Dubai – the main city in the emirate of the same name that, with six others, comprises the United Arab Emirates – is remarkable in many ways. It has taken the city just over a century to grow from a population of 10,000 to a population, in 2005, of more than 1,200,000; and that figure is almost double what it was only a decade before. Oil kick-started its prosperity, of course, but now the city has become a major hub in the financial world and it doesn’t do badly out of real estate or tourism either.
Dubai’s name is synonymous with massive and massively-ambitious construction projects, and it’s home to such architectural wonders as the Burj al Arab, a 60-storey, $1000-a-night (minimum) and allegedly ‘seven-star’ hotel that stands on its own artificial island and resembles a cross between a truncated accordion and a sunken G clef; and the crooked needle that is the Burj Khalifa, which supplanted the Taipei 101 as the world’s tallest building in 2010. (Though no doubt billionaires in Beijing, Hong Kong, Rio and Moscow have architects working this very moment on plans to build something even taller, as part of the never-ending global contest of architectural penis envy).
Despite being a Disneyland of corporate deal-making, financing, shopping and building, Dubai has no shortage of critics. Many claim that it isn’t necessarily a nice place to live or work in, especially if you’re not a UAE national or a Western expatriate. Perhaps the most comprehensively damning piece of journalism written about it was a feature called The Dark Side of Dubai, published in Britain’s Independent newspaper in April 2009 (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/johann-hari/the-dark-side-of-dubai-1664368.html), which focused on various groups who have suffered grievously from the city’s culture of rapacious capitalism or otherwise have an axe to grind about it: the legions of Asian construction workers who toil in pitiable conditions and for pitiable wages building the place, the Filipino and Ethiopian maids and nannies working 24 / 7 to look after the children of wealthy Western expats, the environmentalists alarmed that the authorities in one of the most water-stressed parts of the world should be attempting projects like the construction of a giant ski-slope with real snow, and even some Western expats who once flew high there but then fell back to earth with terrifying bumps. (In Dubai, if you go bankrupt and can’t pay your debts, you go to jail. End of story.)
I should say that the feature was written by a journalist called Johann Hari, much of whose work has since been discredited. In 2011 Hari confessed to serial plagiarism, especially with regard to borrowing his interviewees’ quotes from other sources and embellishing them (http://www.economist.com/blogs/bagehot/2011/09/unethical-journalism). However, the other week, I visited Dubai for a couple of days to attend a managerial meeting and I have to say that I saw little to contradict the general thrust of Hari’s article. In particular, his description of the city as ‘a motorway punctuated by shopping centres’ chimed depressingly with my own impressions of it.
I’ve visited some bland spots before, but Dubai was something else. It was the first city I’ve been in where the airport terminal, the hotel I was staying in and everything between and around those two places seemed to constitute a single, uniform entity – as if the city had been replicated endlessly from the same, simple scraps of architectural DNA. It presented a soulless urban landscape of lobbies, malls, overpriced restaurants, personality-free ‘theme’ bars and acres of concrete, asphalt and glass. In fact, I could have spent my couple of days there without leaving the airport and had pretty much the same intellectual and aesthetic experience.
I had some inkling of what to expect, I suppose, as prior to travelling I’d consulted Dubai Time Out’s website and done a little research. In particular, I’d checked the website’s recommendations about the best pubs in the city, since (as readers of this blog will know) I have a tendency to assess cities by the quality of their pubs. On Dubai Time Out’s list of the eight best Dubai pubs, three were Irish chain pubs with names along the lines of Kneecapper O’Shea’s; and three more were English chain pubs with names that sounded like The Radish and Cowpat. When three-quarters of a city’s top pubs are franchise ones pushing tired national stereotypes, I fear that city is in trouble.
