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Dubai ruler’s global vision reaches skywards

Dubai — Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashed al-Maktoum, who on Monday inaugurates the world’s tallest tower to mark his fourth year in power, appears determined not to let debt woes dampen his vision for Dubai’s future.

The emirate’s British-educated ruler has been the driving force behind the spectacular rise of the Gulf emirate into a boom town, and strives to project the image of a modern Arab leader.

An avid horse-racing fan, Sheikh Mohammad has placed little Dubai firmly on the world map as a business, IT, leisure and tourism hub, creating a modern city where 50 years ago there was mostly sand.

Monday’s official opening of Burj Dubai is on the fourth anniversary of his accession following the death of his elder brother Sheikh Maktoum on January 4, 2006.

Sheikh Mohammad, 60, has long pushed his vision of elevating Dubai to the status of global city, but the opening of the world record-breaking skyscraper comes amid a slump in investor confidence over the emirate’s debt problems.

Hundreds of other building projects are in mothballs, and plunging property prices and weak demand had already put a dampener on new schemes even before November’s shock announcement by state-owned giant Dubai World that it wants to halt debt payments for six months.

Despite the emirate’s financial problems, Sheikh Mohammad has kept both his cool and his confidence in Dubai’s future.

"I’m a Bedouin, and the Bedouins like to accept challenges," he told journalists recently inside his marbled Dubai palace.

Sheikh Mohammad carefully crafted his role as national leader after also succeeding his brother as vice president and prime minister of the seven-member United Arab Emirates federation that includes Dubai.

In February 2007, he unveiled an economic plan for Dubai aimed at maintaining double-digit growth, achieving a gross domestic product of 108 billion dollars and increasing per capita GDP to 44,000 dollars by 2015.

Economic aims set out in 2000 for the next 10 years "have been realised in half the time," with GDP reaching 37 billion dollars in 2005, he boasted.

Over the course of 20 years, Sheikh Mohammad transformed Dubai, an emirate of 1.4 million inhabitants where natives form just around 20 percent of the population, into a popular tourist destination, particularly with Europeans.

His decision in 1985 to arm Dubai with an airline, Emirates, was the first crucial move in a strategy to develop the desert city state into a business and tourism centre.

In the following years, countless mega projects — ranging from the Burj Dubai tower to the three-kilometre (two mile) long Palm Jumeirah artificial island — were launched and specialised free zones were created.

Even with the current debt crisis, Dubai remains a bustling city full of eye-catching sights.

Grandiose ventures, including a "Dubailand" planned as a Middle East version of Orlando and an indoor ski resort, have ensured a steady stream of visitors.

Sheikh Mohammad has led the charge to model Dubai — where Asians are by far the largest group of expatriates, followed by Arabs and Westerners — as a haven of tolerance.

Non-Muslims can practise religious rituals freely and Dubai hosts several churches. But religious freedom has its limits: proselytising for any religion other than Islam is strictly prohibited.

Sheikh Mohammad is seen by some as autocratic, in a state where neither political parties nor trades unions are allowed.

"I am convinced I am leading my people not only on the right path but on the only one available," he writes in his book "My Vision."

According to author Jim Krane, writing in "City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism:" "Sheikh Mohammad is as much a tribal sheikh as he is a twenty-first century politician."

Born in Dubai in 1949, Sheikh Mohammad studied in a military college in Britain before starting his public career in 1968 as the director of police and public security in the emirate, which was still a British protectorate.

Shortly after independence in December 1971, he was promoted to general by Sheikh Maktoum, and was named defence minister for the new federation, a post he still holds.

He is passionate about horses and regularly takes part in endurance races. He is also a pilot and keen on poetry.

Sheikh Mohammad is married to Princess Haya, daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan, who shares his interest in matters equestrian.

A son from his first marriage, Sheikh Hamdan, is Dubai’s crown prince.