Shake-down from the sheikhdom: Dubai goes empire building in the West

The emirate is flush with Middle Eastern petrodollars at present. But it knows it has to broaden its horizons to secure its future
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So says Leah Bower, an American business journalist at Gulf News who recently relocated to Dubai. The Gulf sheikhdom, part of the United Arab Emirates, may only have a population of around a million, but its economy is booming. Last year, GDP grew by more than 13 per cent and hotels, luxury homes and shopping centres are springing up.

But the spending is not stopping there and the good people of Dubai are venturing westward. Last week, Dubai Ports World emerged with a potential £3bn approach for the UK's P&O, while leisure group Tussauds, owner of Alton Towers as well as the eponymous waxworks, was snapped up in March for £800m by Dubai International Capital. DIC is the investment arm of Dubai Holding, which is controlled by the ruling al-Maktoum family, famed for owning some of the world's best racehorses.

DIC is also, with US billionaire Ronald Burkle, believed to have tabled an offer worth $828m (£468m) for the futures arm of the embattled US trader Refco, while the Dubai government invested $1bn in German-American car giant DaimlerChrysler earlier this year, and is now one of its biggest shareholders.

So where is all this cash coming from? The answer, on one level, is simple: petrodollars. Middle Eastern and Central Asian oil exporters are predicted to earn $600bn from crude sales this year, according to the IMF. And while a chunk of that will be spent importing goods, it still leaves a hefty surplus looking for a home.

"It's an oil boom," says Richard Fox, a sovereign specialist at ratings agency Fitch. "It's been a long time since oil prices have been at this sort of level. In the 1970s, most of the money went into safe havens, such as US treasuries. But what we're seeing this time around is more diversified investments."

That is partly because Dubai now has all the government bonds it wants. But it is also part of a fundamental shift in the way that Dubai views its wealth and economy. While it is accepted that we are in an era of high oil prices, it is similarly understood that this will not last for ever. "The high oil price is viewed as a once in a lifetime opportunity, to be used wisely," notes Tim Harrison, an associate at Dubai-based consultancy Asdaa.

Oil supplies will not dry up for many decades but the region is looking at how to prosper when the inevitable happens. Dubai is leading the way because it has considerably less in oil revenue than its neighbours - just around 8.5 per cent of its income comes from crude - so has more impetus to find other sources of wealth.

The first step was to make the emirate a tourist destination. Building on its global status as a tax-free shopping haven, luxury resorts and hotels have sprung up and construction continues unabated. "Dubai has done a really good job of marketing itself," notes Ms Bower. "The rise in the number of hotels, particularly five-star ones, is astounding."

Developments include: the footballers' favourite, Palm Resort - a man-made archipelago with hotels, apartments and shops; the under-construction Burj Dubai, set to be the world's tallest building, possibly half a mile high; and the first seven-star hotel, Burj al-Arab. Adding to this luxurious feel is Dubai's involvement in Formula One rival A1. The series, which kicked off at Brands Hatch in September, will race in Dubai in December.

The focus is not just on creating a playboy's playground. Dubai Ports World, the reported bidder for P&O, was created only recently by the merger of Dubai Ports Authority and Dubai Ports International. With interests in 15 ports in 13 countries, it is closely allied to Dubai's view of itself in the coming years. "They want to create investments and activities that will see them through when the oil runs out," says Mr Fox. "All the Gulf states are doing similar things, but Dubai is trying to make itself into a transport hub."

Its interest in P&O, which has 27 container terminals and logistics services in more than 100 ports in 18 countries, is therefore understandable.

Completing this vision of a new Dubai is a focus on financial services. The tax-free Dubai International Financial Centre celebrates its first birthday later this month, while the Dubai stock exchange has soared more than 170 per cent this year. The financial zone even has its own court to settle disputes, overseen by former Court of Appeal judge Sir Anthony Evans. It has not all gone smoothly. Ian Hay Davison, ex- head of Lloyd's of London, and Philip Thorpe, the former UK financial regulator, were brought in to help develop Dubai's financial services sector, but fell out with the authorities and were sacked last year.

So with change and expansion well in motion at home, and already boosting the coffers, Dubai is looking outside its borders. A senior banker who has worked with Dubai businessmen says the sheikhdom is doing this in two ways: growing domestic companies and investing in business in much the same way as private equity firms.

"With the Tussauds deal, for example, they saw a well-run business, with good-quality management," he says. DIC is expected to make its exit from the company, probably via a float, in the coming years. But before then, a new opening in Shanghai and further acquisitions are predicted.

It is important not to fall back on clichés when looking at Dubai. This is an open country, and as such, its businessmen are often educated and trained abroad. Many foreigners, attracted by the lifestyle - high standards, glorious weather, a vibrant expat community and, of course, tax-free zones - also work in the region. "That's probably what differentiates Dubai - it's a very cosmopolitan place," says the banker. "They are trying to pick best in breed." In addition, while the bulk of investment is made by the state, private-sector businessmen are becoming more common.

That means an international, experienced approach is brought to the negotiating tables, which is a thousand miles away from the image of playboy sheikhs snapping up racehorses and villas in the South of France. Nor is this trend going away anytime soon. Asdaa's Mr Harrison argues that Dubai's growth is part of the Arab states' desire to integrate with the rest of the world.

"This is no longer just policy, it's economic reality, but it involves a two-way street of investment ... So rather than oil dollars being spent on parties abroad and holiday homes, you are seeing a true integration of the Arab world into the global economy." The citizens of Dubai are not just coming. They are, it appears, here to stay.

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