The United Arab Emirates (‘UAE’) – a federation of seven sand-suffused monarchies located between Saudi Arabia and Oman – is perhaps not the most obvious place to look to for inspiration; like many countries in south-west Asia, prima facie it conforms to the regional model of hydrocarbon-based political economy. Yet recent developments suggest that the UAE – whether consciously or not – has built an economic model which, while difficult to replicate, is at the very least paradigmatic in its combination of qualities, an amalgamation that echoes global trends:
1. Depletion. The United Arab Emirates – despite possessing the gargantuan oil and gas reserves of Abu Dhabi – has taken significant strides in recent years to diversify its economy away from dependence on the export of finite natural resources. These measures include the transition to a knowledge-based economy represented by the incorporation of Dubai Knowledge Village (‘KV’), an educational hub including branches of the University of Wollongong and Middlesex University.
2. Deregulation. The UAE is jammed full of ‘free zones’, areas which act as tax-free, highly-deregulated clusters for various economic sectors. These include Masdar City, a clean technology zone located just 17 kilometres from central Abu Dhabi, and Dubai Internet City, an IT hub with tenants such as Microsoft, Dell and Canon.
3. Transience. This modality is exemplified by Dubai, which has given new meaning to the concept of the temporary: the hottest of capital flows, the fastest lifestyles, the emptiest of brand new office blocks mean that the United Arab Emirates proffers the last word in ephemera.
4. Feudalism. With the acquisition of citizenship for foreign nationals a virtual impossibility and its economic miracle at least partially contingent on the fantastical exploitation of manual labourers from South Asia, the UAE represents a return to feudalistic capitalism of the starkest kind; sex slaves – particularly those from impoverished regions of the CIS and China – toil at the bottom of the pyramid, while emirs reign unfettered at the top.
5. Insecurity. As the New York Times reported on 14th May 2011, those in charge of the United Arab Emirates have commissioned the formation of a mercenary army – to be trained by retired military veterans from the United States, Germany, France and the United Kingdom – at an initial cost of US$529m. Not only is this a model of unparalleled outsourcing, but it illustrates the extent to which key actors in certain sovereign states are recognising that the mix of autocracy, inequality, rapid change and opacity over which they preside is a potentially unstable compound.