A Space Station Called Dubai

I have come to think of Dubai as a space station: a place-less city in the middle of nowhere whose semblances of community, culture and soul are imported at great expense from elsewhere. The malls, bars and restaurants are of high enough quality to give the illusion of location, but the heart feels far away from earth.

Michael Slackman put it perfectly in this excellent Times article from today: “Dubai has been built along roadways, 6, 12, 14 lanes wide. There was no central urban planning and the result is a city of oases, each divided from the other by lanes of traffic. The physical distance between people is matched by the distance between nationalities. Dubai has everything money can buy, but it does not have a unifying culture or identity. The only common thread is ambition.”

One of the reason’s Slackman’s article is great is that it shows the positive side of Dubai from an Arab perspective: finally, there is a place where young Arab men can get paid, and their ability to work is respected. That’s a good thing. The dynamics Slackman describes are exactly those I observed talking to Palestinians who are now working in Dubai, having left the various countries of their diaspora. I was happy to see some of my friends finally getting paid like they deserve to be.

On the other hand, Dubai is a major destination for human traffickers, and the situation of the indentured South Asians of the labor camps is none too encouraging. Neither are the relationships between Western or richer foreigners, Arabs and South Asians. From what I observed in a brief four days, these groups didn’t mix a whole lot, and the comments tossed around by some Arabs about South Asians are hard to swallow. The men-to-women ratio is out of control. (An omission of Slackman’s article is an explanation of why he only interviewed men.) There’s a lot lurking below the surface.

That’s why I see the positive sides of Dubai not so much as a triumph of that bizarre, binging city, but more as a reflection of just how bad things are in the rest of the Arab world. There are no good reasons why the same opportunities cannot exist, in their appopriate contexts, in places less artificial than Dubai. What’s more, Dubai cannot sustain the whole region indefinitely.

Anyway, the story of Dubai is still unfolding, and I don’t think anyone knows what the phenomenon really means yet. Glad to see good reporting on it.

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