Dubai – a city of hi-tech contrasts



The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is known for its opulent seven-star hotels, tall buildings and shopping centres symbolic of a society driven by aspiration.

The Burj Dubai dwarfs its neighbouring buildings
The Burj Dubai dwarfs its neighbouring buildings

As the country’s centre of innovation, Dubai is leading the way in technological advances, including in motoring.

The city has a free flow tolling system so drivers are automatically charged at toll gates using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology.

The RFID chip, linked to a prepaid toll account, rests in a windscreen and deducts the fee when a car passes under the sensor.

Visitors opting for public transport will find the modern and driverless Dubai Metro ahead of the times in comparison to most other countries.

Passengers in Gold Class can surf the net onboard via wi-fi, while the train itself is connected to the internet using Wimax technology.

Young innovation

The youth of Dubai has embraced consumer technology and attempts to innovate in this sector have started emerging.

One company has created a memory stick which paired with a computer can stream the PC’s media files as if they were on the stick itself.

This means a movie can be played back wirelessly on a media device such as a PlayStation without the need to copy any files.

Ahmad Zahran, the founder of Infinitec, said Dubai has a long way to go before it becomes a fertile ground for technology entrepreneurs.

“Investors would still rather invest in real estate than they would in an IT company. The concept of R&D’ing something out of the Middle East is just not understood. The thinking is why not just buy it in from China and export it?” he said.

‘Bling’ handsets

International brands have adopted the city as the place to experiment with new designs aimed exclusively at the Arab market.

“Well, there are different segments obviously. There is a very predominant segment which would go for what you would call ‘bling’ design,” said Hamad Malik, regional marketing director at LG. “People here like golden colour mobiles, pink colour mobiles do very well.”

The Blackberry in particular has found a cultural niche in what still is a conservative society where pre-marital liaisons between boys and girls are strongly discouraged.

Younger generations of Emiratis are turning in droves to the mobile phone’s free instant messaging service which leaves no trace of conversations on the handset, unlike text messages.

Distinctive features such as built-in solar charging, compasses pointing in the direction of Mecca and reminders of prayer times, also give international phone brands leverage with an underserved local market.

Restricted voice

Despite enthusiasm in the smartphone market, the availability of broadband for domestic consumption is still rather limited with only two providers to choose from.

It costs a home £45 per month for speeds of up to 1mbps, and some of the content on the net has also been restricted.

Dubai has also made it illegal to use voice over internet phone (voip) call services such as Skype which could provide a cheaper alternative to costly international calls.

Raghu Venkatamaran, from telecoms provider Du, said the Skype business model would mean others would benefit at his company’s expense.

“They are not investing in fibre, they are not investing in technology to carry calls,” he said.

“They are not paying us a single penny for building our networks. We are a young operator and we spend a lot of money building up a nationwide telecom infrastructure”.

Blacklisted sites

As a Muslim country, the UAE still has conservative values when compared to some other parts of the world.

The country’s authorities have blocked access to some websites, including social networking destinations, but not online news.

However, an attempt to view photo-sharing site Flickr brings up a screen saying it is “content that is prohibited under the Internet Access Management Regulatory Policy” of the UAE.

Alexander McNabb, a Dubai-based tech blogger said: “Panoramio is unblocked and so are other photo sharing services like deviantART I believe because the technology is available to allow some selective blocking of what is pornographic full nudity content. But apparently that can’t be done with Flickr”.

The country’s web filtering works on a blacklist of sites and individual pages with content considered inappropriate for the region.

Web filtering occasionally rejects criticism of Dubai’s leadership – for instance if a blog contains a cartoon deemed insulting to the Sheikh.