Article written by Wes Boling, a Professional MBA student
Dubai is a bone-dry desert city famous for its gardens and oases.
It's hot as an oven, but it boasts a ski slope and an ice-skating rink.
It's a Shangri-La-style resort town, where Westerners revel in bars next door to places where they're discouraged from holding hands with their girlfriends.
It's a place where you're free to open a foreign-owned business with zero tax liability, but if you can't pay your debts, you're bound and sent to prison.
More than 25 Massey students and professors journeyed to this Middle Eastern mecca of capitalism for a week in early May. We discovered that Dubai is a land of contradictions.
Its towering monuments to freedom were built by slaves. Its innumerable construction projects stand largely vacant, victims of a massive real estate crash. Its citizens -- less than 15% of the city's population -- bask in luxury while the expats who form the heart of the city bake in the heat.
There is positive irony, as well. While Iran looms just 90 miles away, you'd never know it in this bustling, America-loving metropolis. Dubai's constant commerce and overwhelming architecture contradict the sandy stereotypes Westerners have of the Middle East.
By day, we visited businesses fighting to thrive in a suddenly arid business climate. The most Westernized city in the Middle East, Dubai took a major hit when the U.S. and European real-estate crunch hit in 2008. Suddenly, a city which boasted 25% of the world's construction cranes found its lavish towers and developments ill-suited to a struggling economy. Dubai is still recovering from the crash, an unexpected blow to a city which long ago diversified away from oil to position itself for the future.
Now, oil counts for only 2% of Dubai's economy. Shipping and tourism are the standard-bearers. You may have heard of the palm-shaped islands built off Dubai's coasts. We visited one. We also talked with the developer that built the unprecedented creations, then saw them abandoned by many investors when the market dropped.
We also met with an advertising firm which embraced the challenging task of marketing products to an increasingly complex consumer environment -- Arab families with newfound wealth trying to balance Western lifestyles with an Islamic culture.
That Islamic culture also led to some interesting moments, like our visit to the Abu Dhabi mosque, which was built primarily for tourists. Its ivory-white spires and opulent Persian rug spoke to the ceremonial importance of Islam to a country which also worships dollars -- a nation where prayer calls echo through malls, largely unheeded by those instead opting to play with penguins on the artificial ski slope.
Dubai was a fascinating visit for the MBA and MACC students who braved the 14-hour flight. While we learned plenty about its economy, we learned more about its culture -- a culture we basked and baked in for seven hot, intriguing days.