The 12-lane Sheikh Zayed Road is surrounded by new construction and a computer-operated train system.

On January 9, 2010, a group of 22 Columbia Business School students and Professor Todd Jick embarked on a trip to Dubai and Abu Dhabi organized by the Jerome A. Chazen Institute of International Business to learn about the United Arab Emirates through meetings with local and multinational companies and cultural excursions.

After ardently studying Dubai prior to the Chazen study tour — and then spending a week there — I had to ask myself, what’s not to love about Dubai? From a lifestyle perspective, the public amenities are endless: a remarkable public train system, well-maintained roads, modern construction, an educated population and great weather (almost) all year round. From a business perspective, there are tax privileges for many companies, particularly those that choose to reside in a tax-free zone such as the Dubai International Financial Center where businesses only need to pay rent and an incorporation fee. For many, that is a small price to pay for setting up a commercial hub in the Middle East. That incentive combined with the numerous amenities that Dubai has to offer make it a hot spot for attracting well-educated Western talent.

However, from another perspective, a question crossed the minds of many professionals: What are the drawbacks of being in Dubai? As one professional said, “There is not just a glass ceiling, there is a concrete ceiling here.”

 
 

The allure of Dubai: the DIFC tax-free zone (arch) and in the distance, the tallest building in the world.

He explained that the concrete ceiling exists because the native Emiratis receive a preference for top positions in government, private-public organizations, sovereign wealth funds and, in Dubai, these organizations have driven its massive growth. The Sheikh and his government have designed the country such that native Emiratis and offspring of male Emiratis will be the only people allowed to become UAE citizens and will be protected financially under UAE law. Such a system is unfamiliar to many of the Westerners that reside in or plan to move to Dubai and may hinder their plans to settle there for the long term. In addition to the drawbacks from a professional perspective, what implications does the UAE citizenship law hold in other areas, such as the justice system? Do Emiratis receive preference in procedures of law and order?

These questions and concerns were frequently discussed on our Chazen Study Tour. Our group was curious as to what lay below the glitz and glamour of Dubai. Regardless of the current drawbacks, I believe that Sheikh Mohammed and his government should be commended for having made incredible strides in Dubai’s development, such as transforming from a small desert city in the 1990s to a bustling commercial hub with remarkable worldly achievements, including the largest computer-operated train system and the tallest building in the world. As an emerging economy with much more to accomplish, I am sure that the UAE government will learn what is right and best for the country’s economy and its citizens.

Photo credits: Michelle Nathan ’10