27 November 2013

The World Knows Who We Are

I was probably 11 or 12 years old at the time, comparing what we had in the Gulf to the West. The West had all the cool movies. They had all the cool products. All the cool restaurants. They were the scientists, the nobel prize winners, the countries that hosted the big events, the big money. We could catch a glimpse of their world through a TV screen once in a while when a western show or movie aired, and maybe if we were lucky enough to find one of their magazines in a store, we could flick through and see what they had. It was a bit of a dream world to most of the people living here.

A few years earlier my family had lived in the UK - I would say I primarily grew up in London; arguably the center of the world at the time (either it, or New York). It was a different planet from the Gulf. Everything was available in terms of products, media, events, theme parks, and creations. They were 'developed'. We were still behind. Light years behind.

Back in Bahrain (this was somewhere around the early 1990's), getting your hands on a western toy or comic was quite a feat, and was the sort of achievement you'd take along with you to school to show off to your classmates, much to their ooh's and aah's.

I remember thinking and wondering why the West had so much. Why everything they made was seemingly magical to us, while we didn't even register on their radar ("Where/what is Bahrain" was an almost standard reply when I told people where I was from).  I knew the Gulf had to wake up, and move faster, and achieve something. Just something to catch their attention. I wanted to help this region grow and develop, but what can I do as a 12 year old kid with a head full of dreams?

My family travelled considerably after then, back to London, Los Angeles, Paris, and so on. But we were back in Bahrain in 1997, and I was ready to graduate from high school. My original options were somewhere between the UK and the US, but for some reason I ended up going to university in the UAE (long story, ask me later). Dubai was just starting to break out of it's shell at the moment.

My first indication that things were starting to change was around 1999. One of my friends had gone to Australia for a holiday, and when he came back, we discussed the comic book scene there (he was a comic book collector). To my 'shock', he told me comic books were more accessible in Dubai than they were in Australia. But how could that be, I asked myself? Australia was a developed country, wasn't it? They had access to all the media, the products, and so on? But for some reason, we had more access to them in Dubai.

I remember being on an American car forum again around the year 2002, discussing the Skyline GTR (a pretty fast, if a little rare japanese vehicle). Some of the Americans on the forum mentioned hearing about a place called Dubai, being the number one importer (from Japan) and exporter (to the rest of the world) of Skyline GTR's. That was a little shocking; how could these random Americans in the middle of Texas even know about Dubai?

Our region grew and grew from there onwards and these 'moments' became more frequent. I stepped into a taxi in Italy in 2005, and he asked me where I was from; I said Bahrain, knowing very well that he probably would not recognize the country - but he said (in a very stereotypical Italian accent) "Ahhh Bahrain, Formula Uno!" Another was discussing the Abu Dhabi Louvre with some random passer-by in France in 2007. Asking a London travel agent about destinations in 2008, to which she replied, Oman. Talking about the Qatar World Cup in London in 2009. And so on.

And to top it all off, the announcement made just a little over an hour ago, with Dubai winning the right to host the 2020 World Expo. Even before the announcement, I could see tweets and facebook posts from people I know from Lebanon to Los Angeles to Lagos, talking about Dubai. The whole world is looking at us now, the world knows who we are. Although some may see this as the 'importing' of major global events, brands, and trends, what you can see if you look at closer is how we are creating our own as well. The fashion designers, the films, the TV shows. We've built some of the best/biggest airlines in the world, innovative solutions like Masdar and are slowly starting to export what we have to the rest of the world. Who in their right mind would have thought you could walk into the middle of New York and see the Emirates and Al Jazeera logos plastered everywhere, or walk into Harrods in London and grab some Chapati and Karak? And put all that aside for now; people from the West are coming here in hordes trying to get jobs, start businesses, or just explore.

Sure, some Gulf countries were slower to make the transition than others, but the growth is amazing for the region as a whole, and with the right effort we can all benefit from this. We're the cultural and economic heart of the region, and looking further ahead, maybe even the world. We've made it here; the world knows who we are now. And we're about to make waves, lots of them.

18 November 2013

Dubai Air Show, an Awakened Gulf, and Bahrain

I don't regularly blog anymore, and this is going to be a bit of a bittersweet post, but after seeing the amount of power the Gulf has in it's hands after yesterday's Air Show, I figured I have to start screaming somewhere. Might as well be my blog.

