Dissecting Dubai – Part 3: Muslim Disneyworld

Well, the Dubai residency was certainly a surprise. And in more ways than one! The pace was certainly not as hectic as London, and for the most part the group was able to go out and actually see the city, find time to know more about each other, and ourselves, appreciate some not so obvious things, and welcome if not tolerate some of the more confusing aspects of living an international life. I’ve mulled over a whole lot of new things from the course of that week, and as the whole experience has left me with a rather dense collection of inner musings, I am left with little choice than to split up my next few blog posts.

This is Part 3 of a series of 5

The word “burj” is Arabic for “tower”.

Dubai has a lot of towers, but one of them really stands out – a proper sky scraper. I first saw the Burj Dubai flying in to the city on a stopover to London. It was a magnificent panorama; one large monolith surrounded by what might as well have been Lego pieces. It reached out into the sky, so high up it was kissing the clouds.

As yet unfinished, it was already glittering in the sun. It was magnificent, and resplendent. By the 4th or 5th day of the residency however, I started to feel that it was also incredibly out of place. Why build a kilometer-high building out in the middle of nowhere?

This was the Middle East, after all. It’s the land of sand.  Although, the same could be said of Las Vegas.

I’m having a hard time thinking up any other city or country that has so much wealth and luxury on display, and where unrestrained spending is not just the norm but official government policy. I’d grown up with news reports of yet another beheading in Saudi Arabia, some domestic helper “accidentally” falling out of a 20th floor balcony, a migrant worker getting his hands chopped off. Given, this was the mid 80’s and things have changed a lot since then, it was still an odd surprise to see so much unbridled bustle and energy.

I can only imagine how one of Sheik Al-Maktoum’s cabinet meetings go:
Sheik: Sharks. I want sharks.
Minister 1: But the tank is fresh water, your highness.
Sheik: Then make it salt water. I want sharks in the tank. And a gold-plated diving bell.
Minister 1: Understood, your highness.
Sheik: You there, what news have we from the beach front?
Minister 2: Majesty, we’ve just completed Phase 3 of the Palm and have extended our shoreline by 100 miles.
Sheik: Unacceptable! Not by half! I want one THOUSAND new miles of shoreline!
Minister 2: But your Majesty, that would be an ecological disaster. What about the marine life? Think about the whales, Your Highness. Think about the whales.
Sheik: I have. Put them in together with the sharks. Oh, and bring me the plans for that in-door ski-slope.

Bigger! Faster! Taller! The sky has no limit! Is this really the Middle East? No. Not once did I feel that I was somewhere in the Persian Gulf. Are “they” trying to be a trading hub, or a tourist destination? Both? Are “they” trying to integrate into the global community, or create something new altogether?

But perhaps the better question would be “Is this the new Middle East?” Perhaps; only time will tell if Sheik Al-Maktoum’s marvelous marketing maneuver for an Arab makeover will pay off.

There was something about the religious, economic and social incongruities that had me putting up red flags, but something about it also made me feel oddly at home. There was a sense that none of “this” was real and I could therefore just play along with it with no feeling of remorse. The apparent ease with which a lot of Islamic sensibilities were pushed aside was not lost on me either. Alcohol, bikinis, and Russian prostitutes were melded together with burkas, mosques and the eerie echo of morning calls to prayer.

It was like a Muslim Disneyworld, both sublime and surreal at once.

There was a definite energy permeating the city, but I’m pretty sure that with all that cash and social change going around, some underlying friction would go around with it. I’d have loved to be able to sit down and chat with one of the Emiratis, but that was quite impossible.

You don’t have existential conversations with the mascots at Florida, do you?

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love these essays, Ian. I couldn't help but feel the same way about Dubai. My values and beliefs (even though I drink) kept confusing me while on this residency; between what I grew up knowing about the region and what I was seeing...dude that was just hypocrisy at its best. The prostitutes were over the top...I don't think I've ever seen one prior to Dubai.

I doubt they are going for an all out Arab make over, They don't even interact with the city they have created. The reason you couldn't sit down and talk with an Emiratee is because they have mostly sequestered themselves.
The relationship between the GCC members is strained right now. If you remember the talk Qasimi gave us, he mentioned something about the politics of the region specially regarding the monetary union.