Monday, January 15, 2007

Slate on Dubai

Slate has a long series of posts on Dubai, calling it the weirdest city on the planet. Maybe I've become jaded by living there for so long, or maybe the author has never been to Riyadh, but I don't think Dubai is that weird -- it's just caught in an enormous, speculative bubble, with an unsophisticated investor class. Reality will reassert itself at some point.

The best way I can describe it is as follows: if you went into a Dubai furniture store 15+ years ago, you would see a large amount of very heavy, ornate, white laqured furniture, with carved flowers and other vegetal motifs, which were painted some pastel color. Often, these furniture pieces would also feature a built-in cassette player. Imagine taking the types of people who would buy something like that, and give them lots of money and building permits. Dubai is the result.

Slate asks:
There is profound wackiness afoot here. But I wonder: Is something more interesting happening, too? Because I can't help but find reason for hope in this crass spectacle. The cultures that produced Dubai and Las Vegas surely must have something in common. If the Arab world's starry-eyed dreams are just like ours—full of schlock, gluttony, and elaborate theme hotels—perhaps we can get along after all.

I'm not saying that out-of-control capitalism will defuse the clash of civilizations. But I'm eager to find out what it looks like when Islam gets mixed up with reckless expansion and tacky greed. These are the sorts of ambitions the West has no difficulty understanding.
But Dubai as it exists today was not born out of any Arab culture. It is a product of the Maktoum dynasty, which was provided the Emirate with competant, secular, technocratic rule since the 1940s, and been very clever at getting around the anti-commerce rules and regulations passed in the capitol, Abu Dhabi.

Slate ends the article on a bitter note:
"What do you think of Dubai so far?" the U.K. kid asked me, making small talk. I told him I was still making up my mind. "You grow to hate the locals," he said. I raised my eyebrows. "For one thing, they can't drive."

I smiled at this, as I must admit I'd seen my share of inventive maneuvers on Dubai's crowded roadways. But I fear I emboldened him to get nastier. Because now this little blond twit (with apple cheeks and wire-rim eyeglasses, wiping his snotty nose with his snowboarding mitten) unleashed some good old imperialist invective. "And they should really treat us with kindness and respect," he said, in his pipsqueak British accent. "They're rather cheeky. You know, if we went home tomorrow, this whole place would turn back to sand."
The UK kid is being rude, but is quite correct. Dubai has been built entirely by foreigners. Today, it is run entirely by foreigners. The generous welfare system has left the locals as rich, entitled, wards of the state, with the traditional skills, ambition, and character that such dependency has historically engendered. This dynamic queers the relationship between locals, and the expats that work there; creating envy and disgust.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait, all the foreigners left (but only a fraction of the locals). After Iraq had been driven back out, foreigners were hired back in at outrageous rates to do things like change lightbulbs, put toner cartridges in photocopiers, etc. There is probably a joke in there someone: "How many Emirati does it take to change a lightbulb?"


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