TuckCenter for Global Business and Government

UAE Learning Expedition 2014

Posted on March 24, 2014 -- Guest post by Theofanis Tigkas T’15 --

Sunday, March 16, 2014,
The Flora Grand Hotel Lobby, Dubai --

I'm here on the Tuck Learning Expedition to the United Arab Emirates, and we’ve spent two full days in Dubai, and I’m now writing while we wait to take the bus to Abu Dhabi.

Our first couple of days in Dubai gave us a great sense of the city. The LE officially started on Friday morning when we met at the hotel lobby to start our cultural visits with our local guide, Tony. Tony is a Sri Lankan national, a member of the huge local expatriate community (roughly 85 percent of Dubai’s total population). As we tour around this impressive place, he is talking to us about landmarks of the city. Information about mosques, palaces, skyscrapers and, above all, malls blends with the readings that Professor Vandewalle suggested we read in advance of our trip. Friday is not a working day here, so we took the opportunity to tour around modern Dubai sights like Dubai Marina, the Burj Al Arab (photo at right) and the Mall of the Emirates, famous for the ski slope inside the building. In the afternoon we visited the world’s tallest building: Burj Khalifa. Taking a surprisingly short elevator ride to the 124th (no typo), I realized that it was the first time I was on a 3-digit floor. That was not particularly enjoyable for someone afraid of heights but my classmates seemed to be having fun. I must admit it was impressive, though. The day wrapped up with dinner at a Lebanese restaurant right next to the Dubai mall and Burj Khalifa. We had a prime table on a balcony that gave us a great view to the unforgettable fountain. A show of music and lights every half hour was a pleasant break from the great food.

On Saturday morning, we got a look into the past of the region. After visiting Dubai’s museum (see photo) we took a wooden boat to cross the Dubai Creek. We then had a chance to walk around the spice ‘souk’ (market) and the gold souk. Some of us tried in vain to outwit the local merchants in our purchases but, according to testimonies from second-year students, having taken the Negotiations elective did not affect the expected gains of the back and forth. The sample size was small, however, to deliver a statistically significant result. We got back to our hotel for lunch and/or naptime before taking off for the second part of our day: the desert. The afternoon included dune bashing, camel riding and dinner in the desert. I somehow got the back seat in our jeep and while I was bumping around I began seeing a pattern in not having as much fun as my classmates seemed to be having during our immersion in the Dubai experience. The camel’s slow pace was more like my style, I suppose.

Today’s morning session in the hotel started with a briefing from Professor Vandewalle, covering the themes of the Learning Expedition: tradition and modernity, a strong local culture in a very global city, the intricacies of doing business in the Emirates, and the ruler’s strategy of diversifying economic activity away from oil revenues and its implementation.

After short presentations from students about our company visits, we met Mr. Brij Singh, a Tuck alumnus (T’88), who gave us his view on the historical evolution and economy of Dubai. As an expatriate living and doing business here since the 1970s, he had some great insights to offer in a colorful, honest, Tuck manner. To be continued in Abu Dhabi …

Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Millenium Hotel, Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is quite different compared to Dubai. It’s more laid back, yet it felt a lot more like a ‘city’ the way we are used to thinking a city should look like. Dubai felt like a collection of skyscrapers scattered on the sand, sprawling along the coast between Jebel Ali and Deira, Abu Dhabi seems a more familiar site with a certain oriental touch one can reasonably expect. We arrived on Sunday afternoon and our first stop, before even going to the hotel, was ADIA – the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority – the Emirate’s sovereign wealth fund. Its employees (Emiratis and expats alike) work to ensure that the money flowing in from oil revenues today go into investments that will secure the future of Abu Dhabi’s future generations. Our hosts included two Tuck graduates, two Emiratis, and a British HR manager all of whom engaged us in a very interesting conversation. After that, the evening was free and our group merged for dinner with a few other Tuckies visiting the UAE working on a project for the Center for Global Business and Government.

