The liberal Gulf emirate of Dubai is rushing headlong into the electronic age, launching a series of multi-billion-dollar projects in a bid to become the region's e-capital, despite doubts raised by IT specialists.
Dubai Internet City (DIC), Dubai Ideas Oasis (DIO) and Dubai Media City (DMC) have all been trumpeted to much acclaim as the triangle of enterprises needed to establish the emirate as the Middle East capital for information technology.
"I had a vision to transform the old economy by making Dubai a hub for the new economy," said Crown Prince Mohammad bin Rashid al-Maktum, the driving force behind Dubai's embrace of the IT age. "Businessmen must find it more profitable to carry out their business from Dubai," he said at DIC's grand opening on October 28.
"There will be the right conditions for e-business. There will be a clear business attitude and clear business advantages for operating from Dubai," said Sheikh Mohammad, who is defense minister for the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
He also launched DIO later that night, a think-tank grouping businessmen, service providers and consultants to turn ideas into successful businesses. Certainly, Sheikh Mohammad's pep talks have been matched by the speed at which his visions have physically materialized.
The first $200-million phase of DIC took just one year to build, currently covers 37,800 square meters (420,000 square feet) and has already registered 194 companies, with a further 350 applications pending.
Advantages for companies relocating to DIC include 100 percent foreign ownership, 50-year renewable land leases and blanket exemption on taxes, as well as capital consultancy support for dot.com entrepreneurs and protection of intellectual property rights.
"We are creating a cluster economy where we have all the software developers, multimedia businesses, telecommunications companies, remote service providers, logistics companies, venture capitalists, incubator companies and educators in one place," DIC chairman Mohammad al-Gergawi said.
There remain, however, some doubts among regional businessmen and specialists, skeptical at the true impact and understanding here of the Internet as a tool for business. "The DIC is currently no more than a glorified leasing agent," said one independent IT consultant. "The real test will be when it really opens. It is no more than a fanfare at the moment."
"No one is holding their breath because no one really knows what the real impact will be," he told AFP. "But DIC seems to have attracted the top names." There are also fears that DIC's promise to offer a number of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to complement the heavily criticized state-run Etisalat would not be immediately forthcoming.
Frequent disruptions to Etisalat's Internet system, made slower because of its censorship of politically sensitive and pornographic sites, have fueled calls for putting an end to the state monopoly on telecommunications.
During the launch of the media city last Saturday, Sheikh Mohammad described the initiative as the "dawn of a pioneering new information era in the Middle East", pledging unlimited but accountable freedom of expression.
"Growth is vital for business. As I look across the region at today's existing media capitals, we see trade legislation and practices that inhibit the growth of business," he said. "To flourish, media needs to be unshackled from policies and practices that limit its independence and creativity."
However Dubai and the Emirates in general have a long way to go to see pledges of press freedom turn into reality. Sheikh Mohammad announced in April a revolutionary project to propel public service into the Internet age, and warned officials they would lose their jobs if they refused to go electronic. — (AFP, Dubai)
© Agence France Presse 2000
By Luke Phillips
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)