By Aijaz Zaka Syed
May 02, 2014
This is not an academic question. It popped up in my mind during an interesting conversation I had with the Pakistani cabbie who rushed me to the Dubai International Airport recently. He appeared unusually sullen and intense. So I hurled the most clichéd question at him as soon as I settled down: “Khan Sahib, how long have you been in Dubai?”
“More than I can remember. Over 25 years, I guess”, he replied in his thick Frontier accent.
“When are you planning to go home?”
“I don’t know. Anyway, Dubai is my home now”, he said with a touch of resignation in his voice. ‘” go to Peshawar every two years. But since I’ve got to feed my family back home, I can’t stay long with them.”
Driving down the new shiny underpass next to Al Maktoum Bridge that has cut down on travel time to the Dubai International Airport, he smiled to himself and gestured. “Look at that. Another new tunnel, another big project and more new jobs! I have witnessed Dubai and UAE grow for the past quarter of a century. This place never ceases to amaze me. Always developing, always building something or the other. And this growth hasn’t stopped despite the recent financial crisis.”
Dubai continues to build and expand its already vast and efficient road network to deal with the ever-growing population and traffic of the emirate.
“And it all comes down to leadership. If only our countries had been blessed with leaders like these, a Shaikh Mohammed of our own, we wouldn’t be stuck here forever – thousands of miles away from home. Look at me. I’ve spent more than half my life away from my loved ones”, the cabbie shook his head.
Earthly wisdom there. He was right of course. Leaders with a vision build nations and countries. Travelling across Malaysia a while ago, I was constantly reminded of the conversation with the Pathan cabbie. Malaysia is another shining and inspiring example how individuals can indeed change the destiny of nations.
One leader with a dream and imagination and determination to realise it can make all the difference. And as Frank Lloyd Wright said, an idea is salvation by imagination.
Back when I landed in Dubai more than a decade ago, I found this breathless adulation for the Dubai ruler (and UAE prime minister) among the Emiratis as well as expatriates a little overwhelming. Coming from the world’s biggest democracy, one saw it as little more than yet another manifestation of the personality cult that is so common across the region.
But having keenly, and rather sceptically, watched him over the past decade and more, one couldn’t help but silently marvel at the man who has endlessly been written and talked about in international media and not always in glowing terms.
Western publications like the Wall Street Journal, Guardian and Independent have often questioned and critiqued the Dubai model of growth and there was general jubilation when the 2008 recession slowed down the emirate’s breathless pace of development. There were wild accounts of Dubai going bust and thousands being laid off. But the sniggering didn’t last long as the emirate moved to check the effects of the global meltdown with bold measures silencing its critics. And within no time it was back on the road to recovery. Today, it seems as though it never happened.
In a way that episode was yet another example of rare leadership in the face of adversity. It’s the same leadership qualities and vision that have transformed Dubai into a thriving world-class tourist destination and economic capital of the region. So much so that many people around the world today know and identify the Gulf with reference to Dubai. It’s as if Dubai is Gulf or vice versa.
And, mind you, all this has been created out of nothing. Dubai is one man’s idea –spawned merely on the strength of sheer imagination and resilience of spirit. As they say, an idea can change the world. In Dubai’s case, it indeed has. The emirate has little oil. At least, not as much as other Gulf states to live off it in carefree luxury.
Indeed, it defies all stereotypes about the Arab and Muslim world, unveiling some world-class project or the other on a daily basis to cater to its already pampered people. It continues to attract international tourists in crazy numbers.
A whopping 11 million tourists visited Dubai in 2013 despite the fact that the tiny emirate is relatively young in years and does not boast much by way of history or heritage, things that usually attract western and international visitors.
It is not easy to imagine spectacular success stories like Dubai and UAE and Malaysia without the leadership that spawned them. Like Dubai, Malaysia is a living and breathing tribute to one man’s imagination. Although Mahathir has long departed from the scene, passing on his mantle to a younger but less endowed leadership, his imprint on today’s Malaysia remains powerful.
This isn’t really surprising given the fact that he managed to transform an isolated, impoverished and long colonised island into a hip and happening country that is a constant source of inspiration and envy to the neighbourhood. Malaysia’s growth under Mahathir’s dynamic leadership during the two decades of his power was truly phenomenal.
If Malaysia today is seen as one of the fastest growing economies in the region and is admired for its poised progress, the credit should go to Mahathir. And it’s not difficult to see why Malaysians still love him although he was also seen as too authoritarian by many of his detractors.
Driving down the highway that connects Malaysia with Singapore in the south and Thailand in the north, one is amazed at the wide and winding six-lane road that is hemmed in on either side by thick palm plantations. Such perfectly smooth roads are a rarity in most Third World and Asian countries.
And it’s not something that has been done to impress new arrivals in the country. Wherever you go, Malaysia has similar magnificent roads. And this preoccupation with perfection doesn’t end with roads. Malaysia has institutions and infrastructure that can compete with the best in the developed world and can be a source of envy for the developing world. It has already beaten neighbours such as Thailand and Singapore to emerge as the world’s favourite tourist destination in Asia.
Not a small feat considering Malaysia won its independence in 1957, much later than other Asian countries like India and Pakistan. In fact, it became Malaysia – a union of major states like Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak – only in 1969. What is really fascinating about the Malaysian experience is the fact that, despite its phenomenal economic growth and development, the Muslim majority country with large ethnic Chinese and Indian communities hasn’t broken away from its rich religious, cultural and historical heritage. It is a truly multicultural and multi-religious society in the real sense.
Malaysia’s minorities are a healthy part of the mainstream. At the same time, the country remains faithful to its Islamic values. Malaysia also demolishes the myth that Islam and democracy or Islam and modernity cannot go together.
There are invaluable lessons in these two success stories for the rest of the Muslim world. The two have demonstrated – and how! – that you can make your dreams come true if you truly believe in them. It is the sheer grit and imagination of their leaders that have enabled them to excel and achieve in such a remarkably short time.
They proved that there is no dearth of ideas, original thinking, talent or urge to excel in the Arab and Muslim world. What you need is the power of imagination and leaders who can make those dreams come true. Never underestimate the power of your dreams. They might just come true.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Middle East based writer and editor of 'Caravan', an online news magazine. What makes great leaders and what produces great leadership? Are they born leaders or is the leadership something that is born of particular circumstances and conditioning?