A trip to Dubai and one would be forgiven for thinking he is at the center of the universe.
The airport, through which more than 55 million travellers went through last year, is a hive of activity and a smorgasbord of every conceivable nationality on the planet.
The central business district however is the mirror opposite with barely any foot traffic and the multiple lane highways more than adequate for the million or so cars of the city.
When you hit the malls – Dubai has at least 70 of them, it becomes clear where all the pedestrian traffic is, there and in the numerous skyscrapers that poke out of the desert sand everywhere you look.
And the small emirate is determined to punch above its weight.
It is home to the tallest man made structure, the Burj Khalifa, the Dubai Mall, the largest in the world, the iconic Burj El Arab the fourth tallest hotel in the world and of course the Dubai Airport, which seat on 8,000 acres of land or slightly bigger than Jinja town.
The country with a population barely above two million has a GDP of more than $80b, is the key logistical hub on the Arabia peninsula, is a major international tourist destination and is fast becoming a financial center.
But things weren’t always like this.
Its location has always served as a key stop over for traders from Asia on their way to Europe and Africa, but its economy was some time buoyed by the pearl trade, which collapsed after the second world war. Oil was discovered in the 1960s lifting Dubai out of its depression, maybe it’s the fickleness of economic fortune that forced the ruling family, the Al Maktoums to approach their new found bonanza differently.
It the height of its oil production Dubai produced 410,000 barrels a day – chicken feed when seen against its neighbours’ numbers production. It now pumps about 70,000 barrels a day and oil is expected to run out within the next two decades.
Knowing this the rulers have gone out of their way to diversify the economy to the point that oil and gas account for less than a tenth of GDP. Dubai’s major revenue earners are construction, trade, tourism and financial services.
Uganda on the cusp of oil production probably stands where Dubai was about 50 years ago – a poor country looking forward to discovering some oil, which would run out in a few years.
Maybe because of their long tradition as a trading family the Al Maktoums knew intuitively what it took to create an enabling environment for business.
They have a world class airport and other transport infrastructure, superlative accommodation facilities, legal framework which draws key tenets from the west and is enforced to the letter and a mouthwatering tax regime for both workers and companies.
In addition they set up some world class companies -- Emirates Airlines, Dubai Ports nad Dubai World, which provided the initial infrastructure for their audacious repositioning of their economy, run professionally and all turning a profit. The dividends from these companies are enough to finance a lot of public goods.
As a result they have attracted the biggest companies, brightest minds and are swamped to by shopping tourists ensuring that when the oil taps run dry the fallout will be containable.
Uganda is centrally located on the continent, has a trainable population and it has enough tourism potential in its little finger than all of the Arab peninsula combined – my opinion.
Uganda like Dubai is recovering from an economic meltdown that should prompt us to make the pledge “Never again”.
The key difference which may not see us extract value form our oil find in a comparable period is that unlike us the Al Maktoum run as if as a board of directors, while we have a murky democratic process going on.
They can act decisively, unencumbered by electoral calculations or sniping politicians.
To engineer a similar coherence of direction would take much more intelligence and savvy in our case.
Dubai shows though that if we set our mind to it we don’t need the oil resources of an Angola or Nigeria to turn us around – in fact we have more than enough as it is, thank you.