As it turned out, I ended up in one of the pubs on the list – the Irish Village – one night when I arranged to meet some ex-colleagues who were in Dubai temporarily, running a training course. Looking at some of the Westerners drinking around us, I had a feeling of déjà vu. Those beefy guys with shaven heads, their muscle beginning to run to fat, their thick necks oozing over the collars of their rugby shirts… Those cackling and rather porky women padding around the premises in flip-flops, their dyed-blonde hair scraped back into ponytails… Where had I seen them before? Eventually, I realised I’d been mentally transported back in time to a typical expat pub in Hong Kong during the 1990s. At the time, Hong Kong was overrun with a type of Westerner that was infamously known as the F.I.L.T.H. – an acronym for Failed In London, Try Hong-Kong. Yes, like Hong Kong twenty years ago, Dubai gave me the impression that, no matter how mediocre your talents, if you possessed the right passport, the right skin-colour and the right connections, you could make very large sums of money indeed for yourself.
On another occasion, somebody I was drinking with made the point that no matter how bland or materialist it was, Dubai was at least ‘a great place to bring up kids in’. Well, no doubt. When your kids are toddlers, you can give them to that hard-pressed but underpaid Filipino or Ethiopian nanny to look after. And when your kids reach teenager-hood, you can release them into the shopping malls, where they’ll spend many contented hours shambling around like the zombies in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.
When surveying the concrete, asphalt, glass and logo-laden façade of Dubai, I did occasionally feel a moment where good, old-fashioned humanity seemed to break through. Mostly, those moments came courtesy of the city’s army of Indian workers, who lubricate the giant cogs of the city’s economy by manning the reception desks, carrying the luggage, driving the taxis and so on. On my first evening, the hotel bar was for a time packed with Indian cricket fans cheering their country on in a televised cricket game against Pakistan. The bar’s atmosphere was as noisy and raucous as anything I’ve ever experienced during a football match. And I observed a nice detail on the morning of my departure, barely after the crack of dawn, while I was being driven to the airport – a handful of Indian guys could be seen getting in some cricketing practice on a grassy square by the roadside, surrounded on its three other sides by hulking concrete buildings. In another hour, I imagined, they’d be starting their daily shifts as receptionists, concierges or drivers.
I’m reluctant to damn a city on the strength of having been there for a very short time. I’ll always remember what American writer Paul Theroux said in his travel book The Kingdom by the Sea about the city of Aberdeen, which he visited for a couple of days but which I lived in, generally very happily, for five years of my life. Theroux did not enjoy his visit – he was especially nonplussed about being denied entrance to a country-and-western night at the Happy Valley nightclub because he was wearing jeans. (“I could be Willie Nelson for all you know!” Theroux protested. “Ye’re no Willie Nelson,” replied the Happy Valley’s bouncer. “Now piss off.”) Thereafter, he wrote that “the average Aberdonian is someone who would gladly pick a halfpenny out of a dunghill with his teeth.” And that, I thought, was a damning statement based on wildly insufficient evidence. Two or three days are not enough time to make an accurate assessment of an entire city, write it up and stick it in a book.
With Dubai, however, I felt that the place was not endowed with shades or tones, depths or details, nuances or stories, which required a visitor to do months of research before he or she could describe the place accurately. What you immediately saw was pretty much what you got – and I didn’t like most of what I saw. (My apologies to Dubai-lovers if I have got anything wrong or have missed anything out. Feel free to email and correct me.)
It wasn’t until I was in Dubai Airport again, about to leave, that I saw something that reminded me I had a camera with me and inspired me for the first time during my visit to take a photograph. It was a creepy life-sized hologram-lady instructing travellers on how to prepare themselves as they approached the passport desks and security checks. An elegantly dressed and groomed lady instructing you on what to do in impeccably polite English – but a lady with a disturbing aura of unreality about her, a lady whom, when you looked at her up-close, you discovered to be artificial and two-dimensional. Yes, she seemed to symbolise Dubai perfectly.
So now I’m back in Tunis, with its leaky buildings, smelly drains, feral cats, King Kong-sized cockroaches, bags of uncollected rubbish and grumpy old guys sitting smoking shishas and cluttering up the pavements. It feels wonderful to be someplace human again.