Thursday, 3 December 2009

Abu Dhabi, Dubai and the Basel syndrome

Residents of the Swiss city of Basel continually grumble that few outside of the pharmaceutical industry are aware of their city's existence. They point out that Basel is Switzerland's second largest metropolitan area, larger than Geneva and second only to Zurich.

View of Basel at night showing one of its several historical bridges across the Rhine River.

Basel also has the distinction of more one Canton (a Swiss administrative unit), Basel-Stadt and Basel-Landschaft. Basel has representation equivalent to one and a half cantons in the Swiss confederation.
Until a few days ago, Abu Dhabi residents felt ignored by the world. Abu Dhabi, the dull and sleepy neighbour of glitzy Dubai, lives in Dubai's shadow. Given the financial meltdown in Dubai, all eyes are on Abu Dhabi.  
Abu Dhabi is the capital and financial powerhouse within the United Arab Emirates (UAE). UAE without Abu Dhabi is like a phone without a sim card, it just won't work!
Abu Dhabi emirate, which includes the urban area of Al Ain, controls 9% of the world's proven oil reserves. Abu Dhabi is the only member of the UAE which has meaningful oil reserves.

Through the largesse of Sheikh Zayed, the founding father and former ruler of Abu Dhabi, the city pays for almost all of the UAE's federal budget. This includes funding the all-important social sectors of education and health.
Universal health care and education is available to all Emiratis because Abu Dhabi chooses to pay for it. It helps when you have savings in a sovereign wealth fund estimated to total over USD 600 billion. And more wealth is sprouting through the ground every day.

Abu Dhabi's skyline may be missing the Burj but is still that of a modern metropolis

Dubai invests using borrowed money and building extravagant structures in the desert, e.g. the Palm Island. Abu Dhabi invests by digging holes in the ground and extracting oil.
After accumulating sufficient wealth Abu Dhabi buys both businesses and culture. If you don't borrow money then it makes no difference to the international financial system what you construct with your savings.
Dubai is an attention seeker. It had to have the biggest and best of everything. The city made a ripple on its way up and quite a splash on its way down. It is a tribute to the small fishing village that events in a city built around a creek in the Arabian Desert reverberate around the globe.
Dubai World's debt default is not the end of the dynamic emirate. Those who are preparing to attend Dubai's funeral are mistaken. At one time in history, people were arranging a memorial service for Las Vegas too.
Dubai is not the only geography to suffer financial problems. The state of Russia defaulted on its sovereign debt in 1998. More recently, the state of California was using IOU notes to make payments as recently as a few months ago.
Financial defaults occur in many ways. Some may remember the US government's commitment to sell an ounce of gold at a fixed price USD 35. The gold standard was abrogated in 1973. Today, we buy gold at USD 1,200 and counting. Some may consider that a default – certainly it is a way to repay debt with a debased currency.
Just like California, Russia or indeed the US, Dubai is not going to disappear anytime soon.
Its busy ports will still handle large amounts of containers. The airport will continue to act as a gateway to and from the region.
The financial sector was always a work in progress. So, yes things may slow down on that front for a few years.
However, as long as Dubai retains its status as an open, liberal city in the midst of a turbulent region it will remain the place to live and do business in the Gulf. In fact, the crisis will chasten the city and help to make Dubai's business model more pragmatically in the coming years, i.e. invest slower and borrow less.
Realistically speaking, as long as Dubai exists in the shadow of Abu Dhabi we can all breathe easy.
If I appear slightly biased towards Abu Dhabi, be assured I am just being truthful! Although it may help to know that I spent five wonderful years as a teenager in Abu Dhabi.

A miniature painting depicting the inauguration ceremony in 1460 of Switzerland's oldest university, the University of Basel

Abu Dhabi is the city I unilaterally declared my independence from my parents! Of course, I could never have taken such a bold step without reading the works of that one time University of Basel professor – Friedrich Nietzsche.

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