Glimpses of Heaven and Hell in Dubai

The 8th Wonder of the World had already been proclaimed well before the grand opening in Dubai of Atlantis – The Palm in November 2008. The thirteen acres of artificial palm-shaped archipelago jutting out into the shallow waters of the Arabian Gulf featured a 42 acre water park of 65,000 fish, the soon-to-be controversial Dolphin Education Centre, the whole thing anchored by the vast pink luxury hotel, its 1539 rooms full for the occasion with the world’s celebrities and tycoons. This was to be an Event like nothing on earth and the $20 million fireworks display would be clearly seen from outer space.

But the timing and scale of the opening of Atlantis –The Palm could not have been worse. International derision was guaranteed. ‘Dubai’s Last Hurrah,’ trumpeted the cover of Newsweek. The Guardian cited Ozymandius: ‘The dunes will reclaim the soaring folly of Dubai.’ And the Independent kept putting the boots in: ‘The Shangri-la of the Middle East bites the dust … a city built on credit and ecocide, suppression and slavery.’

The news that Dubai, like everywhere else in the over-developed world, was feeling the force of the global recession was endlessly repeated. The real estate bonanza had indeed slowed, some of Dubai’s more spectacular projects were on hold, their indentured labour redeployed or returned to Pakistan and Bangladesh. But the tall tales about the end of the world rapidly assumed the shape of a manga: three thousand luxury cars abandoned at the airport, keys in the ignition, their owners fleeing to avoid jail, once-rich wives deserted, selling their bling and sleeping in the dunes in their SUVs, empty apartment buildings as far as the eyes could see, every second business retrenching staff and dishonouring contracts, not a crane moving on the horizon. And, through the cracks in the edifice, the desert sands had started to creep across the highways …

Emiratis and the professional expatriate community fought back as best they could on blogs and in interviews to Arab media which was more inclined to listen. Dubai will not be allowed to fail, said Tariq Yusef of the World Bank on Al Jazeera. Dubai, he said, has become a model of accelerated growth for others in the region; its belief in itself as a grand hub of trade routes and ideas is an ancient one which the Arab world celebrates and intends to make happen again. A failure of Dubai would be a failure of the whole United Arab Emirates.

Eventually the British Government weighed in and distanced itself from the mockers. The British have long links with the region. The seven sheikhdoms or Emirates which form the United Arab Emirates had been a British Protectorate from 1820 to1971. The UAE is one of Britain’s top ten export markets with 1783 British companies operating in Dubai. The Brits, including the egregious Beckhams, have been the most enthusiastic purchasers, after the Russian mafia, so the stories go, of expensive and hyped real estate off the plans. Investors reaped huge returns in the good times buying and selling when rents were leaping by up to 40 percent a year, but the credit crunch caught the over-extended, major developments slowed, vacancies rose and rents began to fall. The place is now a renter’s paradise, says Dubai’s National, the impressively staffed and resourced Guardian look-alike English language newspaper – the world’s newest print journal and surely its last.

The discovery of oil in the mid sixties transformed the small Bedouin fishing and pearling ports along the strip of land on the southern shore of the then Persian, now Arabian Gulf. Today the Emirates are essentially seven cities of varying sizes and strategic roles, with unimaginable amounts of money to invest in fast tracking modernity.

Abu Dhabi, the conservative capital within commuting distance of Dubai, dominates the Federation with most of the UAE’s land and oil wealth. Abu Dhabi aims to be the cultural centre, investing heavily to develop institutions and cultural projects such as the prestigious and extraordinary Saadiyat Island where Frank Gehry will deliver his biggest Guggenheim yet and for which the Louvre has accepted one billion dollars to share its exhibitions and its name. But it is Dubai, with limited oil and natural gas reserves accounting for less than six percent of its revenues, which has embodied the narrative of globalisation, ahistorical, diverse, unsentimental, its economic goals transcending all others. Here the constraints of culture and nationalisms have melted into air and a ‘world class’ megalopolis has emerged where Spider-Man would be at home.

By mirroring and exploiting the West’s own excesses of consumption and greed, catering to every whim and fantasy of the newly rich, Dubai made itself a perfect target, rapidly becoming one of the world’s greatest carbon foot-printers. The green golf courses and lush parks and private gardens reaching down to the sea require more water per capita than anywhere else on the planet. But much of the criticism is rather like accusing the Arabs for doing at top speed with maximum hubris and minimum regulatory impediments what developers have been doing in the West for decades – knocking down, building up, producing skylines that look the same everywhere, creating cities that further deplete the world’s finite resources, which isolate people whose chief value seems to lie in their capacity to consume.

