Don’t Write Dubai Off Just Yet

By Aijaz Zaka Syed – Dubai

This looks like an open season for Dubai bashing. From liberal socialists to idle socialites and from old-fashioned cynics to habitual Arab-Muslim baiters, just about everyone is coming up with his or her own obituary for Dubai Inc.

But then there never was a dearth of Dubai’s detractors. Most people around the world including the UAE’s next door neighbors have always found it hard to stomach the fact that an Arab and Muslim emirate could aspire to reach heights of excellence. They didn’t say it in so many words, but their polite smiles and smirks left you in no doubt they found the whole idea of Arabian ‘desert dwellers and nomads’ dreaming the very best for their tiny emirate rather amusing. Many of them were plain jealous and incredulous.

Wherever we journalists from the UAE and Middle East went, everyone demanded to know: "So how long is it gonna last?"

Even as the world media reported how Dubai was literally building The World on islands and land reclaimed from the sea, it never failed to pepper its ‘first person’ reportage with all sorts of accusations, from the so-called exploitation of workers to the alleged abuse of natural resources to the lack of freedom and civil rights.

And since the Wall Street began melting down affecting everyone including Dubai, there’s been a feeding frenzy amongst the pundits and chattering classes who have prophesied all these years Dubai will not last long. It’s a bubble that is destined to burst soon, they warned us.

Every time they talked about the so-called Boomtown, according to big guns like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and its latest acquisitions and conquests, they invariably remind you about its alleged dark underbelly and how thousands of Asian workers were toiling 24/7 to build Dubai dreams. As though employing Asian workers who came to build their own dreams in itself was a crime against humanity. They would tell you how Dubai’s progress – and that of other Gulf emirates – was driven by petrodollars and the windfall of high oil prices.

These days there’s a deluge of ‘I told-you-so’ Op-ed analyses and expert opinions in respectable Western newspapers and publications. And every expert and pundit appears to be beside himself/herself with boundless joy over our inevitable end.

However, it’s the legendary Australian feminist Germaine Greer who takes the cake with her instant analysis hammered away after a four-hour whirlwind tour of Dubai.

According to her piece in the Guardian (Feb. 9), Ms Greer recounts how she traveled atop a double-decker bus to get a quick dekko at the phenomenon everyone’s talking about. Starting from Deira City Center, the writer passed by city’s landmarks like Wafi Mall, the World Trade Center, Burj al-Arab and then past Dubai World, before doubling back past the Mall of the Emirates, Downtown Dubai and Burj Dubai.

After this whistle-stop tour of the Middle East’s most happening city, Ms Greer comes up with the following verdict: "Dubai has been built on the premise that nothing succeeds like excess."

Sheer contempt drips from every word of this instant chronicler of our times. From ridiculing the emirate’s "hubristic notion of building an archipelago out of sand" to her condemnation of the Burj Dubai as "outrageously megalomaniacal, a new Tower of Babel," Ms Greer manages to find something negative and sinful in the most innocuous and prestigious landmarks of the city.

Even when she is seemingly taken with the majestic charm of Burj al-Arab hotel and its dhow-like shape, she adds a bitter post script informing her readers that "the only dhows on Dubai Creek these days take tourists on one-hour pleasure cruises."

Again a typical case of the Orientalists’ eagerness to rush to judgment, missing the wood for trees. Even an occasional visitor to the emirate knows that those ancient dhows remain the cheapest and most egalitarian means of public transport and are used by thousands of people daily to cross the creek that connects the two parts of the city.

It costs only a dirham (it used to be only half a dirham or 50 fils until two years ago) to get a ride on those amazing dhows that instantly transport you to a totally different era. But of course Ms Greer couldn’t have seen those dhows or met their carefree passengers while she was busy ticking off the landmarks sitting atop that double-decker. You can’t really see and experience a city or touch its soul during a four-hour stopover – especially of a multilayered, rich city like Dubai.

There are many things that I don’t like about Dubai: Its endless traffic chaos, its stifling heat – especially during July and August – and its incessant construction and expansion activity. I wish there were fewer malls and more libraries in our lovely city. And yes, I wish it had been a little less pricey and more reasonable on my not-too-deep pockets. But then this is the case with all modern and developing cities, especially if they happen to be as all-welcoming as Dubai has been.

Yet this remains one of the most hospitable cities in the world. Whether you are a Westerner looking for sun, sand and loads of tax-free fun or hard working, boring desis (emigrants from South Asia) like us, this ‘maximum city’ embraces us all, giving us everything that we could only dream back home. Thousands of miles from home, Dubai is like mini India, mini Pakistan, mini England or wherever on God’s earth we come from. This city is anything but ‘crass,’ Ms Greer!

I say this to everyone rushing to pen Dubai’s obituary. Don’t write us off just yet. Dubai is not just a city. It’s a phenomenon, a mindset. It’s an idea. And you cannot kill an idea. An idea that has spawned myriad imitations – from the Middle East to the Far East – cannot be written off by a crisis or two. The vision of the people who made this place what it is today has not just transformed the neighborhood; it has changed the world. And remember, Dubai didn’t even have oil – or much of it. As Ms Greer admits, only 6 percent of Dubai’s revenue comes from oil. So all that the emirate has managed to accomplish over the past few years and decades has been made possible by the sheer hard work and imagination of its architects.

All those who once mocked Dubai’s dreams as delusions of grandeur are today building their own dreams – from Doha to Delhi and from Jeddah to Jakarta – modeled on Dubai. And imitation, as they say, is the sincerest form of flattery.

So all you carpers out there, don’t write off Dubai just yet. We may have slowed down a bit like the rest of the world but we are definitely not out. Far from it! Dubai dreams will live on – no matter what our overzealous detractors choose to believe.

– Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times. He contributed this article to Contact him at:

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