Against a desert skyline that has erupted in just two decades, Dubai is a cautionary tale about what money can’t buy; a culture. After gorging on the Viagra of easy credit, the emirate has the world’s tallest building, the world’s most expensive racetrack and a financial crisis to boot. Whilst Western mercenaries and Asian emperors maintain their gaudy appearances, the legacy of oil in Dubai has made everything worthless and the disorientated local population completely impervious to any sense of economic reality.
The only way to make sense of Dubai is to never forget that it isn’t real. It’s more comparable to a fable; the Arabian Nights, for instance. Dubai is Las Vegas without the showgirls, the gambling or Elvis. It’s a financial Disneyland devoid of fun. It’s a holiday resort with the worst climate in the world; it boils, it’s humid and the wind is made of sand. The echoing marble halls of the airport are big enough to accommodate the population of Lithuania. Dubai suffers from chronic giganticism – a national inferiority complex that compulsively has to make everything the biggest.
Outside, in the sodden heat, you pass hundreds and hundreds of regimented palm trees and you wonder who waters them and with what. The skyline, in a dusty haze, looks like the cover of a dystopian science-fiction novel. I think Dubai thought it was going to grow up to be the Arab Singapore – a commercial, banking and insurance service port on the Gulf with hospitality and footballers’ time-shares; an oasis of R&R for the financially well endowed. Unfortunately, that hasn’t quite worked out and now the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa – simply represents a naked exclamation of Dubai’s fiscal embarrassment.
To say Dubai was built very fast is a colossal understatement. The plan was money, the architect was money and the designer and the builder were all money. If you ever wondered what money would look like if left to it’s own devices, take a look at Dubai.
To be eligible for citizenship in Dubai, consumer spending is a prerequisite – so be sure to visit one of the countless shopping centers that look like the airports of lesser countries or Egyptian tombs, before you apply for your life-long visa. Dubai has been mugged of its own greed. It’s consumer economy is being maintained by oil-rich families to whom depressions, booms, lottery wins and recessions mean little. Riches and wealth are relative terms, but not ones we’re related to. There is an indoor ski mountain, probably the biggest indoor ski mountain in a desert (BYO fur and moon boots for all future travelers) where the boys slide down the hill with practiced arrogance, whilst the girls slither through manufactured snow.
Twenty years ago, none of this existed. Dubai was the home of pastoralist tented families herding goats and racing camels. Back then, there was only a handful of greasy, armed, empire mechanics in khaki shorts, drilling for oil. In just one generation, Dubai has gone from sitting on a rug to reclining on a leather banana lounge 100 stories up and not a single local has had to lift a finger to make it happen. That’s not quite fair – of course they’ve lifted a finger; to call the waiter, to berate the busboy. The money seeped out of the ground and they spent it. Pretty much all of it. You look at Dubai and you realize not a single thing is indigenous, not one of the culture’s goods originated there. Even the goats have gone. This was a civilization that was bought wholesale.
Those who remain of the indigenous population are born retired. They’re out of place in their own country. They have imported and built a city, a fortress of extravagance, that excludes themselves, literally. The Gulf Arabs have become the minority, totaling less than 20% of the overall population. The other 80% is spilt between: white mercenary workers/sycophants for cash, who come to Dubai for tax-free salaries to do entrepreneurial jobs, and Asians: who function as both the slaves of capital and the heroes of labour. Asians man the hotels; they run the civil service and the utilities and commercial businesses; they are the clerks and the secretaries, the lawyers, the doctors, the accountants.
The Arabs live in their own ghettos, large, dull containments of big houses that are half garage behind security walls, weighed down with satellite dishes. To add to the volcanic pile of problems in Dubai, there is also the growing and unspoken dilemma of the indigenous youth. Fat, and spoiled beyond reason, they are titanically rude. They have reportedly taken to forming slovenly gangs that have been responsible for random attacks on foreign workers and women simply for the computer-game fun of it. This is a generation of kids who expect to never seriously work – but do expect secure jobs.
Dubai is the parable of what money makes when it has no purpose but its own multiplication and grandeur; when the culture that holds it is too frail to contain it.