Book review: City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism by Jim Krane.
This book describes how a nearly barren piece of land became a prosperous city. Dubai sounds like what you’d expect if Bill Gates had taken over a small desert tribe and turned it into a real estate development company.
Part of its success is due to having the right amount of oil given its population size. Most non-industrialized countries that find enough oil to affect their economy are corrupted by dependence on it and by political fighting over who profits from it. Dubai found enough to finance a good deal of growth, but quickly saw that oil revenues would decline before long. Also, it had few enough people that the ruling family could afford to buy off any potential opposition.
But Dubai’s development started before it had much hope for oil money, and is partly due to the ambitions of a few people who ruled it. There must be a fair amount of luck involved – it seems to be an accident that Dubai is ruled by competent businessmen who are uninterested in politics (one ordered his reluctant brother to become the ruler). British rule over the region early on also helped ensure political stability.
The book’s description of Dubai’s legal system is confusing. How did a tribe with no tradition of private property make investors feel safe? I’ve read elsewhere that importing a British judge and British common law to the financial district is part of the explanation. The rest of Dubai seems to manage with virtually no legal system. I’m still puzzled about how Dubai provides enough predictability to attract large investments.
He describes Dubai’s lack of democracy as “an embarrassment”. But most of the book suggests that Dubai has been doing better than a democracy could. It makes much faster decisions than a democracy, and it forces bureaucrats to compete for performance scores that would be too easily gamed if voters were in charge.
Dubai’s ambitious expansion has made it resemble a financial bubble for much of the past 55 years, but most of its gambles have succeeded. This makes me wonder how to distinguish similar expansions from bubbles in the future (or in China, the present).
Dubai is an important model for how seasteads might develop, and will compete with any seastead.
The author has a modest pro-Dubai bias, but reports some serious problems such as workers being unable to leave because their passports has been confiscated, and wasteful subsidies of energy and water prices.
He claims that until 2008 the region “hadn’t experienced a financial shock for more than three decades”. Was the 1982 Kuwaiti stock market crash in a different region? It’s not obvious where to get enough financial data to say how the shock from that affected Dubai.