Dubai is crass but it is not alone. Britain’s developments on the Costa del Sol are neither pretty nor environmentally sensitive, nor is the Australian Gold Coast, nor the proliferation of gated communities on Egypt’s Red Sea Riviera nor Florida. The new Westfield Mall in London’s Shepherd’s Bush, ‘the largest urban shopping centre in Europe’ which opened this year on the site of the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition halls, is a glass-roofed, climate-controlled cathedral to consumption and luxury, glittering with chandeliers, food flown in from around the globe, and featuring the same up-market labels as the malls of the United Arab Emirates. Without the flack.

For those who hadn’t been watching, the first sign of the UAE’s regional and global strategy was the launching of the Emirates Airline in 1985. Two years later it was running daily nonstop flights to London and the European capitals enticing shoppers and tourists with cheap fares to make stopovers in Dubai. Twenty years later the Dubai International Airport is a hub for world aviation. Terminal 3, which opened a month before Atlantis-The Palm, is not only the largest building in the world by floor space (1,500,000 square metres), but is located 20 metres below the taxiway area. Terminal 4 is on schedule to open in 2013 and 40 kilometres away in the desert, the Al Maktoum International Airport, the World’s largest, planned to cater for up to 150 million passengers annually and 12 million tons of cargo, is already underway.

The night we arrive at the glittering Terminal 3, there are no queues and the duty free shops selling alcohol are empty but the arrival hall is so enormous the crowds may well have been somewhere else. A smooth immigration official in a dishdash and keffir admires my Italian spectacles and waves us through. The English language newspapers on the plane have carried an extensive interview with the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, reassuring the world in the bland language used by Prime Ministers everywhere, that all is well, that the Emirate is on track, that the downturn is global and Dubai is exceedingly well placed to emerge stronger than ever.

The news of the injection a few months earlier of $10 billion in bonds from the UAE’s Central Bank, was interpreted by most Western pundits as oil-rich Abu Dhabi propping up hapless Dubai by buying into its economy. This was firmly denied by His Highness and President of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi citing the conditions of Islamic banking, which preclude one party profiting to the exclusion of the other, and the region’s grand plan. Obviously Dubai had been playing by other rules, profiting from the lifestyles of expatriates and tourists from all over the world, and thriving on speculation and the same kind of debt trading instruments that brought the Western banking system to its knees (1). By the end of 2008, Dubai’s foreign debt stood at 148% of GDP while monthly retail interest on a Platinum Visa Card issued by the National Bank of Dubai was 2.99 percent, both well into the realm of haram for sharia-compliant Muslim institutions. Now, it seems likely that the combined financial strategy with Abu Dhabi may be emerging with a different mix including a range of state-funded sharia-compliant development projects.

‘Rest assured that between Abu Dhabi and Dubai there is no buying and selling,’ said Sheikh Khalifa. ‘Everything in Dubai belongs to Abu Dhabi and the rest of the UAE, and all that is in Abu Dhabi belongs to Dubai and Abu Dhabi and the rest of the UAE.’

Architects and urban planners from around the world started pouring into the region over a decade ago. There were the stars – Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas and Fernando Donis of OMA , Atkins, Zara Hadid are a few of them – their teams usually young and drawn from all over the world. They were encouraged to develop concepts on a scale and complexity only China building for the Olympics could match – and were attracted, in all likelihood, by the prospect of seeing projects fast-tracked, unencumbered by the bureaucracy and layers of government most have to deal with back home. The Ruler of Dubai is often described as a one man band. Certainly his executive team is small and hands-on. This is a kind of e-government, accelerated decision-making with minimal regulation which provides at least the impression of easy access to power.

Critical debate about the future shape of Dubai and the problems caused by its accelerated growth is far from discouraged, the planners and architects I spoke to told me, and there’s been a good deal of it in recent years but in a speculative climate of rapid returns, hard-hitting advice from consultants and advisors may have been been somewhat compromised by the power structures. Sustainability is one of the UAE’s greatest concerns but it sometimes sounds more like a buzzword than an imperative.

