Thursday, January 11, 2007

Abra... Dubai

My favorite place in Dubai was neither Ski Dubai nor the Burj al Arab, though both were impressive and unique. My favorite pastime was riding the local Abras (traditional boats) between Deira and Bur Dubai, two halves of the old and new quarters separated by Dubai Creek. While private boats will shuttle tourists for evening tours costing scores if not hundreds of dollars, the local Abras shuttle the Emiratis, Indians, and Iranians that comprise the majority of the population. For 50 fils, half of one dirham, and about $0.12 one can ride on a solid wooden abra with 19 others, plugging along the creek with a grisily motor spitting fumes and choking water in its drowning struggle under the weight.

The most impressive part of the Abra ride is not the boat, and though the drivers display an inveterate ability to navigate the creek with only their feet on the wheel, collecting and disbursing exact change with their hands, it’s not that either. The best part of riding the Abra is the natural efficiency with which a boat is chosen. As dozens of Abras line either side of the creek, each driver eager to pocket the profits from a full boat, the over-supply of boats puts the power of determination in the hands of the sailors, and makes collectivization an imperative.

A boat would not sail with fewer than 20 paying. As such, the take-off of an Abra would have made Malcom Gladwell proud... an instant demonstration of the “Tipping Point.” An arbitrary decision by one person would create a cascade that ultimately would determine which boat sailed. When a critical mass focused on an Abra, others nearby recognized the developing trend, rushed to the point of embarkation, and further incited the cascade. It was a frantic rush, but in an instant it'd be over, and would again repeat. As each boat was capped at 20 sailors, there were inevitably those who were left behind. A gruff hand would grip the turnstall, a shout in Hindi would send the driver to sea, and you'd have missed the boat, figuratively and literally. And then you'd crane to see where another crowd would gather, and rush to not miss the next.

With the over-supply of boats, and one arbitrary decision, it instantly appeared as though there was product differentiation (a better boat), and this in turn, caused indivuals to rush to the site of the gathering crowd and support the sailing of that particular Abra. The act of one individual, whether arbitrary or whether reasoned, caused others to follow, and ultimately caused that ship to sail. While I’m not a student of economics, I can’t help but assume that the pattern of cascading decisions is ubiquitous across more formal markets when value differentiation is negligible and trending begins from an arbitrary choice. I guess it boils down to, is the popular cafĂ© more crowded because it’s inherently better, or is it more crowded because it was crowded initially…

No comments: