Yasemin Saib rides a Harley-Davidson motorcycle on the weekends, but this morning she pulls out of the driveway of her villa in the gated Springs housing estates behind the wheel of a bright red 4×4. The Saudi Arabian filmmaker is following her usual routine, stopping by a café called Shakespeare & Co. before heading to her company, al-Bayareq Productions. Saib, 34, was raised in the eastern Saudi city of Khobar and spent three years working in New York City, but now she’s pursuing her career in Dubai and couldn’t be happier. “I love New York, but my quality of life is better here,” she says, as she digs into a hearty breakfast. “Dubai is a cutting-edge city and it feels like home.”
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That’s one of the secrets of Dubai. Young Arabs from across the Middle East and beyond are chasing a rainbow to this Gulf city-state, where they are pursuing high-flying careers while helping transform a sliver of brown desert coastline into the first world-class Arab metropolis — an international hub for business, media and culture that aspires to become the New York of the Arab world. Granted, for the last decade Dubai has been a favored destination for ambitious professionals from all over the world. But especially for a new generation of Arabs in fields ranging from finance to graphic design, the city has become the place to be. Young people from Rabat to Riyadh see Dubai as a meritocracy filled with opportunities that are largely lacking in the rest of the Arab world, where misrule or violent conflict have stifled freedoms and stagnated economies. Equally important, they are delighted with the chance to strut their stuff in their own cultural milieu, no longer needing to go to New York or London to land top jobs.
Saib is a good case in point. Her parents sent her to university in the U.S., where after graduation she worked in San Francisco as well as New York. At the Dubai wedding of a friend, she fell in love with the place and accepted an offer to be a producer for the Dubai-headquartered Arab satellite TV channel, Middle East Broadcasting Corp. Two years ago, she launched her own production company, which has made two documentaries about Africa for Arab audiences. Saib says she’s as fulfilled in her after-hours life as she is professionally. She swims at the Dubai Ladies Club, rides horses in the desert, hangs out at art galleries and invests in a group of yoga centers as a sideline.
Dubai’s big attraction for Saib was the freedom and opportunity to pursue a top-level career path and lifestyle within an Arab culture — and as a single woman. In her native Saudi Arabia, gender discrimination makes it very difficult for women to work. Saib, who wears a hijab, or head scarf, is a devout Muslim, but in Saudi Arabia she’d be detained by the religious police if she went out in the jeans and tight-fitting jacket she’s wearing instead of the mandatory head-to-toe black abaya. Another advantage for a Saudi woman in Dubai: she can zip around in her 4×4 without getting chucked in jail. “Dubai supports women,” says Saib.
For many young Arabs, Dubai seemed particularly appealing after Sept. 11, 2001, when they felt stigmatized in the West. Hadi El-Solh, 30, and Noor Sweid, 27, who are Lebanese and Syrian respectively, largely grew up in the West and married after meeting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology business school. They landed jobs on Wall Street, but — soured by the post-9/11 mood in the U.S. — they headed to Dubai. “It was subconscious, but every day you turned on the news and you are getting bashed,” El-Solh recalls. “There was a constant reinforcement that you are not really welcome [in the U.S.].” Adds Sweid: “The thing about Dubai is you do feel like you belong.”
Unlike some younger Arabs who expect to return to their home countries someday, El-Solh and Sweid feel they may turn out to be lifelong residents. Sweid became a managing director of her dad’s booming interior contracting firm in Dubai, and after a stint at the regional office of McKinsey & Company, El-Solh joined the firm, too. Besides helping oversee a global expansion, the couple recently spearheaded the company’s IPO. About once a month, they indulge their passion for travel and deep-water diving, jetting off to the Maldives, Thailand or Turkey for breaks. At home in Dubai, they live the good life; they rent an 18th-floor apartment with a sea view, own a luxury villa (where they intend to move once they have children) and tool around in a BMW530 — which is pretty modest by Dubai’s standards. “There are five Bentleys parked in the garage of our building,” El Solh laughs. “In Dubai, if you’re not driving a Ferrari, nobody gives you a second glance.”
Not all the best and the brightest Arabs landing in Dubai are citizens of the Middle East. The dazzle has also caught the attention of Westerners of Arab descent like Nader Sabry, 29, who are keen to explore their cultural roots and be part of a rare Arab success story. The son of Egyptian immigrants to Canada, Sabry arrived in Dubai in 2001 as a management consultant. Now he’s chief strategist for the Dubai government’s Department of Economic Development, and has no plans to leave. “My parents went through a lot to be in Canada and give us a better life,” he says. “Yet I always hoped I would come back and contribute one day.” Sabry says a key satisfaction of living in Dubai is the chance to become better connected to his Muslim heritage. “I’ve been observing Ramadan all my life in the West, but you don’t feel the spirituality behind it there. Here, it’s great to have that feeling every year.”
Yasemin Saib, in similar vein, is active in Muslim charities and every Monday night hosts an Islamic study group. “I love fasting during Ramadan, I love praying in the mosque, I love being part of a Muslim community,” she says. “In Dubai, I can be an Arab and a Muslim. And I can also have all the Western amenities, all the freedoms I need to be an independent, self-sufficient woman.”
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