Monday, March 28, 2005

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Sheikh Zayed Rd, Aerial View with Emirates Towers
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Sheikh Zayed Road, towards Jebel Ali, Emirates Towers on the left
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SP Jain Dubai, The Inner Courtyad

Thursday, March 24, 2005

A reborn city has an unlikely salesman

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The BMW 6 series is doing a steady 100 kmph as we race down the rain-swept Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai. The latest GSM-based nagivation system on a dashboard monitor marks our progress in the form of steadily moving blip. A steady January drizzle drums away on the rooftop making the weather outside cooler and even more undesertlike.

The writer was kindly fetched, a little while ago, from his hotel in central Dubai. This is shopping season, as is evident when we drove out, though its tough to imagine there is any other. Shiny cars are propped up outside almost every department store, some even wrapped with ribbons. My hotel, the Movenpick, not to be outdone, was offering a Smart car, enticingly parked in the coffee shop.

Nitish Jain, the BMW’s owner, once known as the entrepreneur who built up and then sold salt brand Captain Cook to International Bestfoods back home, is the guide and host for the afternoon. He is also, perhaps, inadvertently, the best salesman for this re-born desert city, it's quite likely that the voracious shoppers who hit Dubai and head for the gold `souks' and the mega malls might miss the real action.

As the car continues purposefully south in the direction of Jebel Ali, Jain is reeling off facts and figures on Dubai, the city’s new face, the balancing night life, the billions of dollars pouring into mega real estate projects, the sheer pace of change and finally, the opportunities, all this will create for Dubai’s economy.

Taller and bigger

Indeed, glancing out at the highway and the monstrous, gleaming skyscrapers that materialize through the front windshield and then whiz past, you wonder if those who talk about the exploding Shanghai skyline have had a chance to visit this desert city recently. If not, do note a cool $50 billion is expected to be invested in Dubai real estate in the next five years alone.

We’ve just left the imposing, twin Emirates Towers behind even as Nitish points out that the world’s first indoor ski slope is being built somewhere along this road, as part of the $5 billion, 2 billion square feet Dubailand project, part of the Mall of Arabia, the largest Mall in this part of the world, including hotels, restaurants, an artificial rain forest, a Dinosaur World and Sports City.

Just as you debate the preposterousness of a quarter mile ski slope in a desert, a mammoth, somewhat difficult to define in proportions construction site looms into view, with tall cranes working furiously around what, appears to be, among other things, the skeletal structure of a ski jump. Dubailand will boast six themed `world’s and is being offered as the world’s largest tourist attraction.

Like the now legendary waterfront Palm project, now extended to the 22 million square feet Jumeirah Beach residence, Dubai is now about size, grandeur and the inexorable conquest of the desert, backed by frenzied engineering and construction. Indian labour played an important role here, building the foundation of most of the middle east resulting today in a new, totally, reformulated, megalopolis based on a 21st century services economy, not even the vestiges of an oil economy that most folks in the region think it is. And Sheikh Zayed Road is the showpiece of that future, one that not too many are yet acquainted with.

Classrooms in the desert

Except entrepreneurs like Nitish. Dubailand, the freehold and, the skyscrapers sure excite him, but what’s driving him is not the real estate or the shopping, rather the opportunities in education - after some scouting around, he made up his mind and started the S P Jain Institute of Management, Dubai at the newly opened Dubai Knowledge Village.

The Knowledge Village is reflective of the little Emirate’s quick and focused approach to projects. Every new initiative is typically housed in a `city’ with dedicated infrastructure, facilities and, more often than not, regulations as well, like the Dubai Internet City and Media city located close by. The Knowledge Village incidentally, is positioned as complementary to the Internet and Media cities.

Nitish hasn’t been the first to scour out the new Dubai. BITS Pilani and the Manipal Group also have reasonably successful operations here. SPJIM has over 25,000 square feet in the Knowledge village, built at a cost of $70 million as recently as October 2003. The Village now has over a million square feet.Driving into a comfortable basement parking slot just after we pass a board that proclaims the SP Jain Institute, we go up again to what is the students’ classroom and conference area. “We didn’t have to do anything except move in,” says Nitish, referring to the ready state of infrastructure and the fact that the campus had all the education infrastructure one could ask for, ready to go.

Before you ask Dubai, you ask Nitish, why education - he was last seen running a retail stockbroking operation in India. “Education has opportunity, private education particularly,” he says. And then to why Dubai, the question he’s been waiting for, as we walk the sterile corridors of the college, he says, “With so much world class infrastructure and a growth environment, there has to be a need for talented people, particularly in the service sector.”

The good thing about the knowledge village is of course the multitude of colleges and institutes from various parts of the world, ranging from Australia to other parts of the middle-east. Co-incidentally, in the same trip, I encountered a Bombay-bred professor of economics who taught at the Woolongong University, next door. SPJain Dubai not surprisingly, imports staff on short stays from its Mumbai campus.

SP Jain Dubai offers a one year course Post Graduate Diploma in Management across disciplines ranging from marketing to finance with a particular focus on services. Nitish explains, “The Gulf countries, while oil driven, are also seeing rapid development in tourism related activity, retail malls, financial services, IT services, and healthcare.

The new economy drivers

That does not take a genius to figure out. Last year, the Dubai Shopping Festival alone attracted over 3 million visitors (5 million in all), more, by the way, than the number of tourist arrivals to neighbouring India. But the larger targets are staggering and worth mentioning. Today, less than 6% of Dubai’s economy is oil based and the emirate wants to up the number of tourists to 15 million in five years.

All of this becomes more interesting when you record that flying into Dubai from Bombay can take less time than Kolkata in the east, the airport is in the heart of the city, so no long drives and most of all, has a more than generous smattering of Indian culture – people, food, language and so on. All in the confines of a first world environment.

The new `links'

The Dubai-Bombay links are of course well documented, across trade and industry, above and below board. But with the services and real estate boom, new links are mushrooming. Most Bombay real estate brokers, at least for the last year or so, often ask if you want to consider buying a flat in Dubai or better still, a house in the Palm. "Not very expensive sir, starting at Rs 35 lakh," one told me when he saw the incredulous look.

And Bombay's poster boy for the construction industry, Niranjan Hiranandani is headed there as well. He is building, hold your breath, an 80-storey residential complex. Its almost as if on running out of land in Bombay, the next best option was Dubai. "There is lot of Arab money coming into the region," he explained, referring to the post 9/11 flow back of dollars into the middle east.

All this does not escape Nitish, who continues to `shuttle’ between Bombay and Dubai. As we finish our quick tour of the college, hop back into his BMW and hit Sheikh Zayed Road once again, the steely skyscrapers of Sheikh Zayed Road falling slowly behind us, one can't but help ponder whether this still-rising brick and mortar miracle will last its ambitions..correct that, its latest round of them..

New York has its State of Liberty, Paris its Eiffel Tower, so Dubai decided, perhaps, to respond with a modern icon. That took shape in the form of the famous sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, the world’s tallest hotel building. With an helipad on the 28th floor (recently a venue for a friendly tennis match between Roger Federer and Andre Agassi in preparation for the Dubai Tennis Open), the Burj Al Arab represents a modern state-economy's desire to succeed at anything, anywhere. A facet entrepreneurs worldwide respect and are attracted to, including our home-grown ones.

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