07/24/2012 12:47 pm ET | Updated Sep 23, 2012

Dubai, Media and the 21st Century

The 15-hour flight from Atlanta to Dubai offers plenty of time to prepare for a stay in the United Arab Emirates. This was my first trip to Dubai City, which has a rich history and a forward approach to economic development. Clearly, Dubai is moving toward tourism, as oil revenues begin to dry up.

Dubai is a place where traditional and modern cultures meet at the huge Dubai Mall. One can find a wide variety of international brands that would rival any shopping mall. A gigantic aquarium, hockey rink and water light show on the half hour are located near the 160-story Burj Khalifa, which is currently the world's tallest tower.

Old Dubai began as a trading port in about 1799, and it was influenced by United Kingdom colonialism in 1892. The discover of oil in 1966 changed everything, as this brought revenues and foreign workers. Today, something like 80 percent of this city of 2.1 million are foreigners with limited rights.

Downtown Dubai experienced a boom and then bust, as many construction projects remain incomplete following the 2008-09 economic real estate collapse. Still, new projects are underway. This is a planned city.

I taught social media to Afghan journalists at the Dubai Men's College, which is now part of the Higher Colleges of Technology in Academic City. Across the highway, the Silicon Oasis demonstrates a high degree of urban planning in the desert.

Our group ventured to the Media City, where a group of Arabian Radio Network (ARN) stations that included Virgin Radio 104.4 and Dubai Eye 103.8 could have passed for any group in the United States. Eight formats in all, including hits and traditional regional music serve the market. Sales Manager Robert Weston had worked in Oklahoma City before moving to Dubai. He said City 101.6, which caters to a large Asian population in Dubai, "has 725-thousand listeners from the last research results."

"The agreement is to entertain," Weston said. "There is no news, as such." Weston says Dubai Eye operates as a commercial radio station working with clients on "how to associate their brand with our radio station." Radio is licensed and regulated, but it is free to participate in the economic marketplace.

Dubai media promote local business, and they do not rock the political boat. All newsworthy information is approved by the UAE government. @ARNNewsCentre on Twitter, for example, recently posted:

21 Jul ARN News Centre ‏@ARNNewsCentre
A new flyover opening in Sharjah today aims to reduce congestion for motorists in the emirate
21 Jul ARN News Centre ‏@ARNNewsCentre
Sharjah jails are to release 237 inmates, to mark the start of Ramadan
21 Jul ARN News Centre ‏@ARNNewsCentre
Dubai public transport carried more than 200m passengers in the first half of this year
21 Jul ARN News Centre ‏@ARNNewsCentre
It's the first official working day of the week since Ramadan started and businesses are being reminded to change some of their practices.
16 Jul ARN News Centre ‏@ARNNewsCentre
873 inmates of various nationalities will be released from the#UAE's jails ahead of Ramadan.

Information is very limited with few details. Independent media are non-existent, and "local news" on Dubai Eye is nothing more than government announcements.

At the same time, however, I found the Internet open and unfiltered at both the college and the Dhow Palace Hotel. Unlike my time earlier this year in China, I had no sense that the level of monitoring was higher than a typical city filled with surveillance cameras. U.S. citizens can enter Dubai without a visa. Duty free zones and a favorable exchange rate for the dollar transform Dubai into a shopper's delight.

The UAE Supreme Council reelected President H.H. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi, to another five-year term in 2009. Vice President and Prime Minister H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Al Maktoum is ruler of Dubai.

It is difficult for even seasoned diplomats to predict how long economic development can be sustained in a desert of triple digit temperatures and desalinated water -- Dubai produces more than one tenth of the world's use of desalination at a cost of billions of dollars each year. Even more challenging are the 80 percent foreigners from Pakistan, India, Sudan, the Philippines, Egypt and elsewhere making up the labor force, including hotel and mall workers and taxi drivers.

Whether or not Dubai represents a 21st Century model for the developing world remains to be seen. It is certainly worth visiting to experience what modernization looks like in the Arab world.