Does the Arab world's future lie in the UAE?

The Hong Kong of India? The Singapore of the Middle East? The Miami of Africa? Or is it the Vegas of this part of the world?

For a first-timer, a week in the United Arab Emirates is a struggle as he wraps his mind around the multiple vital roles that this small country on the Arabian peninsula plays as a regional and global hub. The simplest path to understanding, I learnt: Think of the UAE as the twin-headed city-state of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, though there are five other smaller emirates."As a small country, we must be many things to many people," says Mr Mishaal Al Gergawi, the managing director of the Delma Institute, a think-tank based in Dubai.

To visit the UAE is humbling on many fronts. The combination of outsized ambition and seemingly unlimited resources for cutting-edge infrastructure is awe-inspiring. You can't meet anyone of any consequence in the country without hearing about the need to plan for a post-fossil fuels future. Even the notorious glitz of Dubai is less a monument to the urban bling vast wealth can acquire (though there is an element of that) than it is a Plan B. Back in the 1980s, the emirate deliberately set out to build a 21st century trading post, a sparkling city that transcends nationality.

Singapore, and to some extent Hong Kong, provided the recipe. Dubai bet on four key "pillars": trade, aviation, tourism and finance. Back in the 1980s, when Singapore put itself on the map by building the world's best airline and marketing it with its ubiquitous Singapore Girl campaign, the Emiratis leased two old planes from Pakistan's state airline to launch what has become, improbably, the leading global carrier in terms of international traffic.

The less flashy building blocs for a global trading hub are an unconditional commitment to the rule of law and logistical prowess. Dubai imported English common law and financial regulations to entice investors and expanded its port facility and adjacent free-trade zone, becoming, over time, the banking and trading centre for the entire region.

"The UAE, particularly Dubai," Mr Afshin Molavi tells me on the trip, "has emerged as the single most important hub of the new Silk Road linking Asia, Africa and the Middle East. This is the connector for people, goods and services across a broad swathe of the globe accounting for nearly two-thirds of humanity - from Bombay and Beijing to Johannesburg and Jeddah."

Dubai has thus become the missing link in the global supply chain - the node connecting East Asia's dominant financial hubs and London.

"The UAE, particularly Dubai," Mr Afshin Molavi tells me on the trip, "has emerged as the single most important hub of the new Silk Road linking Asia, Africa and the Middle East. This is the connector for people, goods and services across a broad swathe of the globe accounting for nearly two-thirds of humanity - from Bombay and Beijing to Johannesburg and Jeddah." Mr Molavi is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (sponsor of our visit by academics and Washington policy analysts) and the source of those dizzying Singapore-Hong Kong-Miami analogies.

There is no way to overstate the importance of this hyper-functional nation in the heart of the Arab world, one in which people of all faiths and backgrounds are welcome to come and pursue their dreams.

That's the thing about embracing free trade. It breeds tolerance. No one pretends that the UAE is a freewheeling democracy, but you don't become a global hub for people from all over the world if you don't tolerate their creeds and customs and foster a laissez-faire approach to life and the world around you.

In that sense, the best precedent for what the UAE is accomplishing in the 21st century may not even be Singapore or Hong Kong, but the Dutch Republic of the 17th century, which embraced pragmatic capitalism (and the tolerance that comes with that) over any other dogmas to become the global trading hub of its time.

Much as the Dutch model proved subversive to its neighbours at the time, so too does the UAE in today's Middle East. As Ms Reem Al Hashimy, the country's Minister of State in the Cabinet, put it while speaking of the nation's commitment to advance educated women, such as herself, into positions of leadership: "We're trying to build a different type of Middle East here."

The result is both inspiring and a little depressing. Inspiring because you now have an Arab model of development for an entire region. A bit depressing because, as with Hong Kong and Singapore, all this is happening in a small technocrat-controlled environment, an offshore haven to a larger region, unburdened by the heft of a large nation's sticky politics. The UAE is succeeding because large countries, such as India, Egypt and Iran, failed to become that missing node in the global supply chain between East Asia and London. Why couldn't Mumbai or Cairo become the financial hub that Dubai has become?

The UAE leaves you with this slightly unnerving uncertainty: Is this place destined to remain a one-off exception to the madness and dysfunction that surrounds it or is it a replicable model, a blueprint for the Arab world's future?

• The writer is a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and editorial director of Zocalo Public Square, a project of the university's Centre for Social Cohesion and a not-for-profit "ideas exchange" that blends live events and humanities journalism.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 04, 2015, with the headline 'Does the Arab world's future lie in the UAE?'. Print Edition | Subscribe