The Dubai Urban Development framework commissioned in 2007 has still not been released. This is expected to resolve a number of issues, including the structure of the development entities, and to systematically confront the massive environmental concerns facing cities built on sand at sea level, although the Dutch are already helping with dyke technology. The largest and most fantastical of the recent real estate developments have been put on hold, the manmade Islands of the World and the Universe, and the second and third great Palms, constructions that would add another 150 artificial kilometres to the coastline. But professionals described slowdowns rather than outright cancellations – projects on the backburner while the current downturn lasts.

Several layers of infrastructure are still missing, they say, because Dubai has grown so fast without a coherent urban vision. A secondary road system barely exists and great superhighways swirl through the city, segregating the older, poorer areas of small businesses and cheap restaurants, and limiting the life they could give to the city. Walking is almost impossible. A consortium of Japanese and Turkish contractors is building the ultimate Atkins Sistra designed metro with air-conditioned pods for stations which will include prayer rooms, shops and cafės, but car journeys will still be required to access most of it. Expat mothers will still have to ferry their children to school in huge SUVs and the poor will still be piled onto grim buses and trucked to building sites.

But in the New Zealand-owned Lime Tree Café near the beach in Jumeirah where young expatriates from all over the world hang out at the weekends, where the espresso is great and the food like home, the talk is about the Idea of Dubai, and the opportunity it now has to slow its breakneck pace and fill in the gaps – in institution building, in regulation, in content development. And, at night on the Dubai Creek where the sparkling urban skyline frames the life on the water: dhows, wooden trading boats, carrying small cargo from Iran, India, Yemen and North Africa as they’ve been doing since the 1830s when the Maktoum tribe established a free port, and the abras, cheap water taxis, ferrying people back home, and the smell of the shwarmas cooking on stalls on the banks – and you have a sense of what talented people here get excited about, the unique opportunity they have to mix with all races, cultures and religions in an increasingly tolerant cosmopolitan Arab city that is inventing itself.

In July 2002, the rich Arab world’s complacency was shattered when the UN released its first Arab Human Development Report. Written in Arabic by Egyptian statistician Nader Ferany, it described two decades of failed planning and developmental decline and drew humiliating comparisons with the developing world. The report’s main thrust was that poverty and deprivation was about empowerment and literacy at least as much as income, and that the region was way behind global standards of economic, scientific, social and political development. Three hundred and fifty foreign books are translated into Arabic each throughout the Arab world with its population of 330 million – a paltry one fifth of the number of titles translated in Greece, population 11 million. A clear measure, surely, of lack of openness to the rest of the world. Israel was the only country in the region to be on a par with other developed nations. China was doing better on most counts.

The report also showed how threadbare was the much trumpeted tradition of Arab generosity, the oil rich nations having utterly failed to bring on the hinterland and the peoples of its own region. Millions of Arabs are among the world’s poorest, still dependent on foreign aid, in countries where literacy levels and schools are often atrocious and libraries rare.

Since then there have been changes, hopeful signs of a new pattern slowly emerging, serious state-of the-art planning and investment in educational infrastructure at all levels. Philanthropy and volunteerism is being encouraged at last especially among over-privileged and under-occupied rich young people, with Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar leading the way (2). Sharia–compliant micro-financing and the mandatory charitable giving through zakat are unlikely to solve the structural defects that keep the rural poor trapped in their fate so that any substantial alignment of Islam with social justice is surely a long way off – but money is starting to be invested in people as well as real estate.

The Maktoum Foundation’s mission statement is ‘Our region’s success depends on creating an environment conducive to knowledge and providing tomorrow’s leaders with the motivation to build a better future.’ A year ago Sheikh Mohammud, through the foundation announced the establishment of a 10 billion dollar fund for education throughout the Middle East – by all reports, the world’s largest humanitarian investment from a single source. Literacy is the target.

‘Reading is an essential tool towards building knowledgeable and innovative societies,’ said Sheikh Mohammud announcing a programme to encourage reading and to donate books to under-privileged Arab countries. These would include, he said, ‘international literary classics presented in a simplified and attractive manner … to widen the horizon of children and educate them in virtues such as cooperation, tolerance, honesty, integrity, among other typical values of our Arab culture.’ Writing books for children would also be stimulated by a programme of grants for writers across the Arab world encouraging them ‘to contribute to the noble goals and explore this important literary genre’. This is a start and a huge one.

