Tintin story or real life? Escape from Dubai

Andrew Higgins’s story yesterday in the Washington Post about Herve Jaubert’s escape from Dubai reads like something out of a Tintin comic: mysterious international wealthy people, treacherous sheikhs, PG-13 violence. Jaubert’s story is offered as an example of the growing number of rich Dubai expats who are running into trouble with the country’s police over business crimes. After their investments with his company went sour, Dubai authorities apparently accused Jaubert — “a French spy who left espionage to make leisure submarines for the wealthy” — of embezzlement. They allegedly threatened him with torture (Jaubert recorded the conversation on his cell phone) and confiscated his passport. So Jaubert decided to escape. He donned an all-black diving outfit, snuck out to the bay in the dead of night disguised in an abaya, swam to and disabled a police patrol boat, rode a rubber dinghy to a sailboat where a friend waited, and sailed to India.

Tell me that doesn’t sound like a plot from Tintin and the Golden Dhow. I mean, how many times have Thomson and Thompson, Professor Calculus or Tintin himself used an abaya as a disguise? And take a look at the lead shot of Jaubert. He looks like he could be a colleague of Rastapopoulos. Continue reading

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.

Dubai to Beirut

I just got into Beirut and I’m really happy to be here. It helps that I spent all of my last day in Dubai (Sunday) in traffic and scouring megamalls in 113 degree heat for “Canadian cigarettes,” which a guy here in Lebanon had asked me to try and pick up. No luck.

The Palestinian-Syrian guys i was hanging out with are living large in Dubai, notwithstanding their residence in the neighborhood they refer to as “Karachi”, a rundown Pakistani area where my friends sleep three to a room. Rent is astronomically expensive in Dubai, but goods and services are cheap. They have enough money to go out and watch Euro Cup games, and I have to say that despite the fact I find Dubai totally distasteful, I am happy to see these guys finally relaxed. They have lived in a refugee camp with something of a refugee camp mentality for their whole lives, and it was nice to see them puffing sheeshas at a seaside Lebanese restaurant called Shu, watching the football game and feeling carefree. These friends were unbelievably hospitable to me the whole time and I barely had to spend any money.

But other than that… whew, Dubai is a crazy place. And not really a pleasant one. (The fact that I got strip searched on arrival for no reason at all does not, of course, help its image!)

The emirate is a hectic menagerie of half-inhabited skyscrapers barely visible in a sky choked with desert sand and Gulf humidity. It is definitely among the most bizarre places I have ever seen. Pakistani and Filipino workers — along with everyone else — are walking around in the heat with a kind of dazed look on their faces. To call it soulless would not be an exaggeration. All the communities there appear haphazard, temporary and recent. It’s a money pot, but not much more.

So it is great to be back in Beirut. It feels like a homecoming. Everything is familiar — the big trees, the humid but not suffocating Mediterranean air, the bars with their neon signs in narrow streets, with the shadow of mountains looming behind them. At moments, it feels like it was only yesterday I was last here (it was October 2006). At others, I simply feel it has been far too long. I’m anxious to experience this region with Beirut as a door to understanding it rather than Damascus.