[FoRK] On Dubai

Simon Wistow simon at thegestalt.org
Wed Feb 18 10:05:56 PST 2009

My God, an actual civilised debate in blog comments. Pigs are 
flying, Skies are falling, Lions laying down with Lambs etc etc


the good bits are between tom_s and admin:

Short of opening a Radio Shack in an Amish town, Dubai is the world’s 
worst business idea, and there isn’t even any oil. Imagine proposing to 
build Vegas in a place where sex and drugs and rock and roll are an 
anathema. This is effectively the proposition that created Dubai - it 
was a stupid idea before the crash, and now it is dangerous.

Dubai threatens to become an instant ruin, an emblematic hybrid of the 
worst of both the West and the Middle-East and a dangerous totem for 
those who would mistakenly interpret this as the de facto product of a 
secular driven culture.

The opening shot of this clip shows 200 skyscrapers that were built in 
the last 5 years. It looks like Manhattan except that it isn’t the place 
that made Mingus or Van Allen or Kerouac or Wolfe or Warhol or Reed or 
Bernstein or any one of the 1001 other cultural icons from Bob Dylan to 
Dylan Thomas that form the core spirit of what is needed, in the absence 
of extreme toleration of vice, to infuse such edifices with purpose and 
create a self-sustaining culture that will prevent them crumbling into 
the empty desert that surrounds them.

Dubai is a place for the shallow and fickle. Tabloid celebrities and 
worn out sports stars are sponsored by swollen faced, botox injected, 
perma-tanned European property developers to encourage the type of 
people who are impressed by fame itself, rather than what originated it, 
to inhabit pastiche Mediterranean villas on fake islands. Its a 
grotesquely leveraged version of time-share where people are sold a life 
in the same way as being peddled a set of steak knives. Funny shaped 
towers smatter empty neighborhoods, based on designs with unsubtle, 
eye-catching envelopes but bland floor plans and churned out by the 
dozen by anonymous minions in brand name architects offices and signed 
by the boss, unseen, as they fly through the door. This architecture, a 
three dimensional solidified version of a synthesized musical jingle, 
consists of ever more preposterous gimmickry - an underwater, revolving, 
white leather fuck pad or a marina skyscraper with a product placement 
name that would normally only appeal to teenage boys, such as the 
preposterous Michael Schumacher World Champion Tower.

But if there is one problem with the shallow and the fickle, its that 
they are shallow and fickle, they won’t put down deep roots and they 
won’t remain loyal to Dubai. The people who appear in People magazine 
need to be told what is cool by Wallpaper magazine who in turn will 
discover something after the hipsters have moved on. The problem is that 
Dubai was never hipster-cool and is no longer Wallpaper-cool. This 
realization will have the same impact as suburbanite bachelorette party 
in a Wallpaper-cool nightclub. It will spread like the sighting of a 
floating turd in a public pool, flushing people to the exits with silent 
panic, unacknowledged for fear of embarrassment.

As people scramble for the exits in Dubai, there is no ‘key mail’, like 
in America, where people can often mail back their house keys and walk 
away from a mortgage without the immediate threat of jail. People are 
literally fleeing this place, to date leaving 3000 cars stranded at the 
airport with keys still in the ignition. And the reason for this is that 
if you default on your Dubai mortgage, you can end up in a debtors 
prison. Perhaps Dubai will at least create a new Dickens?

Nice rant - but way off the mark. Here’s the point: Dubai is not a 
“business idea” - it;s a real place full of real people. The reason it 
is as it is is precisely BECAUSE there is no oil. If Dubai had unlimited 
oil it could sit back and be Saudi Arabia. Instead, it has successfully 
diversified away from oil in a daring and existentially vital bid to get 
to a point where they don;t rely on oil revenues at all. As a result, it 
has developed a western-style economy which is totally screwed now in 
the same way as credit-card economies like the US/UK etc.

There’s plenty of vice in Dubai, even if it is rather charmless (as I 
imagine it is in Vegas). Every hotel has a bar full of 
Chinese/Djiboutian/Ukranian hookers, while the Moroccans, Syrians and 
Iranians are preferred by the rich Arabs and so have a higher status. 
There is also plenty of booze (although not much harder drugs). The key 
to understanding the place is to read between the lines rather than 
taking the letter of the law. The code of conduct is basically “do what 
you want - anything at all - but just don’t shout about it”. There are 
rules about what you do in public, but what you do in the privacy of 
your own home is between you and your conscience.

