“Let’s take a trip to Dubai” – Timbaland

This is my last weekend here and, since work seems to be in order and the thought of spending another night in a club paying $15 for a weak cocktail surrounded by bootleg Paris Hiltons & Shilpa Shettys makes me want to cry, I can finally make a real post. Eventually I’d like to write an article of some kind about the city, so I’ll try to use this push that along a little. Ok, let’s go…

According to a billboard I passed yesterday, “Dubai is on the move!” No arguing that. In the space of two or three decades, it has transformed itself from a minor trading post into what many now consider the capital of the Gulf region. It’s done so in total disregard of conventional wisdom and ecological limitation, and its success has given Dubai qualities of an urban manifesto.

But the important thing about Dubai is that its story is still being written. It looked nothing like it does now 10 years ago, and I think it’s clear it will look nothing like it does now 10 years ahead. This makes any judgement or philosophical stance on the city tricky, maybe even pointless.

Having come here from Beijing, another city in transition, I couldn’t resist photoing UAE versions of typically Chinese scenes. This is a good one – the foreground of recent demotion, middle ground of (probably doomed) fragments from an earlier age, the background of futuristic high rises. I probably have 50 photos like this from Beijing. You basically can’t take a photo in Beijing without it ending up looking like this…

Another blatant parallel is the abundance of obstacles. In Beijing it’s all about roads and sidewalks coming to unannounced dead-ends. In Dubai it’s completed, potentially helpful, totally inaccessible infrastructure.

The obstacles wouldn’t matter so much if Dubai’s climate was a little more chilled out. But for most of my time here, the temperature has been in the low 40s C (over 100 F).

For those who’ve never met me, it’s important to mention that my skin tone falls somewhere between Gwyneth Paltrow and Casper the Friendly Ghost. So finding shaded areas has become something of an obsession of mine.

And this obsession drove me to compulsively record the sun blocking techniques of my neighbors:


It’s also caused me to spend much more time in parking garages than any non-driver should.

Not to mention shopping malls, which isn’t as bad since they really hook up their malls in Dubai.

Which reminds me… one of the things that has interested me most during my hours of mall time here is the high number of solitary Arab men accompanying groups of shopping women. For most traditionalists, it is not appropriate for a lady to be unaccompanied in public, I’m told. These men are chaperons, either brothers or husbands. This logic extends beyond the mall, of course, but what is so interesting to me is the fact that, through this kind of chivalry, one of the great tediums of the male experience – silently watching while some woman you care about tries on clothes and ignores your opinion – is made slightly more bearable. At least here you can undergo this sad ritual with a sense of duty, honor even.

I don’t want to give the impression that these sorts of formalized groups are the norm in the Dubai malls, though, because actually the environment is very loose and, above all, cosmopolitan. I’m told Dubai is home to over 200 nationalities and it is not difficult to believe. Shopping at City Centre, the mall closest to my hotel, on a Saturday feels like visiting the UN (if the UN had an amusement park inside). The atmosphere is light and comfortable. Because everyone is different, no one stands out. Because almost no one is speaking in his native tongue, interactions between strangers are conducted in a language of unfamiliar good will. “Thank you, friend”, “Excuse me, please”, “Where you from?”

Dubai’s surprise for first time visitors is that, while you’ve been trained to expect a model of architecture and infrastructure, the city is also a model of a different kind. For me, what is most impressive about Dubai isn’t its famous flamboyance or XXL ambitions; it is the seemingly effortless way the city incorporates people from everywhere.

After the discovery of oil in the 1960s, Dubai’s Ruler Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum initiated a series of public works of enormous ambition and risk. At the time, Dubai was still a minor trading village with a small port on a shallow creek. Its Ruler insisted it could be more. In order to power his ambitions, Sheikh Rashid adopted a policy of radical openness that ultimately brought millions of foreign workers into the city.

Today, Dubai’s 2 million or so expats provide more or less all of its services. Dubai can’t function without them.

It wouldn’t exist without them.

Through their commitment and simple numbers, they have altered the city’s DNA, transforming Dubai from a small, ethnically consistent village into a multicultural metropolis.