Anyhow; yesterday was the first day of the 2013 Dubai Air Show. The behemoth of the airline industry in the GCC is Emirates, which has very casually decided to order $100 billion dollars worth of planes. The notable runners up are Etihad and Qatar Airways, with a combined $50 billion worth of orders.

Now on the surface, and to the uninformed, this seems to be a bunch of rich sheikdoms throwing around their god granted oil money. But look a little deeper; if this was just about money, perhaps Kuwait should be a notable entry, with a higher GDP than either UAE or Qatar. Or, maybe Saudi, with more than double the oil revenue of the next closest competitor. You can't just build a massive airline out of thin air if you had money. Sure, you can start one, but without the right strategies, direction, management and so on, it won't last too long no matter how much money you throw at it.

Back in the 80's, the GCC was made up of a bunch of oil-rich countries with a lot of money and no incentive to use it to build up the country. Emirates Airlines was started by the Dubai ruling family in the mid-80's with an aim to turn Dubai into a regional business hub. With a very focused strategy over the next 20 years, they managed to pave the way for the world to have easy access into the city, and through that (and a very solid growth strategy) expand into a global superstar. As this ridiculous growth caught the eyes of the other sheikdoms around, they wanted in on the global game, and so began the story of the hyper-growth of the GCC.

Of course, some countries raced ahead while others lagged behind. Money played a contributing factor, but some did better with it than others. Look up now, and you'll see cities that people didn't even realize existed 20 years ago are buzzwords on the tongues of tourists, businessmen, politicians and even average citizens, all the way from Seoul to Sao Paulo.

To top it off, at the Air Show yesterday, Etihad, Qatar Airways and Emirates single handedly gave a life-line to Boeing with it's largest ever combined order of $100 billion. And with that kind of money comes power - Sh Ahmed Al Maktoom (Chairman of Emirates Group) turns around and casually says to the West, you give us the landing rights we're asking for (there have been arguments over landing rights for Emirates etc in the West over the past few years), or we're going to cancel these orders.

In other words, you're playing 'our' game now.

All sweet so far, right? The growth of a region, the increase in both economical and political power, the developments within it, and so on. So where's the bitter part?

I look at our tiny little Bahrain, so motivated and always starting new trends being slowly pushed to the side. In fact, they don't even have a noticeable participation in the Air Show; sure I understand we have our own in January and we're probably saving whatever loose change we have to sign deals there, but either way... We started the whole aviation thing in the region. Gulf Air was formed way before any of these other airline, back in the 1940's. And sure, we grew, and eventually Bahrain, Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Oman all decided to come on board as shareholders.

But I think the turning point was in the 80's - Dubai, back then a little desert village with nothing but huge aspirations, kept requesting more flights through Gulf Air, to which the airline turned around and said, no. Not being one to wait for things to happen, the ruling family of Dubai decided to start their own airline, Emirates, and from then on, it's growth, and with them the growth of Dubai astounded everyone.

To the point where Abu Dhabi and Qatar eventually decided, hey, we should have our own airlines too, and left Gulf Air. That's not necessarily a bad thing for GF - they can grow better with more focus, right? But no, the airline kept tumbling deeper and deeper into losses, corruption and one problem after the other. Oman eventually seceded from the airline, making it a pure Bahraini burden. On a positive note though, I guess we can say the reason Emirates was created, Dubai grew, and following that, the whole GCC ended up growing is because of Bahrain (denying Dubai more flights). Ironically now, Gulf Air's busiest route is to Dubai. Funny how time changes things.

I'm happy for what we've managed to do in the Gulf overall, and how we've managed to literally sit on top of the world through our airlines. But again, looking at Gulf Air's sad decline from being a true Gulf airline to one that is just an after-thought, even in the mind of the average Bahraini traveller, makes me feel a little bitter inside. And this follows through everything else in Bahrain - we start all the trends, we have the first hold on any new idea, but for some reason we fail while everyone around us grows. We're smart, we're motivated, we have so much potential in us, but that's all it remains - just pure potential, with no follow up.

I think it's less of feeling sad and more of feeling let down, or disappointed. We all gave tons and tons to the country, and after all that's happened we see it remain relatively stagnant. Maybe it's just a curse. Or maybe it can be fixed. Or maybe we lost hope. Don't get me wrong; I still love our little island, and that won't ever change, but sadly she just feels like the lazy offspring that ended up not achieving much in life while all it's siblings went on to become CEO's and presidents.