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Scotland's links with the Emirates are good news, but we must remember the bigger picture

The First Minister, Alex Salmond, has just returned from a two-day trip to the United Arab Emirates, visiting Abu Dhabi to sign a deal on renewables and addressing an audience of world leaders at a future energy summit.

It's hard to believe that Dubai, the most ostentatious of the Emirates, only became computerised in the early 1980's. Back then there was no Burj al Arab hotel, no Palm Jumeirah, and no eight-lane motorway.

Like the First Minister, I am on a visit to the UAE, sitting on the roof of a luxurious Dubai hotel, sipping my chai latte and enjoying the gentle Arabian breeze as I write this – and finding it extremely difficult to believe that this country has grown so voraciously – it is 40 years young and thriving.

The 40th anniversary of the statehood of the United Arab Emirates lends itself best to comparison - talking strictly in terms of the development leap from obscure frontier economy to business nation.

The First Minister's recent visit to the Gulf has also secured developments on additional direct air routes by Middle Eastern airlines in and out of Scotland. Last week Emirates confirmed their commitment to Scotland by doubling their Glasgow direct flights to Dubai, strengthening Scotland's growing business, education and cultural links with the city, and providing additional capacity to this key gateway to critical global markets.

I recall visiting Dubai for the first time in the 1990's when I worked for British Airways, and back then people in Europe didn't really know where it was. On this trip, I've been catching up with old friends and former colleagues who say that nowadays, they are being chased by European suppliers who want to do business with Dubai.

Forty years ago, the Gulf countries were marginal economies in a global system steered by a handful of highly industrialised countries. Today the UAE is an emerging player bent on heightening its status beyond being oil-rich and trade-smart, to becoming a leading example of two things; an efficient and safe living quarter for a host of nationalities, and a reliable and logical place to do business, where you can interact easily with a network of partners and markets.

The progress achieved in these 40 years has been remarkable, but more so is recent acceleration. Dubai Mall, for example, had a record year in 2011, becoming the world’s most visited shopping and leisure destination welcoming more than 54 million visitors - more than the number of tourists visiting New York City in the same year - reportedly 50.2 million.

My time in Dubai has left me with much to reflect upon. One aspect that immediately strikes any visitor is its surrealism. Common sights include gleaming new cars just off the production line, clean streets, people shopping continuously day and night, and more Starbucks outlets than you can imagine.

It’s as if you’ve just arrived on a new planet where there was no poverty, depression, hunger or oppression.

However, the situation can leave you feeling a little awkward, as it ignores the horrors inflicted upon others not too far away. Take Syria for example, a world erupting in revolution and political awakening, while some of its neighbours are busy deciding what colour Swarovski crystals to put on their abayah.  

The promise of the UAE's future will depend on the leadership of the next generations that have not witnessed the founding of the nation, but even as that date grows more distant, they will be wise to remember the vision of and the journey undertaken by their forefathers.

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