The “Dubai of Latin America?” Part I

F & F Tower, or “The Screw” (no pun intended), 6th tallest skyscraper in Panama.

Burj al-Arab in Dubai. Luxury hotel. Image thanks to

Burj al-Arab in Dubai. Luxury hotel. Image thanks to

These days in Panama as well as abroad, we are hearing the expression “The Dubai of Latin America” and I cannot help but smile and observe how most folks simply accept this notion without really questioning its veracity. First of all, many Panamanians of average intelligence and educational background cannot tell you where Dubai is and, secondly, they haven’t the foggiest notion as to how it is that Panama has come to be viewed as The Dubai of Latin America when a couple of years ago they never knew of the existence of this place.

If by the “Dubai” of Latin America it is meant that Panama is the symbol of the glimmering, opulent economic model as embodied in this tiny oil rich kingdom which is a member of the United Arab Emirates, then I’m very hard pressed to swallow this comparison. Panama, in most respects, is far from it. But, in all fairness, let us compare and contrast the two countries in order to arrive at a reasonable analysis.


Dubai is really a city in the country of UAE, the United Arab Emirates, while Panama is a Republic headed by a democratically elected president and his/her cabinet, with a legislative body called the National Assembly and a Supreme Court at the head of our judicial branch. The emirate of Dubai is located on the southeast coast of the Persian Gulf and is one of the seven emirates that make up the country.

The city of Dubai has become known throughout the world for its skyscrapers and high-rise buildings, such as the world’s tallest Burj Khalifa, in addition to the unusual man-made islands, hotels, and some of the largest shopping malls in the region and the world. Dubai’s government is considered a constitutional monarchy, and has been ruled by the Al Maktoum family since 1833.

The current ruler, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is also the Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and member of the Supreme Council of the Union (SCU). Dubai is, like Panama, a state in development. It reached its present stage of economic development in record time- basically 35 years largely through its use of its vast oil revenues to fuel its economic expansion.

Panama’s modern economic development really started with the ambitious construction projects of the French and North Americans back in the middle of the 19th century (1848). More recently, the democratically elected governments following the invasion of Panama by the United States in 1989, have had their turn at tattempting to fast track Panama to the ranks of the highly developed first world nations. Panama has gone from the Miami model, to the Singapore of Latin America, and now to the Dubai of Latin America. Nothing much has changed, however, except that the public debt has reached gargantuan proportions using the projected Panama Canal revenues that would, presumably, fuel and pay back these projects as the Panama Canal Expansion Project approaches completion. For the vast majority of Panamanians, however, very little has changed.

Trump Ocean Club, the tallest building in Panama.Today Panama is also becoming known for its ambitious building projects, reidential and commercial skyscrapers like the 70 story Trump Ocean Club and The F&F Tower (The Screw- no pun intended), among others. As in the case of Dubai, however, it has had numerous real estate bubbles and we are living in one at present where most of these high rise monstrosities remain at an alarming 50-70% vacancy.


The infrastructure of roads, bridges, mass transit (to a small extent),government buildings, hospitals, and public services has seen some dramatic changes, especially marked by the privatization of most public services (our water is still state owned, and hopefully, it will remain so). Just in the past 6 months new car sales have surpassed 17,000 thus adding to the already heavily congested roads in Panama that tax everybody’s nerves to no end with constant gridlock.

President Ricardo Martinelli of PanamaMass transit (public) has probably seen the slowest and most meagre of investment. The current Ricardo Martinelli government has probably been the most aggressive in finally modernizing the bus system (Metrobus) and construction and purchase of the new Metro (urban subway system).  In our next post we will focus on more contrasts between the two nations of Dubai and Panama.

A point of reference for this series of articles has come from the article by Johann Hari, “The Dark Side of Dubai,” (2009) published by The Independent.

This article continues.

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