- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2007

It was the best of times for Dubai; it was the worst of times for Beirut.

The Lebanese capital, Beirut, was again teetering on the brink of civil war last week. Pro- and anti-Hezbollah supporters traded hails of insults, rocks, and in some instances, gunfire. In this winter of despair, the specter of an all-out confrontation was rapidly dissipating a spring of hope.

Paraphrasing Charles Dickens’ famous novel, and comparing Beirut to Dubai, a friend raised the question as to what causes the rise and fall of great cities. What causes the demise of important centers of political power and cultural advancement in cities? And in more modern times, what contributes in making great cities from what were just a decade ago considered small towns?

Take Beirut, a city that long prided itself as a multicultured center in the Middle East. A city, where the Lebanese were proud to point out, a mosaic of 17 different religious groups co-existed in semi-harmony. A city where the arts flourished; where political dissidents from neighboring countries were offered refuge and asylum; where business could be conducted with relative ease, particularly when compared to the strict rigidity of much of the region. A city where the word “impossible” was not part of the business vocabulary — especially when the proper amount of money changed hands.

Beirut has always been a convenient base for people seeking to do business in the Middle East. It was the most liberal city in the region; it enjoyed relatively decent communications; its airport, easily reached from the city’s many luxurious hotels, served as a regional hub; and its national carrier, Middle East Airlines, offered safe, punctual, and convenient connections to the Arab hinterland and beyond.

But while Beirut was suffering under a thick cloud of black smoke last week, the result of pro-Hezbollah demonstrators trying to force the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to resign, Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, was speeding up construction of the Dubai World Central, a 140-square kilometer urban aviation community in the Jabal Ali area. The intention of the investors is to turn the new development into the world’s largest city.

As my friend pointed out, this was a major leap forward for Dubai, once a tiny, backwater town on the fringes of the Arabian Desert. Once known as a transit point for gold smugglers on their way to India and a haven for divers of precious pearls, Dubai has become an important regional business and banking center as well as a hub for the international media.

This is just one of the multiple mega-projects under construction in the tiny emirate. Dubai’s planners are wasting little time investing in the future, preparing for the day when oil revenues dry up altogether. The emirate already boasts a string of luxury hotels that would put several Vegas theme casinos to shame. And amid all this construction and reconstruction, my friend noted that Dubai’s crime rate is at zero.

Meanwhile, in Beirut, less than three hours away by jet plane, the Lebanese Shi’ite organization, Hezbollah, was setting tires afire and using them to block the road to Beirut Airport, virtually isolating the Lebanese capital from the rest of the world.

As my friend explained, Hezbollah was “democratically expressing their frustration” with the government of Mr. Siniora, which refuses to recognize its legitimacy. Incidentally, at the same time as Hezbollah loyalists were setting fire to the barricades, the world community meeting in Paris pledged a financial aid package of $7.6 billion to help Lebanon overcome the setbacks suffered by Israel’s war on Hezbollah last summer.

Beirut, once the gateway to the Levant and beyond, was relegated to “a tiny city in the Sahara of sectarian prejudice and violence,” commented my friend.

If you ever wondered what makes great cities rise and great cities die, study the examples of Beirut and Dubai. Cities rise to greatness largely thanks to the forward thinking of its leaders, and because of the visionary ideas and ideals of its men and women who toil for the good of the entire city, not just for the advancement of a single community. They advance with leaders who invest in the future of the city — its youth and their education.

Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, has just reached an agreement with the University of Paris-Sorbonne, allowing the prestigious French learning establishment to open a branch in the Gulf city.

“Cities rise in greatness as a result of its leaders’ foresight,” said Sheik Mohammed Bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and vice president of the UAE. “We have to make history and approach the future with steady steps, not wait for the future to come to us.”

If it’s the foresight of the city’s leaders that leads to greatness, then the reverse is equally true. Great cities die as the result of narrow thinking by its leaders and of its citizens — men and women who chose to look back into the past rather than to the future.

Says my friend: “It is amazing how a supposedly conservative Bedouin society such as Dubai’s has learned to embrace ultraliberal socioeconomic trends and adopt progressive templates, all while feeling very comfortable with their Islamic heritage. And just as amazing is how a mostly liberal-valued system in Lebanon can awaken brutish sectarian instincts, pushing people to commit such heinous crimes as kidnappings and killings, all in the name of the same God, even if at times they call him by a different name.”

Did I mention my friend is a Lebanese Shi’ite?

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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