Cities are as unique as individuals. Like humans, cities exude a distinct sense of who they are and what they stand for.
Residents of Dubai often compare their city to Singapore. The two cities are 'regional hubs in today's global village' and share certain characteristics. They also have many noticeable differences.
The similarities include physical infrastructure. Transport, global connectivity, and basic government services are of a high quality. The quality of life is high and affords diverse lifestyle opportunities for expatriates.
'Dune bashing' in Dubai's desert is a popular tourist pastime
Both cities have worked hard to establish themselves on the international map. They have adeptly used national symbols (e.g. Emirates and Singapore Airlines) to create and promote a wider brand.
They are vital trading and logistics centres in their regions. Dubai airport is as much a regional transit point as Singapore's Changi airport. The two ports are amongst the 10 busiest ports in the world.
Just as important, the cities boast a cosmopolitan and open environment which welcomes foreigners. Foreign workers are drawn by the scent of money not just from neighbouring nations but also from far off.
Joining the exclusive club of global cities comes at a price – good and bad.
They lose a little bit of their own culture in the quest to 'internationalize.' Sometimes the cities are associated with certain eccentricities which now symbolize their entire being.
Who does not associate Singapore with its tough drug and chewing gum laws? Dubai, on the other hand, has nominated 'Sex on the Beach' as its preferred cocktail. It certainly gives the famed Singapore Sling a run for its money.
Singapore's Esplanade includes a purpose built concert hall and theater
The differences between Dubai and Singapore are as important as the similarities.
Singapore houses approximately three times the population of Dubai, i.e. 5 million versus 1.5 million. It is located in the tropics while Dubai is surrounded by the desert. One has a Chinese flavour while the other Arab (or South Asian perhaps?!).
Approximately 25% of Singapore's residents are foreigners. In Dubai, foreigners are 85% of the total population. Additionally, given the high concentration of unskilled labour in Dubai the male-female ration is extremely skewed. The results of the 2006 census indicated that only 25% of the resident population is female.
There is no concept of Permanent Residency or granting of citizenship in Dubai. Residence permits or work visas are granted for 3 years at a time. One may work in Dubai for 30 years but the visa must be renewed every 3 years.
Perhaps the authorities fear that the Emirati (UAE national) may become extinct in their own country, much like the aborigines in Australia or Native Americans in the US. The fear does seem justified.
An indoor ski slope is located inside Dubai's Mall of the Emirates shopping mall
Singapore's catchment area comprises of other Southeast Asian countries while Dubai's rests on South Asia, Iran and the broader Arab world. Both cities benefit from their reputations as oases of calm in otherwise turbulent regions.
Undoubtedly, Singapore and Dubai are modern day success stories. They are vibrant and dynamic cities. They provide developmental models for academics to study and other nations to adapt and implement.
In October 2008, the US journal Foreign Policy stated, "[the] world's biggest, most interconnected cities help set global agendas, weather transnational dangers, and serve as the hubs of global integration. They are the engines of growth for their countries and the gateways to the resources of their regions."
The same Foreign Policy survey analyzed and measured 24 diverse qualities of many international cities. The survey ranked Dubai at 27 and Singapore at number 7 in their listing of Global Cities by importance.
They deserve the accolades.
Author's Personal Note
I lived in Dubai for over five years until June 2009.
The Dusit Thani hotel in Dubai. The world's tallest building, the Burj, is visible to its right while the tracks to the new Metro system are in the foreground
I enjoyed my life in Dubai. The city was good to me professionally and personally. But like many foreigners, I could have lived in Dubai for another five years and it still will not have become home to me.
Home is more than just being 'worn down' and getting used to a city and its lifestyle. The lifestyle felt artificial to me.
Dubai is nothing if not a city under construction, physically and spiritually. GPS systems are out of date within a few months of purchase – no kidding.
Physical change is as much a part of the routine as prayer breaks at an office.
Dubai is a commercial city built for traders, merchants and, dare I say it, conmen. Anything goes in Dubai – as long as it does not ruffle too many feathers and is not explicitly against the law.
It is a city for the nouveau riche. The environment encourages conspicuous consumption. Arguably, ostentation is a necessary condition for success in Dubai. The only measure of success is wealth.
The wider Arab Gulf benefits from Dubai's tolerant environment.
The city is helping to synthesize Islam with modernity. Not in the intellectual way that Muftis from madressas do but in a natural way reflected via the city's collective moral values and behaviour.
Dubai views the world with the recklessness of a teenager and the innocence of a toddler. It is experimenting with anything and everything. It is learning from its trials and tribulations.
Today's Dubai does not believe in walking. It went straight from being a crawling baby to a running teenager. It will run out of breath one day.
One day Dubai will find its character.
Until then, change circumscribes Dubai like a veil covers a beautiful woman. Its true beauty remains hidden from most and it's anyone guess when the veil will finally be lifted.
I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of her face.