Shopping too is worth another look. The giant malls are centres, refuges from the heat which can rise over 50 degrees, places where people work out early in the morning, where community groups meet and people come for all kinds of entertainment. Each February the DSF Dubai Festival of Shopping draws people from all over the Arab and European world. The slopes of Ski Dubai in the Mall of the Emirates and the Ice Rink in the recently opened Dubai Mall are thronged day and night. So are the gigantic bookshops and themed malls created as sites for education and culture where Emirati school parties can be seen taking notes. Here are meticulous and elaborate recreations of the journeys of the great 13th century traveller, Ibn Battuta, and displays proclaiming the achievements of the Arab countries he passed through – which cannot be dismissed simply because they lack the authority of Western museum culture.

Dubai employs the rhetoric of innovation and creativity constantly, but there is not a lot of beauty yet, or not until you get out into the desert – or so it seemed to me. The light on the rubble from demolitions and road works is harsh, the vast swathes of green anachronistic despite their branding as oases. The city feels like a collection of individual, often spectacular, statements. There are some graceful buildings, others gimmicky and pretentious, and more so dull their designers must blush for the missed opportunity. Dubai’s narrow economic goals have so far defined it.

But the gaps are starting to be filled in – making those connections to the wider world of art and ideas, essential for a truly sustainable modern Arab city. There is an annual film festival, and earlier this year the first internationally marketed contemporary art fair drew artists from around the region and dealers from the West, despite the downturn, contemporary Middle Eastern art having been declared the next big thing. Its curator chose to focus on small venues in Dubai’s tiny historic quarter of old stone houses, and in an industrial area near the airport some political and hard-hitting new work especially from Iraq and Palestine was on display. Not only was Australia playing Pakistan in 20/20 cricket in the enormous new Dubai stadium while I was there but WOMAD was in Abu Dhabi for three days of non-stop free concerts, with singers and bands such as Youssou N’Dour from Senegal, Khaled, the Algerian Rai star, Coldplay, the British rockband, Etran Finatawa from Niger, West Africa and Dhafer Youssef from Tunisia. Both events attracted huge crowds.

Umm Suqeim on the Beach Road, where we are staying with friends, reminds me of Melbourne’s affluent low-lying bayside suburbs in high summer: the light and the silence, the occasional palm tree, the sand and the sea at the end of the street, the city skyline in the distance.

Just before sunset I walk to the public beach through the empty streets. Except for two men polishing a black SUV limo, there is no sign of life from the Emirati compounds behind their huge gates and high walls. But at this time of the evening the public beach is crowded. Family groups with picnics, workers from the neighbourhood, a few maids from the Philippines sitting together, the men playing cards or chess or strolling along past tourists in all stages of undress, Australians in tee-shirts identifying themselves. At last count there were about 15,000 of us living and working in Dubai and dealing with jokes about the lack of surf.

There seem to be few expatriate mothers and school-age children on the beach. Later I am told that early evening is peak hour for mothers who must arrange their day around school programs which start at 7.30 am and are often not finished until after 5. Driving on Dubai’s roads to schools in outer areas can take several hours a day. There is little part time work and their website carries pleas for car pools and playgroups in Fun City. There are fitness programs on women-only days in the parks, and heartfelt advice on how to survive.

On the fine white sand brought in from somewhere else, I sit and watch the young families, grandmothers setting out food, grandfathers smoking nagillas with other grandfathers, the women in black abayas, the men in jeans and tee shirts. A very young baby is being tossed up and down and dangled in the sea by its proud father. The mother, her abaya tucked up, paddles beside him taking photographs.

In the distance there are yachts silhouetted against the rather beautiful billowing shape of the Burj al Arab hotel, and a lone swimmer out beyond the net meant to prevent people being carried away by the currents. The water is warm and waveless and everyone watches as the huge red sun falls into the Arabian Sea.

When I walk back through the dark streets, the local majlis is glowing with neon. The majlis, the place of assembly, where men congregate to exchange views is still a feature of men’s lives in parts of the UAE. Traditionally, anyone from the street could come and sit in the majlis and they would be welcomed, however down at heel, and take part equally in the debates of the day. Through the open door I can see men in white dishdashes lying on divans smoking their nagillas and holding forth.

Our friends’ house is one of eight around a pool with a common garden in a compound rented to foreign nationals, most with young children. It is spacious and cool with marble floors and rugs, filled with books and family treasures from Egypt and Europe. I can hear the music before I open the door.

