Monday, May. 08, 2006

Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum

This year's headlines about a Dubai company's attempt to take over port operations in major U.S. cities publicized what Middle East hands already understood: Dubai's ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum (or Sheik Mo, as some of his subjects fondly call him), is a very ambitious chap.

Although government-owned Dubai Ports World diplomatically withdrew its plan after the U.S. Congress raised a stink about port security, the bid demonstrated that Sheik Mo's aims extend beyond his dream of turning his patch of desert into a futuristic global hub in the span of a generation. His Dubai Investment Group, for example, has taken a 2% stake in DaimlerChrysler AG, while other government entities gobbled up real estate like New York City's landmark Helmsley Building and won contracts worth billions to build Mediterranean spas and even a new city in Saudi Arabia.

Sheik Mo's bold vision of transforming Dubai (pop. 240,000, not including a million or so foreign workers) into another Singapore and raising gdp from $8 billion to $37 billion in 15 years is urban planning on a cosmic scale. A man of many guises — poet; champion horseman; United Arab Emirates Vice President, Prime Minister and Defense Minister — Sheik Mo, 57, above all sees himself as CEO of Dubai Inc. His family-run city-state is no democracy, yet it has become a model of business-style governance in a region known for kleptocracies. His realm includes a blossoming financial center, regional headquarters for global brands, mega shopping malls, amusement parks, a world-class airline and an airport to go with it, luxurious hotels that play host to 7 million tourists annually and the world's largest man-made islands. "What he is trying to do," says confidant Mohammed al-Gergawi, "is to build an Arab and Muslim success story." In case anyone misses the point, Sheik Mo has broken ground on the Burj Dubai skyscraper, intended to be the planet's tallest building.