Where is Dubai?

It’s ridiculous to think that in four days I could get a true sense of a nation or region I’ve never been to before. I think I could spend 40 years in this desert and not figure it out.

I’ve never seen a clearer case of there being no there there than here. When you come to Dubai, you can’t help looking for the real Dubai. That’s because everything around you is extravagantly made up.

I stayed in the opulent Jumeirah resort complex that is so lavishly designed that one wag said even the sea looked fictional. Out of my balcony, I stared at the fabled Burj Al Arab hotel, which looks like a sail on the ocean and is boldly beautiful on the outside.

burj1

But on the inside, I expected to see the Little Mermaid hopping out of the fountain.

Lore has it that when the hotel opened its design was minimalist, but when the ruling sheikh saw it, he asked when it would be finished. Out came Disney shades of pink and blue by the barrel and enough gold leaf to rescue Iceland’s economy.

With a newfound friend from the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Councils – the reason we were here – I went up to the bar atop the Burg and we passed on what was proudly advertised as the world’s most expensive drink as we gaped at the next world’s tallest skyscraper, an incredibly huge glass stalactite, and at the palm islands being built and built upon on the water.

palmisland

Dubai has two skylines (this is just one of them) and they are dotted – no, filled – with cranes building them bigger and higher.

skyline1

In an effort to show us the real Arabia, the government of Dubai (which paid for the conference as well as my travel and that of many or most participants) and a local developer bussed us with police escort an hour out into the desert past vast stretches of nothingness – I have seen the middle of nowhere – with gargantuan construction sites running in full gear in the cooler night.

We arrived, almost randomly, at the ruins of a fort (I wonder what it was defending) laid out with carpets and catering and camels (who were not happy) and young boys twirling guns (“al Qaeda in training,” one Brit wagged). We still had not arrived at the real Dubai.

The day before, looking for Dubai, I’d made the mistake of going to the Mall of the Emirates with its hundreds of stores and infamous indoor ski slope, just because it was so over the top. But I came away depressed because it was only an extreme extension of the malling of the world that I lament (and wonder whether whether eBay and Etsy can cure) in my book. All our stuff is now the same.

I suppose we should be flattered and relieved that a nation – especially an Arab nation, no? – chose to copy so much of America. But why did they chose as their inspiration Vegas (sans sins), malls, grossly conspicuous consumption, and Hollywood pap? I wasn’t sure whether I was sadder for them or us.

So I went looking for old Dubai downtown. But before I went there, a local told me that what I was more likely to see was old Bombay. True, but I did feel better riding the boats across the canal and shopping in the souks.

souk3

Ethan Zuckerman, who was on our World Economic Forum team and who I’d want to travel the world with, passive aggressively steered us all into a “pure vegetarian” restaurant called the Evergreen and expertly ordered up a feast for six that cost 25 percent less than a drink at the Burg. And we had a very nice chat with the Indian owner.

veg

The essence of Dubai, it turns out, is that it’s not Dubai at all. In the United Arab Emirates of which Dubai is a part, 85 percent of the residents and workers are foreigners – from construction workers to hotel staff who washed the stone outside every morning as I jogged past (labor is that cheap here) to young journalists to bankers – who will never have the rights of citizenship. The vast majority of the population does not speak Arabic. There are a half-dozen thriving newspapers in English (odd sight these days); that is the lingua franca. So the economy is imported.

Having said all that, Dubai is an amazing accomplishment of its monarch, who is always but always referred to in the newspapers as His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. One day, a page-one, over-the-fold story said the Sheikh had been honored by a foreign leader for being good to horses. It reminded me of reading about the DDR’s leader in East Berlin’s papers in 1981. The Sheikh’s photo, always looking stern, adorns most shops in the old city (you can buy lots of sheikh schwag there: sports medals, paper crowns and hats, wrist bands, and even paper eyeglasses with his picture).

sheikh schwag

sheikhspecs

With my fellow members of the internet Global Agenda Council, I got to meet the Sheikh in a private audience. The greatest moment of the meeting and the entire trip: Dave Sifry greeting the sheikh: “Hi, Your Highness.” His posse cracked a grin. We tried hard not to.

Ethan Zuckerman eloquently and respectfully raised the issue of Dubai’s censorship online. When you try to go to any of many sites here, you get a page with a link that lists in cold clarity the forbidden zones: sex, crime, terrorism, and certain top-level domains (one of which happens to be from the land that doesn’t exist here, .il). As he will in an essay he wrote coming out of the WEF (which I’ll link to shortly), Ethan talked about the feedback loop the internet provides and how it loses value and returns false results when it is restricted.

I asked the Sheikh about the free-zone Media City and Internet City he built to attract those industries and the university adjuncts they are creating in the UAE with many American and European institutions. One of his aides explained that in 1971, when the government was formed, Dubai had one high school, no university, and only 45 university graduates. Today it is educating 90-odd percent even of its women in college.

Sheikh of Dubai

Dubai has built a huge economy and it is still building feverishly. At the summit, a frequent topic of conversation was Dubai’s fate in the credit crisis as construction of gigantic complexes stretch as far as the eye can see across the flat sands. At the closing of the meetings, our cohost, the head of a giant construction company and member of the ruling government, told the group with a charming smile that Dubai’s just fine and has seven quarters of run room on serving the debt. More than one media executive said afterward that somebody should have stopped him from protesting too much. The next day, the headline in the paper was about panic selling of real-estate stocks here.

