How Dubai Works

Dubai Economy

Dubai's main stretch is lined with unusual skyscrapers.
Dubai's main stretch is lined with unusual skyscrapers.
Rabih Moghrabi/AFP/Getty Images

She­ik Mohammed has extended his vision for Dubai past gold, ski runs and oddly shaped islands. T­he elite of the city want Dubai to become the Middle East's financial center -- like a regional New York, London or Shanghai -- ready to absorb the vast wealth of the Gulf.

To attract businesses and banks, Dubai varies its theme of hospitality and convenience. Just as the city lures tourists with its comfortable opulence, it attracts business with a fast-tracked regulatory and court system. The Dubai International Financial Centre is a city within a city that has its own courts, regulations and commercial laws -- independent from the emirate's more conventional bureaucracy. Nearly every bank in the world has a branch there.

Dubai also owns a 20 percent stake in NASDAQ, the American stock exchange. After a failed attempt in 2006 by the state-owned company Dubai Ports World to take over six American ports, the UAE and Dubai began a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign to improve their image. Because Sept. 11 conspirators laundered money through Dubai, many in Congress thought turning over port management would risk national security. Yet Dubai is also one of the United States' strongest allies in the Middle East, hosting more Navy ships than any other international port [source: NPR].

­But as Dubai work­s abroad to promote its carefully crafted identity, it struggles to define itself at home. Fewer than than one-eighth of Dubai's residents are actually UAE citizens [source: National Geographic]. The "nationals," who stand out with their distinctive dress -- white long-sleeved robes (dishdashas) for men and black gowns and scarves (abayas) for women -- represent the wealth of Dubai. They own the property and businesses and oversee a managerial class of expatriates who in turn oversee the majority of the population -- migrant laborers. But with so many foreigners and a constant flow of freewheeling tourists, many natives question whether they've traded culture for profit.

Next, we'll learn more about Dubai's migrant laborers and the troubling trade in humans.