From Dubai to Malaysia, imagination inspires change

Special to Times of Oman

What makes great leaders and what produces great leadership? Are they born leaders or is the leadership something that is born of particular circumstance and conditioning? It is not an academic question. It popped up in my mind during an interesting conversation I had with the Pakistani cabbie who drove me to the Dubai International Airport recently.

He appeared unusually sullen and intense. So I hurled the most clichéd question at him as soon as I settled down: 'Khan sahab, how long have you been in Dubai?' 'More than I can remember. Over 25 years, I guess,' he replied in his thick accent, I recognised to be from the Frontier.

'When are you planning to go home?'

'I don't know. Anyway, Dubai is my home now,' he said with a touch of resignation in his voice. 'I go to Peshawar every two years. But since I've got to feed my family back home, I can't stay long with them.' Driving down the new shiny underpass next to Al Maktoum Bridge that has cut down on travel time to the Dubai International Airport, he smiled to himself and gestured.

'Look at that. Another new tunnel, another big project and more new jobs! I have witnessed Dubai and UAE grow for the past quarter of a century. This place never ceases to amaze me. Always developing, always building something or the other. And this growth hasn't stopped despite the recent financial crisis."

Earthy wisdom there. He was right of course. Leaders with a vision build nations and countries.
Travelling across Malaysia a while ago, I was constantly reminded of the conversation with the Pathan cabbie. Malaysia is another shining and inspiring example how individuals can indeed change the destiny of nations.

One leader with a dream and imagination and determination to realise it can make all the difference. And as Frank Lloyd Wright said, an idea is salvation by imagination.

Western publications like the Wall Street Journal, Guardian and Independent have often questioned and critiqued the Dubai model of growth and there was general jubilation when the 2008 recession slowed down the emirate's breathless pace of development. There were wild accounts of Dubai going bust and thousands being laid off.  

But the sniggering didn't last long as the emirate moved to check the effects of the global meltdown with bold measures silencing its critics. And within no time it was back on the road to recovery. Today, it looks as if it never happened.

In a way that episode was yet another example of rare leadership in the face of adversity.

It's the same leadership qualities and vision that have transformed Dubai into a thriving world-class tourist destination and economic capital of the region. So much so that many people around the world today know and identify the Gulf with reference to Dubai. It's as if Dubai is Gulf or vice versa.

And, mind you, all this has been created out of nothing. Dubai is one man's idea — spawned merely on the strength of sheer imagination and resilience of spirit. As they say, an idea can change the world.  In Dubai's case, it indeed has.   

Indeed, it defies all stereotypes about the Arab and Muslim world, unveiling some world-class project or the other on a daily basis to cater to its already pampered people. It continues to attract international tourists in crazy numbers.

It's not easy to imagine the spectacular success stories like Dubai and UAE and Malaysia without the leadership that spawned them. Like Dubai, the Southeast Asian country is a living and breathing tribute to one man's imagination.

Although Mahathir has long departed from the scene passing on his mantle to a younger but less endowed leadership, his imprint on today's Malaysia remains powerful and ubiquitous.

If Malaysia today is seen as one of the fastest growing economies in the region and is admired for its poised progress, the credit should go to Mahathir. And it's not difficult to see why Malaysians still love him although he was also seen as too authoritarian by many of his detractors.

There are invaluable lessons in these two success stories for the rest of the Muslim world. The two have demonstrated, and how, that you can make your dreams come true, if you truly and firmly believe in them.

It is the sheer grit and imagination of their leaders that have enabled them to excel and achieve in such a remarkably short time.     

The author is a Gulf based award winning journalist. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.


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