I spoke with media people who live here and love or like it. One is an executive who left Paris and finds business here faster and freer. Another is a young reporter who, apart from “extortionate rents” (but in a complex with a pool she wouldn’t get elsewhere), is getting great experience (I see an opportunity for my journalism students). Another is an old hand who speaks Arabic and has been here for 15 years and wouldn’t leave.

In an email, friend Fred Wilson – who went trolling for new companies in Slovenia this summer – asked about the place. The reason to consider Dubai, I think, would be as an offshore base to start a company. There are obvious tax advantages. For a certain sort of person, the lifestyle could be desirable: lots of shopping, Lord knows; plenty of American food (Fridays and food courts!); a great tax situation; no winter; and a beach that looks as if it, too, were imported.

Dubai is either an act of fiction or of the future. I arrived thinking the former; I leave wondering whether it could be the latter. In a sense, what we see here is a real-life model of the virtual world we are creating online, crossing borders and cultures and linking in whatever’s needed to make money: capital, cheaper labor, imported expertise and education, infrastructure. Except online, we are all citizens of the internet.

I’ll probably go back next year for the next WEF GAC summit and I’m sure I’ll still be looking for the real Dubai, getting in a car to find a real town and a real souk, finding someone who can explain the place to me. I’m not sure I’ll ever find it.

[Disclosure: To repeat, the Dubai government paid for the summit, for my travel, and for that of many or most participants as its sole sponsor.]

boat3

: Later: Here’s Ethan Zuckerman’s account of his time in Dubai.

  • http://www.greenresearch.com David Schatsky

    Thanks for the report. I appreciate the fiction/future dilemma. I sincerely hope it’s fiction. The Vegasization of the world is not something I could handle well. It’s ostentatiously unsustainable and soulless. To my tastes, anyway. And if I’m in the minority, and mankind makes itself very much at home in such environments? Then I will be rendered an alien on my home planet.

  • http://www.johnpadams.com JP Adams

    I wonder what pockets of culture have emerged because of the diverse foreign population. In some ways it reminds me of Chicago during the World’s Fair at the turn of the century. With additional time and some alley strolling I wouldn’t be surprised if you could stumble into some genuine (and possibly new) cultures. Maybe a good day trip on your next visit.

  • http://www.dubaiconsultancy.ae Kenneth L. Wise

    Nothing in your report makes me want to quarrel. As a three-year US resident in Dubai I also find your fiction v future question relevant. You capture the poignancy of this place. On your next visit try a spin through Hatta, or villages in Ras al Khaimah, or Liwa on the edge of the empty quarter in Abu Dhabi. After such drives you will still have your question. Perhaps the reason is that we are trying to see in a place about 40 years old what we see in Europe that is 100s of years old and in the US at least 150 years old in most places. We are looking at Bedouin tribes who are using their abilities to “read sand and stars” and find their way in endless desert to navigate in concrete jungles buzzing with electronic wizardry. Believe me, they are feeling as unsure as you are, and perhaps more so. http://www.watani.ae is trying to find and revere “the old” but they struggle too.

  • http://www.gavinsblog.com Gavin

    As Kenneth says, try one of the other emirates.

    The ‘real’ Dubai is in fact the ‘fake’ Dubai. I first visited there in 2001, and it is even more fake now than it was then.

    Still a nice place to visit though. Do you plan to drop in to Mr Newland at The National in Abu Dhabi?

  • http://seekingalpha.com Mick Weinstein

    Jeff, this is wonderful – thank you. I just wish you stopped off here in Israel on the way back… but I suppose your sponsors may not have endorsed that :/

  • http://www.myagito.com maximo

    You’re the typical American provincial academic who gets a teaching post by virtue of specialization! But when it comes to analyzing the world you resort to the obvious cliches.

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  • http://dubaidreams.net Lbug

    It’s all a beautiful mirage.

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  • Rohan Venkat

    That’s awesome that you got to meet the Sheikh. For all we say about Dubai (it’s the Las Vegas of the MIddle East), and the fact that the Emiratis are overwhelmingly moving to Abu Dhabi, he’s made it a model that all other small rich Gulf nations (including Qatar, where I’ve lived my entire life) are trying to emulate (With less flashiness and sometimes, as with Doha, more priority for sports and education, over tourists).

    You have to really see Ras Al Khaimah and Al Ain to see what Dubai was, but even out there it’s hard to explain how this was different even 10 years ago (most importantly, it didn’t take 4 hours to get from Sharjah to Dubai)

  • http://www..sixtysecondview.com David Brain

    My guide, when I went into the Burj Hotel, described it as being a bit like how he imagined “the inside of Elton John’s handbag” to look.

  • tom

    How happy that you survived 9/11 to live to have such adventures!

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  • http://www.skyscraperarchive.com/forums Skyscraper

    Dubai is an amazing place.
    The Burj Dubai the worlds tallest building will top out next week at 818 meters.
    An achivement for mankind.

  • http://www.greenfin.ae Green Fin Solutions

    just think back how was dubai 30-40 years ago? OMG! i dont understand how could it grow so fast? Due to the financial crunch its charm is affected a lot, but i wish it gets its charm back soon. ALL THE BEST DUBAI

  • http://www.dubaiasitusedtobe.com Mealone

    If you want to see how Dubai really used to be then have a look at dubaiasitusedtobe.com

  • http://www.wallstreetfrontier.com/ Michael L. Weiss

    I would agree that: The ‘real’ Dubai is in fact the ‘fake’ Dubai.
    However, i think Dubai would be a great place to visit.

  • sam

    Top Escorts models in Dubai
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