All this would be impossible, of course, without the flexibility and pragmatic good sense of Dubai’s indigenous population, a community of under 200,000 that oversees the city’s development but accounts for around 15 percent of its residents. Uprooted from their small creekside community by wave after wave of growth and immigration (is there such a term as ‘insourcing’?), the Emiratis now form a diaspora within their own city. They have been displaced into villas (usually paid for by Dubai’s paternal government) along the coastline and deep into the desert. In the span of a single childhood, they have witnessed changes that formerly required a century and, for many, Dubai is now no more familiar than it is for the city’s newest arrivals.

What’s really shocking about Dubai is how difficult it is to locate any local culture here. At the moment, there’s a vigorous discussion taking place about how to balance Dubai’s overwhelming global population with its local heritage. Like everything else, this is evolving, but so far the government seems content to keep a low profile, and besides scattered fragments of kitsch nationalist art or political propaganda, you rarely feel the imposition (or even existence) of the Emirati identity in Dubai.

This isn’t to imply that Dubai is some sort of model of integration, though. Actually it’s more of a showcase for the benefits of segregation.

The genius of the Dubai experiment is that it offers a viable, attractive alternative to the concept of assimilation that has become so fraught in the West. Foreigners are allowed (maybe even encouraged) to pursue their native ways independent of the locals. Gated communities are common, among the richest and poorest alike, and it’s a little cheesy but not inappropriate to point out here the significance of the oasis conceptually and physically in this part of the world. Where in America the idea of isolated, culturally homogeneous communities makes people paranoid, the Dubaians take a more confident, generous approach, one that reflects their history as traders and the thoroughly 21st century nature of their city.

Because of its modern, multicultural look Dubai is very often compared to New York – my inflight magazine on the way over called it The New York of the 21 century™. But to me it’s clear that Dubai is something different. Every century has its own expression, and Dubai is no more like New York in the 20th century than New York is like Paris in the 19th. Dubai is a city dependent on 21st century technology, travel, communications, and finance. It is, almost by default, the world’s most modern city, because it couldn’t even exist a couple of decades ago. It is a city shaped by the needs and wants of our time, a place ideally suited for a period of history where all commitments are provisional, all moves temporary, all decisions reversable. It demands no commitment and thus earns loyalty.

Almost everyone in Dubai is there temporarily. Some for an afternoon, some 6 months, some 13 years. New York was (still is?) a machine for processing global input into American culture; Dubai doesn’t process as much as circulate and administer. Unlike NY, it has a heritage that it must protect – an indigenous culture that is not appropriate for the contaminations of the US model of auto-citizenship.

So, if Dubai is the quintessential 21st century city, and we’re less than 10 years into the 21st century, obviously some things still remain to be worked out. One of the most interesting to me is how, in the absence of an overbearing host culture, a common language will develop between the various layers of society here. For now, the people of Dubai unify according to the basics – food, sports, broken English, etc. But I wonder if ultimately something more complex and distinct will emerge.

Instead of comparing it to other cities, maybe it makes sense to imagine Dubai as the first large scale, real world enactment of virtual societies.

At times the whole place feels like a message board filled with conversations, disagreements, pleas for help, boasts, nonsense declarations, etc. Its less like a city and more like a system – over which no one, even the system’s authors and administrators, can claim control.

It’s centralized politically, but deregulated socially; even Dubai’s venerable Ruler can only moderate what’s happening here. He can encourage and discourage (with force), but ultimately he oversees a community of huge diversity that changes constantly and, for the most part, owes him no real loyalty. It seems obvious to me that Dubai demands something more than the references to familiar places like NY or Disneyland or Hong Kong that now shape its international persona.

Dubai is simply Dubai – it’s just not clear what that means yet. Especially for a city that has compressed so much history so tightly, a lot more time will be needed before we understand really what the hell is going on here. It reminds me of that quote from Chairman Mao when asked by Henry Kissinger what he felt were the lessons of the French Revolution: “It’s too early to tell”.

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