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Dubai: The Impossible City

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Al-Kindi, the 'Islamic Philosopher,' is not much known in the West. This 9th century thinker was perhaps the ultimate '"Renaissance man" -- a 500 years before the Europeans got anywhere near even the idea.

The "Golden Age of Islam," of which al-Kindi was part, is -- in our world -- little taught and was little understood. This flowering of culture, government and -- crucially -- learning, reached its apotheosis in the rule of the Caliphs, whose empire stretched from what is now Iraq in the east to Southern Europe in the west.

Not only is the legacy of that era still very much with us, but one doesn't need to travel to Andalucia in Spain (al-Andalus to al-Kindi and pals) to witness it. Because whilst the Caliphs themselves (as far as we know....) didn't make it much past the pillars of Hercules, their Iberian 'offspring' certainly did. The language, architecture, cuisine -- indeed their entire culture -- that the Conquistadors forcibly exported, all owed significantly more to another conquest than most Spaniards, even today, would care to admit; that of Spain by the Caliphs. Consequently, Latin American countries, and the more Hispanic States north of the border, provide their own constant, accented, inflections and hat-tips to the once mighty Arabian globe-trotters -- consciously or otherwise. The journey, for example, from the guitars and laments of contemporary Latin American music to the classic music of Arabia is not a long one. Just ask Shakira.

The Arabic word 'Caliph,' or more properly 'Khalifa,' can be translated as 'one who succeeds'; a leader. In filling their jasmine-scented, fountain-adorned courts with astronomers, doctors, mathematicians, physicists, philosophers and thinkers of all kinds, the Caliphs were indeed leaders. They tolerated other ideas, other religions -- not for tolerance's own sake but because they recognized that the resultant technologies and truths, that would emerge from such tolerance could be leveraged to ever-strengthen power and dominance. They saw that progress, development and growth were good: good for individuals, and so good for society overall, and so its leaders too.

Today, across most of the Arab world, the same cannot be said. The relative free-thinking and liberalism that characterized, underpinned and underwrote, the court of the Caliphs has, in many Arabic-speaking countries, long since been cast aside. Intellectual protectionism has grown hand in hand with religious fundamentalism -- burka over book, Mohammed over machine.

But not, it has dawned on me during my most recent visit, in Dubai.

Yes, it's bling. And terribly so. Yes, some people think it's tawdry. Yes, there are some sketchy aspects to the expat scene, the justice system and the fourth estate, and yes, the exhausted, impoverished construction workers from the sub-continent all jammed together on overcrowded buses do give pause for serious thought.

Manifestly, Dubai isn't the West. To suggest otherwise and to overlook the, at times gross, vicissitudes would be naïve.

But, here's the thing: When one considers the neighbors, the geography, the relatively scarcity of indigenous peoples, Dubai, as we know it, shouldn't even exist at all. Somehow, this sweltering, one-time, one-camel fishing village on the edge of an unforgiving desert has become a world powerhouse. A center of financial services, home to over two million people, an aviation hub, a diverse kaleidoscope of nations, races, buildings, colors, a city with an obvious vision, an obvious future, ambition and, perhaps most tellingly, a gateway to the rest of the world.

Dubai is The Impossible City; a shimmering, silver beacon in, and to, the Gulf, a testimony to the human spirit, to pioneers who welcome adversity and then shackle it, triumphantly; a monument to determination and to people who ask not 'Why?' but 'Why Not?'.

Because of this, Dubai's ruler, the visionary Sheikh Mohammed, is often thought of as an anomaly in the Arab world. But, in the greater scheme of history, nothing could be further from the truth. As the words of al-Kindi himself -- from over a thousand years ago -- demonstrate, this magnificent, burgeoning, city-state is in so many respects, quite simply, a return to form:

"We should not be ashamed to acknowledge truth and to assimilate it from whatever source it comes to us, even if it is brought to us by former generations and foreign peoples. For him who seeks the truth, there is nothing of higher value than truth itself; it never cheapens or debases him who reaches for it, but ennobles and honors him." - Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi.

Islam is at its best when it is open, and outward-looking. The Caliphs knew that. And so does Sheikh Mohammed.