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By Graeme Wilson

  Slightly more than 40 years ago, a British Political Resident in Dubai informed his superiors in Whitehall that something extraordinary was going on in the tiny sheikhdom. The Ruler there had drawn around him the best and the brightest, business leaders and merchants, a hand-picked cadre of young, educated Dubaians, old-school community leaders, artists and poets, and the most forward thinking people he could find, irrespective of nationality. He cared little if some were British or Indians, Arabs or Asians. Everyone sat in the Majlis as an equal, as long as they could contribute toward the progress that he so zealously pursued. They had formed something of a collective. Unusually for the somewhat sleepy Trucial States, Dubai was making substantive progress. The energy of the Majlis was creating change unlike anything seen in the region. The Majlis was, said the Political Resident, like an “Arabian Camelot.”

  Camelot was the most famous castle in the medieval legends of King Arthur Penhaligon. It was where, according to legend, he reigned over Britain before the Saxon conquest. At Camelot, King Arthur established a brilliant court and seated there the greatest and most chivalrous warriors in Europe – the Knights of the Round Table. Camelot was the starting point of the Quest for the Holy Grail and, by the 1200s, it came to symbolise the centre of the Arthurian world. It was a place of culture and the arts. In a backward, medieval world, Camelot was a beacon of human progress and culture.

  Then, seven centuries later, Camelot resurfaced in popular, modern culture. This time it was not in Saxon England, but within the glamour and style of the Kennedy White House. JFK surrounded himself with the best and brightest of America’s scientists, theologians, literates and thinkers. Then JFK was taken away on that infamous day in Dallas and his legacy dissolved into legend.

  Around the same time that Kennedy was reinventing the Camelot concept on the Arabian Peninsula, Sheikh Rashid was inviting comparisons through his style of leadership. Of course the White House existed in a somewhat different sphere of influence, but nonetheless the analogy held true. Indeed, the Camelot Sheikh Rashid created would go on to have a far greater impact upon Dubai and its future than the Kennedy White House, even allowing for the dream of man walking on the moon that would ultimately be JFK’s legacy.

  Sheikh Rashid was a man of simple origins. Yet, paradoxically, his responsibilities would require him to bridge an extraordinary era, as he took his sheikhdom from a bankrupt 1930s fishing and pearling village in the 1930s to the modernity of the 1980s.

  Sheikh Rashid was a wily and resourceful leader who understood that the tasks he faced were more than any single man could tackle. The energy of Sheikh Rashid’s Majlis came to be legendary. Dubai’s Ruler sat at the heart of a body that bubbled with ideas and concepts.

  It is something of a cliché, but they really did dare to think the unthinkable. Failure was not an option. Kennedy could dream about placing a man on the moon, but Dubai’s Camelot had more fundamental human aims underscoring its existence.

  The sheikhdom needed to offer its citizens the hospitals, schools, clean water, electricity, jobs and proper housing, all of which had been denied them for so long under isolationist, de facto colonial rule. Sheikh Rashid fought to overcome the crippling poverty that his people faced in their lives. With limited funds at his disposal he transformed the economy and built an infrastructure that was the envy of the region. His visionary projects were often labeled, even by people within his circle, as White Elephants.

  Jebel Ali Port, Dubai International Airport and the Dubai World Trade Centre were just three of the Sheikh Rashid inspired projects that were derided at the time by some, yet came to be the backbone of Dubai’s emerging economy.

  These projects were part of his legacy to Dubai, a legacy on which Dubai has built its present and future. But the late Ruler did not think only of bricks and mortar, and his plans for the future were not just committed to paper. His sons — Sheikh Maktoum, Sheikh Hamdan, Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Ahmed — were each part of Sheikh Rashid’s grand vision. Each was nurtured by his father, groomed with a future place in Dubai’s administration in mind.

  In 1980, Sheikh Rashid suffered a stroke. He would never be the same again,

  It seemed to many that the Camelot Era was now over. The extraordinary bubbling cauldron of ideas and energy that existed around Sheikh Rashid for the last half century had inevitably dissipated with the illness of the remarkable Ruler. Or had it?

  By early 1982, much to the relief of the Maktoum family, Sheikh Rashid had recovered sufficiently from his stroke to appear in public once again. In better health, Sheikh Rashid had started to play a more active part in government. Although, for the most part, he was content for his sons to continue to carry the responsibilities they had assumed when he became ill.

  For Dubai, it was an era of consolidating the infrastructure and industrial base that Sheikh Rashid had put in place. But the new feeling of optimism in Dubai was about more than money and bricks and mortar. Just as Sheikh Rashid had instilled the office of the Ruler with a renewed sense of purpose and energetic leadership when he succeeded his father in 1958, so his sons were now bringing new vigour to an old sense of direction. The Ruler’s old friend Hamad bin Sukat says: “His [Sheikh Rashid’s] period of illness had served to underline the fact that his sons were highly capable leaders in their own right. He was enthusiastic about the progress that they represented.”

  Camelot, as Sheikh Rashid’s Majlis had been so memorably dubbed, was not dead. Sheikh Rashid was not always there in person, but the spirit of his Majlis was alive and well.

  Sheikh Rashid had planned well: Jebel Ali, The World Trade Centre, Port Rashid and Dubai International Airport; all were infrastructure that were put in place with an eye on the future.

  But Sheikh Rashid had not thought only in terms of bricks and mortar. He had also astutely planned for the future leadership of his land. His sons were ready to step into the breach when their father could no longer keep up his extraordinary 18-hour working day and was unable to sit at the centre of his Camelot.

