This is a tale of contrasts – but at the same time, contrasts that are all too similar.
Once a year I take fifty of the finest banking talents in the UAE on a retreat. At this retreat we reflect upon our performance in the current year and decide what our actions should be for the following year. It is where we decide our collective direction and actions to deliver a compelling strategy. So against this back drop of high finance and complex discussions on risk management, CDOs, capital adequacy and new proposition development we find ourselves in the middle of the Liwa desert. We are in one the oldest and most traditional parts of the world, which by and large is very much protected from outside influence. Yet here we sat in decadent luxury at the finest hotel the UAE has to offer – Qasr Al Sarab.
Set a stones throw from the Saudi border exists this five star luxury mega resort. Yes it is built in a very traditional way and is sympathetic to the surrounding towering dunes, yet by all intents and purposes it is out of place. The Liwa desert is truly one of the most stunning places I have ever visited. Sand dunes with a warm golden hue that tower hundreds of feet into the air. A peace and tranquillity that you really can’t imagine into you’ve experienced it. You get a real sense of the vastness, isolation and harshness that is the ‘empty quarter’ desert. And a night sky so clear and full of shining stars that it beggars belief. Yet here we have it… the luxury resort that allows the likes of me to do it in style and comfort. So contrast number one: the unspoilt natural beauty of the empty quarter against the modernity of the all mod cons hotel.
As I said earlier, our goal for the retreat was simple – define a way to maximise our trade. This is an age-old principle that dates back forever. It was the ‘way’ we did trade now that was the major contrast.
The camel has long been known as the trade vehicle of choice – the ship of the desert. Strong, dependable and resilient. In fact, ahead of the UAE’s love affair with all things petrol driven is their love affair with the camel. They are raced, used as transport and even appear in beauty competitions! There are polo matches played on camels and auctions that would outdo the finest Sotherbys has to offer. Recently, a local UAE resident paid 24 million Dirhams (6.47 million dollars) for three camels. One of which cost almost 3 million dollars! So contrast number two: the UAE’s affection for two very different modes of transport, but both of which serve the same purposes – status, fun and trade.
We all know that Emiratis like to ‘pimp their rides’. Look at the vast swathe of FAB, Mansory, TechArt, Hamman and Khan exotica that exists around Dubai and Abu Dhabi on a Thursday evening. Beach Road hums with the sound of V10s and is lit through star light reflection from chromed 22’s. These cars are truly unique – one off’s that cost more than your average home in Europe.
Yet the Emiratis also ‘pimp their camels’. The UAE has the most advanced camel research facility in the world. The Veterinary Research Centre (VRC) in Sweihan, Abu Dhabi breeds camels on a commercial basis and for research. Here cutting edge technology is used to breed camels including embryo transfers and cloning. Contrast number three: what they ‘pimp’ – but they do it in such a high-tech way that similarities truly exist.
So back to my retreat in the desert. I had organised some team building activities for us. Amongst other things, this involved us racing Polaris RZRs around the desert. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to ride my quad bike at Liwa, so also took it with me. We kind of ‘polluted’ the desert ambience.
Our tracks cut vicious lines through the silky sands and our engines broke the calm and tranquility. But hey, it was great fun. After riding my quad, I headed back to the activity centre to change. A colleague waved urging me to turn-around and look once again in the direction of my quad.
So here, right in front of me was contrast number four: a camel farmer sat astride my modern day ‘ship of the desert’. Old meets new.
So a story of many contrasts but all of which share a common thread. The things we need and love, we always try and make better. Nothing has changed really – today we just use petrol, cranks and pistons!