The boys, just home from school and still in their English-style uniforms, are practising their performance for their father’s birthday party this evening. Adam in a green and yellow Australian Cricket Club cap is playing blues on his saxophone with great feeling. Jo, his young brother, in a Rugby League cap, accompanies him on the piano and makes jokes. They both move effortlessly, sometimes in mid sentence, as do their parents, between Arabic, German and English. Nadia, the youngest, in her swimming costume, head-phones on, is at the kitchen bench making an elaborate birthday card.

The gathering this night includes friends from journalism, finance, education and the law. Some are neighbours from the compound which is shared by families from Mexico, the US, France, Russia, Germany, Malaysia and Iran. At least four languages are spoken at the table and I struggle as always. Most have been in Dubai or other parts of the region for some time and clearly regard themselves as part of the place.

The talk at first is about the downturn. Everyone knows someone who has left or might have to, and there is concern but the consensus here too is that Dubai will emerge stronger, with better institutions, and some long overdue clarification of legal systems. At present there are federal laws, local laws and sharia – and much confusion. The current Guidebook for New Residents gives lengthy practical advice on ‘what to do if you are nicked’. And someone points out that one of the new universities has started offering a degree in Luxury – whatever that might mean.

The Koran was playing in the cab and the driver didn’t look at me or answer when I first gave him directions. Not realising he was praying, I repeated the name of the mall I’d been told to visit. How long had he been in Dubai, I asked. Six years. He is permitted to go home to see his wife and three children in Islamabad every year. He manages to do so every second year. He lives in a room with a cousin and two Pakistani friends so that he can send his family most of his meagre pay. Life is very hard, he said cheerfully, but heaven is waiting, God is good, I am a good man and my children are very clever, my wife is a good woman. My life is very very hard but God is good. I am happy that I am a good man and that I will go to heaven.

Without the consolations of religion life must be hell. 67percent of Dubai’s foreign-born residents are from India and Pakistan. 300,000 of them live in labour camps between the great arcs of the freeways and hidden from sight. Only if you take a wrong turning as we did, and manage to get through a couple of checkpoints, can you see the camps. Our friend tells the armed guards she is lost. They go through the motions of leaning into the car but we are not turned back.

We drive through endless rows of metal huts with washing strung up between them. Some have old air conditioning units, most have satellite dishes and benches out the front. Here live most of the indentured labourers who build and maintain Dubai, men who leave home on the promise of better wages and on payment of an upfront fee to an agent who takes their passports, sends them to labour in the UAE while their health and strength lasts. Once they have paid back their fares, they send home what they can to their impoverished families. Their life expectancy is less than 45 years.

After the damaging report last year of Human Rights Watch, widespread bad publicity in the western media, and some protests of immigrant workers themselves, the men were allowed to form a union. But nothing much has changed. Living conditions have improved a little, overflowing sewerage is ‘being rectified’, and working in the hottest part of the day in summer when temperatures go above fifty degrees is no longer enforceable. But too much hinges on their compliance in their fate. Sending money back home is essential.

A large proportion of the GDPs of many of the poorer countries in the region, including Egypt, depend on these remittances from the Gulf, and governments, more often than not, are complicit in maintaining the status quo while trying to secure larger quotas for their workers. This is a world that works because for the poor there is no other way. It works because it is taken for granted by those who benefit most by it. It works because the hierarchies and inequities are ruthlessly maintained.

All imported labour in the UAE is regulated by labour laws that favour the employer. People can leave their jobs or cancel contracts only if the employer agrees. Domestic servants are utterly dependent on the goodwill and kindness of their employer. Some treat their maids abominably. Others help them, pay hospital bills, teach their children to share the pool with the maid’s kid. Most have left their families behind and send them money and gifts but some husbands and children manage to arrive, living for a time in tiny maids rooms, perhaps regarding themselves, as did the early immigrants to Australia and North America, also fleeing poverty and persecution, as having an opportunity for a new life for their children. Some may even be allowed to paddle in the sea.

Dubai, built on the twin pillars of high living and consumption, is a bellweather for much more than the global recession. The Muslim world is drawing on its own legacies and traditions and substantial moral underpinnings in its race for modernity – playing by its own rules as well as the rules of the globalised West and therein lies its fascination. Worth looking at, it seems to me, and worth remembering that many things get lost in translation.

A young Emirati blogger wrote recently: ‘Our export isn’t oil, it’s hope. Poor Egyptians or Libyans or Iranians or Pakistanis grow up saying ‘I want to go to Dubai… We are showing how to be a modern Muslim state, not an Islamist one.’

The region is on to something.