While westerners are pretty visible in Dubai and tend to be the main 
preoccupation of other westerners abroad (like the writer of this blog), 
Dubai is in fact vital for millions of other people in a region of 
pathetically badly-run countries. It offers jobs and opportunity to 
Arabs from economic basket cases like Egypt, Syria and the Occupied 
Palestinian Territories as well as loads of Indians and Pakistanis and 
an investment environment which, while incredibly opaque, is far less 
risky than home - places like Iraq, Iran, Uzbekistan or Ukraine. The 
place is also a vital node on the global transport map between Europe 
and Asia. Westerners may well leave, especially if the place introduces 
tax, but that doesn’t mean Dubai is dead. Far from it.

Dubai may not boast Parisian sophistication, and its own hubris has set 
it up as a target for opprobrium now things aren’t going so well, but I 
am still getting quite sick of all this nasty schadenfreude by western 
journalists who show up in Dubai, do an open-top bus tour for a couple 
of hours, and sneer that the place is a shithole and a “bad business 
idea”. It is not charming, but it has broken the pervasive Arab taboo of 
not achieving anything at all and for that it deserves recognition. And 
I can’t help feeling that it is exactly that that makes some foreign 
commentators uncomfortable.

@Tom This is the coherent rebuttal I was hoping for so it allows me to 
justify why I used such strong language.

“Dubai is not a business idea.”

No town is ‘a business idea’ its a metaphor, but I would argue that the 
way in which Dubai has been created from nothing on the back of injected 
capital and developers schemes makes the entire place look closer to a 
‘business idea’ than anywhere on earth.

There are four major models for successful cities: cultural/tourist 
destinations (Rome); industrial production (19th C Manchester and many 
places in China that nobody has heard of); control over natural 
resources (Riyadh); trade/banking (Antwerp).

Most of the world’s most successful cities score on several of these 
measures: London, New York, Shanghai. Dubai has little or no industrial 
production (other than building itself), control over natural reources 
(no oil), or trade (again the goods flowing in tend to be for local 
consumption). It has some nascent banking but it is opaque and possibly 

That leaves Dubai as a cultural/tourist destination. It had a book 
festival recently, but one entry was banned because it dealt with gay 
subject matter, the future of a tennis tournament is in disarray after 
an argument about a visa denied to an Israeli player. More importantly 
these are manufactured cultural events rather than the showcasing of 
homegrown talent. What books movies, plays or fine art can you name that 
have come from Dubai?

You might say that I left architecture off this list and that Dubai has 
many examples of world class architecture. Well, I am an architect, I 
used to work for the firms that have lauded buildings here, and I know 
that many of them were not designed by the people whose names are 
attached to them. These were buildings done in a hurry, for profit, and 
to cash in on a boom. If they were Picassos, the term would be fake.

“it has broken the pervasive Arab taboo of not achieving anything at all 
and for that it deserves recognition.”

For centuries Arabs, and more generally Muslims dominated global culture 
with achievements in both arts and sciences. My own area of Arab 
interest is architecture. I used to live in Saudi Arabia, my university 
thesis was on Islamic architecture, I can think of no greater works of 
cultural significance from Granada to Cordoba to traditional Baghdad 
courtyard houses to Qairouan and Shahjahanabad Delhi from Arab to 
Persian to Mughal. The architecture of Dubai represents something very 
different, transient and soulless.

“There’s plenty of vice in Dubai…The key to understanding the place is 
to read between the lines rather than taking the letter of the law.”

This above all, stemming from a culture where historically the letter of 
the law is everything (you do not read between the lines of the Quran), 
sounds like a recipe for disaster. If a prized Moroccan beauty is flown 
in on a private jet to be quietly sodomized (this is a real account I am 
referring to) in a five star hotel by someone who would be jailed for 
the offense if it were indiscrete, then eventually indiscretion will get 
the better of him. In Vegas this would be legal, wrong but legal. What 
happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, what happens in Dubai never happened.

A culture of hypocrisy is fragile. If the Sauds were ever to cede to the 
Wahabists in a popular uprising in Arabia, Dubai would more likely be 
held as an example of failed Western decadence than Middle Eastern 
refusal to fully adopt liberal culture. Gay literature wouldn’t suddenly 
become acceptable and liquor selling would be stopped.

Dubai is a halfway experiment, its failure will mean retrenchment rather 
than completion.

“it has developed a western-style economy which is totally screwed now 
in the same way as credit-card economies like the US/UK etc”

There are companies that were bad companies that are able to blame 
layoffs on the recession. Similarly just because the recession was the 
catalyst for Dubai’s imminent problems does not mean to say that it 
wasn’t a bubble waiting to burst. I would say the same things about 

On one point I agree, “I am still getting quite sick of all this nasty 
schadenfreude by western journalists”.

