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Learning Through World-Wide Bridge Building

William Stafford / Apr 30 2009

For Release Sunday, May 3, 2009

William StaffordAmerica’s relations with the Islamic world, and the Arabian area specifically, are one of the most important in our nation’s future. While foreign policy is the responsibility of national governments, relationship building actually falls to people and urban regions who find themselves at the forefront of building these relations. The Greater Seattle region has begun building a friendship bridge to the Middle East.

We–the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle and the Greater Seattle Chamber–have been mounting yearly International Study Missions of civic and business leaders of our citistate for many years. Recently we organized an annual International Study Mission program to Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Our goal, as always: to study an urban region overseas to learn about how it competes in a global economy. The trips are a “traveling university,” with the student body encompassing the civic leadership of the Greater Seattle region.

The visit to the UAE was suggested by Boeing, with a goal of enhancing our leaders’ understanding of that part of the world and strengthening relations with it. We wanted to study the UAE’s successes and challenges, as well as to learn more about each other. Our delegation found the people of these two emirates to be warm and friendly and as interested in us as we were in them.

You’ve probably read about Dubai in the news–a city of indoor snow skiing, rapid growth and Texas-like fondness for all things large. But, Abu Dhabi is equally important, even if it does not receive as much public relations notice.

Abu Dhabi has 9 percent of the world’s oil reserves and could be expected to sit back and rake in the revenues. But, it’s a forward thinking place and is already preparing for a post-oil world. Masdar City in Abu Dhabi is an effort to create a zero carbon emitting city within the city, using new technologies and techniques in energy, recycling and building. It is a remarkable effort, even more so since it is occurring in a major oil producing state. The Masdar officials were interested in the Seattle region’s clean technology efforts and there is already talk of possible partnerships.

Etihad Airways (Abu Dhabi’s airline) and Emirates Air (Dubai’s airline) are both ambitious enterprises which are expected to more than double their current fleet by 2015. Etihad is the fastest growing airline in aviation history and–from our perspective–a great customer of Boeing aircraft.

DP World manages the maritime activities of Dubai and has port operations all over the world. Dubai’s port is already one of the world’s largest and its aim is to be one of the globe’s four largest port complexes.

One way Dubai tries to achieve excellence is to partner with the world’s best. A key approach: building sector-specific cities within Dubai. For example, Dubai now has an Internet City, a Knowledge Village and a Health Care City. Group sector-specific companies and institutions are promoted in all these cities. Dubai leaders build these sectors by partnering with institutions they regard as the best around the world, as a step toward attracting other companies and encouraging growth. When they decided to build Health Care City, for example, they drew up a list of the top ten health care facilities in the world. They then called the top two–the Cleveland Clinic and John Hopkins–and offered to partner with them. Both of these institutions now manage health care facilities in Health Care City.

Dubai, which does not have much oil to speak of, takes such measures out of necessity, working aggressively to diversify its economy. The city has succeeded to a large measure, even in light of the recent worldwide economic downturn.

Our delegation was interested to see how both Abu Dhabi and Dubai have created and implemented long-term strategies for their urban regions, and how those strategies have led to success. They had resources, it is true. Black gold is a handy currency to have in your wallet. But many other countries and regions also have oil resources but have not achieved the success of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The United Arab Emirates is that rare combination of ample resources, strategic vision and ability to get things done. It’s a reminder that successful urban regions, whether in the United States or overseas, are well-advised to formulate smart long-term strategies.

The key to achieving success with Dubai and Abu Dhabi is relationships. We met with some of the most important leaders in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, including Seattle University graduate Mohamed Bin Ali Alabbar, now chair of Emaar Properties, one of the largest development companies in the world. UAE Prime Minister and Vice President Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum met with our delegation and presented us with a personally signed book of his poetry.

Urban regions around the world, we have learned, are confronted with remarkably similar types of challenges. We have also found that we have much to learn from each other. Mohammed Omar Abdulla, Undersecretary for the Abu Dhabi Department of Planning and Economy spoke to our group during the mission. He had been to the Puget Sound area a year ago and spoke of building “a friendship bridge” between our two regions. Our recent trip put down some more planks on the bridge. In the coming weeks, months and years, we will construct more of the bridge bringing a distant land and different culture ever closer to our three ports and the entire Puget Sound region.

William Stafford is president of the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle. His e-mail is columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to