The next morning we visited Mubadala, another sovereign fund with a different mission: to diversify the local economy away from oil revenues. In that sense, Mubadala’s people walked us through the various areas of strategic investments they are involved in and, following up, we visited their Masdar City project (photo at right). The project is a planned city in the middle of the desert that focuses on energy innovation. It involves a dedicated university, self-sustained residencies, and several companies involved with clean and renewable energy. Walking around Masdar is like visiting a sci-fi movie scene in a Hollywood studio. Our last stop in Abu Dhabi is TAQA – an energy company with Oil & Gas and Power & Energy assets in the IMENA (India, Middle East, North Africa) region but also in Europe and North America. Not only did we learn about their activities, we also enjoyed their tremendous Middle Eastern hospitality.

As we made our way back to Dubai, we reflected on our first company visits in Abu Dhabi and started thinking about what we were going to encounter in Dubai. The economies of these two Emirates are far different. Abu Dhabi holds the vast majority of the UAE’s oil reserves, and its present efforts, as demonstrated by our visits, are focused on securing diversified sources of revenues. Dubai, on the other hand, has had to address the challenge of virtually no oil revenues. Its rulers have focused on creating an economy of services that leverage its strategic location. Dubai has miraculously managed to grow in the face of scarce resources and despite the shock of 2008 that tumbled the real estate market. It’s the site of an international transport (both by air and sea) hub and a quickly emerging financial center, and it’s a prominent tourist destination. Coming up next, our last days in Dubai!

Saturday, March 22, 2014
Emirates Flight EK 237 Dubai-Boston; 33,992ft over Bergen, Norway

Thirteen and a half hours is plenty of time to kill during the long flight back home (wow, the word home came to me quite naturally – never thought I would ever say this for any place but Greece). We had many great visits in Dubai since the last time I wrote.

On Wednesday, we visited GEMS, the leader in global education, Emirates NBD (the country’s largest bank) with its amazing pearl museum (pearls were the country’s prime economic activity before the discovery of oil), and the American University of Sharjah. At AUS, we got the chance to meet with local MBA students and listen to a great introductory lecture to Islamic Finance. Our last day of visits, Thursday, was focused on finance and real estate. We started the day at DIFC (Dubai International Financial Center - photo left)) where we learned about the strategy of turning Dubai into a prominent financial center through planning a dedicated free zone. At our next stop, Goldman Sachs, we learned more about the region’s investment banking scene and the intricacies of deal making in this part of the world. Our final visit was at DAMAC, a real estate development company. We visited them at their headquarters right next to their ambitious Akoya project. The company is developing a vast area of luxury residencies and a luxury golf resort in collaboration with Donald Trump’s company and other luxury and designer brands. It was a great opportunity to ask many questions about Dubai’s immensely intriguing and volatile real estate market.

On our last full day in Dubai, most of us went to the beach. While enjoying the sunny weather, we were also following the temperatures in Hanover, so we really wanted to soak in as much sun as possible before going back to what has been a cold and prolonged winter. In the evening, we enjoyed an amazing farewell dinner in Dubai at a revolving restaurant with its great 360 view was really a perfect setting.

So… Was the Learning Expedition worth it?

…Totally! While I consider myself fairly knowledgeable when it comes to geography and history, this was an excellent opportunity to dive deep into the culture of a region I had never had the chance to before coming to Tuck. The structure was great, too. Having the preliminary readings gave us the chance to get a sense of history, politics, and cultural background of the UAE. By visiting Dubai and Abu Dhabi, talking to executives and mingling with locals, we really got a great understanding of how business and the economy is intertwined with history, politics, culture, and the unique position and oil resources of the Emirates. For us, it was a boon to have Professor Vandewalle and Shafika Khayatt (Tuck’s Director of Corporate Relations) with us on this trip. Both gave us great insights to the Middle East and helped our understanding both on a higher level and also in our day-to-day interactions.

On another note, this was ten days with 24 fellow Tuckies in a very interesting part of the world. It surely reinforced the feeling I get whenever I spend time with classmates: I am really happy to be here. Getting to know a few second-year students better was great and it seems everybody had an amazing time while learning a lot. Michael, Michael, Michael, Thierry, Maggie, Meg, Mario, Jess, Varin, Bret, Chris, Jeff, Jeph, Ming, Jun, Rashmi, Ashley, Jake, Leslie, Felizia, Amanda, Kenoma, Deirdre, Santi, thanks for a great trip! Looking forward to the next one!


Disclaimer: We welcome your responses and suggestions. Please be courteous, use respectful language, and support constructive debate. To keep the experience a positive one for all of our users, we reserve the right to make editorial decisions regarding submitted comment.