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.
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.
Dubai has two skylines (this is just one of them) and they are dotted – no, filled – with cranes building them bigger and higher.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.]
: Later: Here’s Ethan Zuckerman’s account of his time in Dubai.