  “Sheikh Maktoum had begun preparing for the role that he would now assume when he was a boy. Sheikh Rashid had often brought him to the Majlis. He had worked with his father in the Ruler’s Office. Even in his early teens, Sheikh Maktoum was experienced and a mature figure within his father’s administration,” says Hussain Khansaheb. “Sheikh Rashid had guaranteed continuity as the torch of leadership, in a way, symbolically moved to the new generation.”

  The centre of power had shifted to the Dubai Crown Prince, but such was his long-standing immersion in the Ruler’s Office, that shift was as seamless as when Sheikh Rashid had succeeded his father in 1958.

  “Nothing changed,” said Mohidin bin Hendi. “The same calm sense of progressive leadership emanated from the Ruler’s Office. Sheikh Maktoum had served what one could say was his apprenticeship under his father. He was ready for the new responsibilities that now rested on his shoulders.”

  Sheikh Maktoum had his own identity, his own people around him, but kept in his circle and in senior positions within the Dubai government all of those in whom his father had identified talent, nurtured their ability and then given responsibility.

  “Sheikh Maktoum had a very thoughtful style, like Sheikh Rashid,” says Qassim Sultan former director general of Dubai Municipality. “He was never rash and when he gave an order, his decisions were based upon an opinion formed having heard the views of people he trusted and then carefully considering the options.”

  Around Sheikh Maktoum were his brothers who, likewise, had been astutely prepared by Sheikh Rashid for the responsibilities that would be theirs.

  The early 1980s were tough times for the world economy as not one, but two recessions bit into growth. Dubai was far from immune from the resulting dip in oil prices, but the effects of this slump were now offset by a diversification away from a reliance of oil that had always been government policy. In particular, Sheikh Hamdan now had a role to play. Under his charge were DUBAL, DUGAS, DUCAB – three of the industrial projects that he had turned into major sources of income for the government. These were the foundation on which the Maktoums were set to build an economy free from reliance.

  Sheikh Hamdan was also heading Dubai Municipality during this important phase of the emirate’s development. Sheikh Rashid was famed for his dislike of red-tape and bureaucracy, but in the new reality of a growing city-state a balance was needed. A bureaucracy was necessary, yet could not be allowed to stifle the enterprise, and can-do culture on which Dubai had been founded and then thrived.

  “Arab government is notoriously bureaucratic, beset by reams of regulations and underscored by a terrible attitude among government officials,” says Malcolm Corrigan. “Sheikh Hamdan had a major job on his hands. For Dubai to progress in the way it did during the 1980s and until the present day, it needed a strong bureaucratic wing. But Dubai was never a place of bureaucracy. And the pitfalls that foul most government institutions in the Arab world needed to be avoided.

  “Local government is the engine room on which all private sector and government development function. Without a good local government, you can forget any sustainable development,” says Corrigan. “That is why Sheikh Hamdan’s success was invaluable. Without it, you can forget the Dubai of 2006 being like it is.”

  Sheikh Mohammed’s field of responsibility was also widening considerably. His federal defence portfolio continued to make heavy demands, while in Dubai he was charged with, among other things, Dubai International Airport and several of Dubai’s heavy industrial projects. He had also begun to take over responsibility for Dubai’s oil; this was one of the key tasks within the Dubai government, given the importance of oil to the economy.

  Sheikh Rashid never did return to his public visibility of old following his stroke. He insisted on following developments, but was content to devolve a great deal of power to his well proven sons. This said, he remained active in some areas of personal interest.

  “My father never lost his keen interest in education. Both on a federal level, and within the Dubai government, he followed developments in education closely,” says Sheikh Ahmed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

  By 1990, Sheikh Rashid’s medical team remained close by, but it was clear that age rather than illness was attacking his vitality. Most evenings in winter, when temperatures were mildest, Sheikh Rashid would sit on a terrace at Za’abeel Palace and look out over Dubai. There, he would receive close friends and family members. Bin Sukat recalls: “I visited Sheikh Rashid nearly every day and the first thing he would always ask was for news of what was happening in Dubai and of the people that he knew. His appetite for information was still insatiable. We would sit and talk about the old times, or he would tell me of his hopes for Dubai in the future.”

  On October 7, Sheikh Rashid slipped into a deep sleep and passed away at 10pm, his sons at his bedside.

  Across the world in New York, both the United Nations General Assembly and United Nations Security Council observed a minute of silence, while Britain’s Daily Telegraph published a lengthy obituary which stated that Sheikh Rashid “led his pocket-sized Gulf emirate to an unprecedented prosperity based not only on oil but also on trade...” Another influential broadsheet, The Independent, called him “the merchant prince” and added that he “leaves behind a Dubai that far outclasses any other Middle Eastern city as a place to live and do business and that bears comparison with Hong Kong and Singapore, its economy re-stimulated by the current surge in oil prices.”

  The international news agency Agence France-Presse observed that he moulded Dubai into “a strong candidate to take over Hong Kong’s position in world trade in the 21st Century.”

  The 15 years since Sheikh Rashid’s death has seen such an eventuality. Dubai now rivals Hong Kong and Singapore, while the United Nations has named Dubai as one of the “cities of the new millennium”. This has been achieved through the foundations laid by Sheikh Rashid, and the strengths of his sons, who have built a city-state that is the envy of the world

  Of course, the tragic passing of Sheikh Maktoum also presented an opportunity to look back and record his rule, a dramatic period when he and his brothers metamorphasised Dubai. It was a time when the potential that Sheikh Rashid created was realized. History will record Sheikh Maktoum’s success — both as a leader and as a man.

  Today, the knights of Sheikh Rashid’s sons do indeed sit at round tables, but in ultra-modern skyscrapers, a far cry from the mud-walled fort where the dream of a society of well-fed, healthy and educated citizens was first nurtured.


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