Dubai must not risk its bridge-building role

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 May, 2007, 12:00am

The rulers of Dubai have played a delicate balancing act by allowing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to stage a highly unusual political rally. The absolute monarchies of the United Arab Emirates are Sunni Muslims long wary of an increasingly assertive Iran and its Shiite regime. They have been close to the west, hosting US troops in the invasion of Iraq, but fear the costs to the Gulf region of a US road that leads to escalating tensions with Iran rather than engagement.

President Ahmadinejad's tub-thumping address urging the US to leave the Middle East won roars of approval from a crowd of tens of thousands gathered in a football stadium. Many of the audience were locally based Iranians, a core part of Dubai's diverse expat community that makes up two-thirds of its population. The spectacle stood in marked contrast to the tense and low-key visit by US Vice-President Dick Cheney a day earlier.

While many may disapprove of President Ahmadinejad's fierce anti-Washington rhetoric, his rally nonetheless speaks to a vital potential role that can be played by Dubai. After winning respect as an increasingly creative and successful business, trade, tourism and even media hub, Dubai can further exploit its function as a melting pot and meeting place to foster regional political and diplomatic debate in an otherwise closed region.

Too much of the Gulf's foreign policy has traditionally lurked behind the closed doors of smoke-filled rooms, and any moves to broaden the contest of ideas would be immensely welcomed. But it remains to be seen whether Mr Ahmadinejad's rally marks a move to foster that debate or, instead, is being used as a warning to the US, while placating a restive Iranian community.

Dubai has a great deal to lose. Its current prominence, economic openness and hub status give it a special place on the modern world stage - a role not dissimilar to Hong Kong's own entrepot traditions. It could further help its region by promoting greater discussion of the issues now threatening its region. Those threats will not be served, however, by allowing the tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims now infecting its region to be provoked.