Is Dubai the center of the world (again)?

Story highlights

  • Dubai's fortunes have revived since real estate crash and debt restructuring
  • In a generation, Dubai has graduated from village to global financial center, demographic microcosm
  • City has become crucial outpost for China; 2,000 Chinese companies registered there
  • Country is open and tolerant; Parag Khanna says freedom of expression has suffered
During London Mayor Boris Johnson's recent visit to Dubai on an investment promotion trip, he jokingly declared that he is "mayor of the eighth emirate." Though uttered in typical self-deprecating jest, the mayor of the world's greatest city proclaiming that London is a mere province of the United Arab Emirates is revealing about how Dubai's fortunes have revived since the punishing real estate crash and debt restructuring following the financial crisis.
With the UK economy slumping so severely that the IMF has recommended it reconsider its austerity policy, Johnson has to look abroad to maintain London's economic dynamism. He particularly appealed to the UAE's sovereign wealth funds (such as the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority and Mubadala) to invest in London's underground subway upgrades (not that Emiratis are regulars on the Tube, since they often ship their supercharged Italian sports cars to London for the summer months).
Thirty years ago, when I was a child growing up in the UAE, Dubai's highlights were a cheap revolving restaurant in the creek district of Deira and the modest gold souk of nearby Sharjah. But a revolutionary transformation was also just under way under the visionary leadership of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum, and subsequently carried forward by his third son Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, who currently rules Dubai while also serving as prime minister and vice president of the UAE.
Decades of heavy infrastructure investment built what is today one of the world's busiest ports at Jebel Ali, and the world's most transited airport. At any hour of the day, Dubai's Terminal 3 is the single most cosmopolitan building in the world, with every conceivable nationality transiting, visiting, or settling. The Dubai Mall, located at the