I love to hate on Dubai. It’s fascinatingly obtuse, overindulged, and generally abhorrent, like the Paris Hilton of geopolitics. But the spectacularity of its rise and fall – and its impacts on global markets, as demonstrated over the weekend in the 95% or so of the world where people did not eat turkey – as a thoroughly manufactured, yet distressingly real, simulated phenomenon is a completely fascinating subject to me.
Momus, the ever-fascinating but always hit-or-miss indie popster, makes some pointed, salient commentary:
“Was anywhere heading for a fall so obviously as Dubai?” asks Simon Jenkins in The Guardian. “Yet why did no one ever scream? Why did everyone just marvel?” The answer is partly that negative comment was actually a crime in Dubai; Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum told critics to “shut up” and media was closely controlled to exclude anything which might damage investments or stop the influx of rich foreigners and investors.
It’s also undoubtedly true that a rising tide, even if it doesn’t quite float all boats, brooks no opposition. Dubai’s population of 1.37 million (2006) is comprised of a small conservative Muslim indigenous population, and 85% expatriates, most of whom are low-paid construction and service workers from India and the Philippines. The bling state rides — I suppose we should say “rode” — on the back of unorganised, unregulated labour.
The relationship between Emirati citizens, spectacularly wealthy and/or endebted expatriate betas (who will nonetheless never be citizens), and the massive disposable underclass of migrant workers (whose needs are ultimately immaterial) was apparent in microcosm during the opening of the Dubai Metro in September:
Built in just under four years, the first phase of ten stations opened bang on schedule on 09-09-09 – and at nine minutes past nine in the evening…. So many people turned out in their cars to watch the dazzling blue and silver trams, traffic jams lasted well past midnight in downtown Dubai, notorious for congestion, in the 40-degree heat.
(“What do you mean, use the elevated? Don’t be silly! That’s for little people, dear.”)
It is a place of great wealth, and in contrast low wages for the thousands of immigrant workers who live in bunk houses doing unskilled labour. You are either well off or poor. Nothing in between. For the low paid, the all-electric Metro will be much in demand. And Dubai is not immune to the credit crunch. Many of the luxury apartments near the famous Palm Island resorts lie unoccupied. Cars are regularly abandoned at the airport by those fleeing their debts.
Of course, the lines that are opening actually service the high-end neighborhoods and go nowhere near the labor camps, which are miles outside of the resort area. But the Dubai Metro wasn’t built to satisfy the city’s actual transportation problems (which are manifold, to be honest). It was built to prove to the sheikhs and football stars who own the entire city that they’ve got a real classy joint.
Update: So last March, while the universe of their nonexistent assets was softly collapsing all around them, the Dubai authorities (i.e. Sheikh Mohammed, the singular authority, and the people he employs) decided to resolve the problem… of “gender confusion” among Emirati girls. This was by way of an ad campaign trying to convince them not to cut their hair short. So classy!