My schadenfreude about Dubai is equally premised on Dubai being an 
example of decadent consumption of the type associated with the West.

I can equally imagine the schadenfreude of conservative Islamic clerics 
if Dubai fails. People who hate the Middle East and people who hate the 
West are idiots, but there is plenty of grist for their mill in Dubai.

@admin Just a couple of things. Dubai is actually all about trade and 
its people are merchant types. Pre-oil, it was a minor trading port. Its 
trade links with and exposure to people from Iran, India and east Africa 
are what has made locals broadly more chilled out and accepting of 
differences between cultures than the Wahhabis of Saudi. This is 
crucial. What you call a “culture of hyprocrisy” is seen by Emiratis as 
being “Tassameh”, loosely translated as tolerance. I was interviewing a 
local Sheikha and she explained it thus:

“Tassameh means forgiving and taking your relationship with anyone else 
like you do with your family. If you have a dispute you overcome it 
based on the idea that the relationship matters more than any 
differences between you. Tassameh means overcoming and respecting 

“Why would we do that? The UAE is a small society, very rich and has a 
small population. We need the contribution of people who live here and 
we are grateful for it. The UAE has become a global player thanks to the 
contribution of all of us together. People who come from abroad don;t do 
so because they are doing some kind of spiritual and charity work for 

Tradewise, you will note that Dubai Ports (DP World) is the biggest 
ports operator in the world (it would run US ports if Americans weren;t 
so skittish about Arabs running anything American) and Emirates and 
Etihad are among the world’s top airlines. These are big and successful 
companies based on trade and transport. A huge amount of goods passes 
through the UAE and the place is full of import/export companies.

Inexplicably, Dubai has done well out of tourism (Brits just want sun). 
Culturewise, it wants to put itself on the map with big events and it 
has indeed run up against a nasty hurdle with the Israeli tennis player. 
The UAE doesn;t do politics (unlike Qatar, which has balls). I think it 
is terrified of politics precisely because it has a delicate balance to 
maintain among all the constituencies making up its population - which 
includes a few bin Laden-supporting nutters. But in essence it doesn;t 
have a big problem with Israel and as soon as the Arab world recognises 
Israel it will too. Until then it has a problem because its laws state 
quite clearly that Israelis cannot travel there. Israelis can go there 
on non-Israeli passports, but a person actually representing israel 
presents a knotty problem. I think this must be true because if it were 
not so, then the Israeli diamond magnate and West Bank settlement 
supporter and builder Lev Leviev would not be allowed to sell his 
diamonds in Dubai. However, other cultural and particularly sporting 
events are going well (until Israel starts producing decent golfers, 
jockeys, rugby players and racing drivers, anyway…)

Dubai architecture - I don;t really like it, to be honest, although I 
think the Emirates Towers on Sheikh Zayed Road are terrific.

I don;t say that the Arabs have never contributed anything to the world, 
I just mean that in modern times, some aspects of the Arab world appear 
to have been in decline. Dubai has really provided an alternative to 
that and its aims to become a global sporting and cultural hub are in 
part an attempt not just to put itself on the map, but to put the Arab 
world back on the map too.

“What books movies, plays or fine art can you name that have come from 
Dubai?” - give the place a chance, man! It has only been a country for 
40 years and already you;re wondering where the Emirati Shakespeare is? 
But things are changing and there are the seeds of an independent 
art/design/film/music scene here. See 
http://www.blueprintmagazine.co.uk/?p=720 for a different perspective.

You say: “This above all, stemming from a culture where historically the 
letter of the law is everything (you do not read between the lines of 
the Quran), sounds like a recipe for disaster” - it sounds like you 
think Dubai is Saudi Arabia. It is not. No. See above - the UAE is all 
about balancing disparate needs. Its legal system is what it is to 
appease sharia-loving traditionalists.

“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, what happens in Dubai never 
happened.” So what? Dubai is not Vegas, either.

Look - I have no great love for Dubai and the UAE, but I think Dubai in 
particular deserves to be recognised for what it has achieved, which is 
much. If it was like Saudi I wouldn;t be here.

@tom I’m not sure what to say, that is the best argued attack I have 
ever read on this site, and I’ll have to concede that most of what you 
say is correct.

As you say, Dubai has to straddle a fine line, it is about balance and 
like everything in life the truth about Dubai’s long term viability 
probably lies somewhere in the middle.

But I would still argue that much of what is currently happening in the 
world is a correction due to imbalance and nowhere represented this more 
than Dubai. If it can achieve a more measured development then I think 
it will survive but it will represent something different from indoor 
ski slopes on Arabian sand and hotels with extra stars like the volume 
control that goes up to 11 in Spinal Tap.

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