it clear that Dubai has become a model for what the entire region can become with some hard work and a gradual shift in global perception.
Historically plagued by instability, the region certainly has bright spots. But what the future holds for the majority of the Middle East is still up in the air.