If Abu Dhabi is the richer emirate, why are we hearing so much about Dubai instead?
Abu Dhabi actually tried to do a lot of things that Dubai is doing now back in the ’70s and early ’80s. But for the most part, it didn’t work, largely because the people of Abu Dhabi are Bedouins, living off the land, raising sheep and such. Dubai, on the other hand, has always been made up of a merchant class. So they understand markets better and have these entrepreneurial roots.
The real turning point for Dubai came in 1996 when, unlike Abu Dhabi, they passed legislation allowing foreign citizens to own property in certain parts of Dubai. This is tremendously different than what Abu Dhabi attempted to do, and also explains why an oil-rich country like Saudi Arabia hasn’t risen to this level of prominence in terms of commerce and trade.
Dubai has focused its efforts on being relatively tolerant of Western ideas and cultures and allowing foreign ownership of land. That was the biggest single step toward what we see today.