Flush With Cash, Arab Royals Pave Path Of Modernity

Gulf rulers take globally integrated approach to social, economic development.

ByABC News
December 3, 2008, 12:53 PM

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, 27 Jan, 2009 -- To be a prince or princess in the Middle East today -- a sheikh or sheikha, as they're known in the Gulf -- means inheriting a country vastly different from the one where you were born. By some measures, cities like Dubai and Doha have seen a generation's worth of change within the past five years, with skyscrapers surging from the sand and oil wealth driving societies more at speed with New York than with old Arabia.

The current rulers of the region have set the exacting pace. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, has turned a sleepy port town into the aspiring business and bling capital of the Middle East. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi is spending billions to bring home the Louvre, the Guggenheim and New York University -- all institutions building outposts in Abu Dhabi.

In Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, who reigns over the world's third-largest natural gas reserve, is raising his country's profile as a diplomatic player and peacemaker. In the past year, Qatar, a close U.S. ally, has hosted Israel's Tzipi Livni and brokered a truce between the Lebanese government and its Hezbollah-led opposition.

The royal leaders of the Gulf are not purely ceremonial figures, as in most of Western Europe, but rather combine the role with a kind of CEO status: they serve as the top tier of governance, aided by able foreign and domestic technocrats. The CEO comparison is fitting, given that the engine of economies in most Gulf countries rests on companies that are fully or mostly state-owned, from oil-producing firms to real estate conglomerates building the region's mega-museums and seven-star hotels.