Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dubai: Sinister Paradise

Dubai: Sinister Paradise

A computer image of the 'Burj Dubai' in the United Arab Emirates, which will be the world's highest building when completed in November 2008. Click to enlarge.

Commentary: From the Archives: Does the road to the future end here?

July 14, 2005


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The narration begins: As your jet starts its descent, you are glued to your window. The scene below is astonishing: a 24-square-mile archipelago of coral-colored islands in the shape of an almost finished puzzle of the world. In the shallow green waters between continents, the sunken shapes of the Pyramids of Giza and the Roman Coliseum are clearly visible.

In the distance are three other large island groups configured as palms within crescents and planted with high-rise resorts, amusement parks, and a thousand mansions built on stilts over the water. The "Palms" are connected by causeways to a Miami-like beachfront chock-a-block full of mega-hotels, apartment high-rises and yacht marinas.

As the plane slowly banks toward the desert mainland, you gasp at the even more improbable vision ahead. Out of a chrome forest of skyscrapers (nearly a dozen taller than 1000 feet) soars a new Tower of Babel. It is an impossible one-half-mile high: the equivalent of the Empire State Building stacked on top of itself.

You are still rubbing your eyes with wonderment and disbelief when the plane lands and you are welcomed into an airport emporium where hundreds of shops seduce you with Gucci bags, Cartier watches, and one-kilogram bars of solid gold. You make a mental note to pick up some duty-free gold on your way out.

The hotel driver is waiting for you in a Rolls Royce Silver Seraph. Friends have recommended the Armani Hotel in the 160-story tower or the seven-star hotel with an atrium so huge that the Statue of Liberty would fit inside, but instead you have opted to fulfill a childhood fantasy. You always have wanted to be Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Your jellyfish-shaped hotel is, in fact, exactly 66 feet below the sea surface. Each of its 220 luxury suites has clear Plexiglas walls that provide spectacular views of passing mermaids as well as the hotel's famed "underwater fireworks:" a hallucinatory exhibition of "water bubbles, swirled sand, and carefully deployed lighting." Any initial anxiety about the safety of your sea-bottom resort is dispelled by the smiling concierge. The structure has a multi-level failsafe security system, he reassures you, that includes protection against terrorist submarines as well as missiles and aircraft.

Although you have an important business meeting at the Internet City free-trade zone with clients from Hyderabad and Taipei, you have arrived a day early to treat yourself to one of the famed adventures at the Restless Planet dinosaur theme park. Indeed, after a soothing night's sleep under the sea, you are aboard a monorail headed for a Jurassic jungle. Your expedition encounters some peacefully grazing Apatosaurs, but you are soon attacked by a nasty gang of velociraptors. The animatronic beasts are so flawlessly lifelike -- in fact, they have been designed by experts from the British Museum of Natural History -- that you shriek in fear and delight.

With your adrenaline pumped-up by this close call, you polish off the afternoon with some thrilling snowboarding on the local black diamond run. Next door is the Mall of Arabia, the world's largest mall -- the altar of the city's famed Shopping Festival that attracts 5 million frenetic consumers each January -- but you postpone the temptation.

Instead, you indulge in some expensive Thai fusion cuisine at a restaurant near Elite Towers that was recommended by your hotel driver. The gorgeous Russian blond at the bar keeps staring at you with almost vampire-like hunger, and you wonder whether the local sin scene is as extravagant as the shopping?..

The Sequel to Blade Runner?

Welcome to paradise. But where are you? Is this a new science-fiction novel from Margaret Atwood, the sequel to Blade Runner, or Donald Trump tripping on acid?

No, it is the Persian Gulf city-state of Dubai in 2010.

After Shanghai (current population: 15 million), Dubai (current population: 1.5 million) is the world's biggest building site: an emerging dreamworld of conspicuous consumption and what locals dub "supreme lifestyles."

Dozens of outlandish mega-projects -- including "The World" (an artificial archipelago), Burj Dubai (the Earth's tallest building), the Hydropolis (that underwater luxury hotel, the Restless Planet theme park, a domed ski resort perpetually maintained in 40C heat, and The Mall of Arabia, a hyper-mall -- are actually under construction or will soon leave the drawing boards.

A sattelite photo of 'Jebel Ali Palm Island,' the second Palm Island to be  built off the coast of Dubai. Eventually, three palm-shaped artificial  islands will be built in the Dubai area. The first one, 'Jumeira Palm' is  almost completed.
A satellite photo of 'Jebel Ali Palm Island,' the second Palm Island to be built off the coast of Dubai. Eventually, three palm-shaped artificial islands will be built in the Dubai area. The first one, 'Jumeira Palm' is almost completed. Click to enlarge.

Under the enlightened despotism of its Crown Prince and CEO, 56-year-old Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Rhode-Island-sized Emirate of Dubai has become the new global icon of imagineered urbanism. Although often compared to Las Vegas, Orlando, Hong Kong or Singapore, the sheikhdom is more like their collective summation: a pastiche of the big, the bad, and the ugly. It is not just a hybrid but a chimera: the offspring of the lascivious coupling of the cyclopean fantasies of Barnum, Eiffel, Disney, Spielberg, Jerde, Wynn, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

Multibillionaire Sheik Mo -- as he's affectionately known to Dubai's expats -- not only collects thoroughbreds (the world's largest stable) and super-yachts (the 525-foot-long Project Platinum which has its own submarine and flight deck), but also seems to have imprinted Robert Venturi's cult Learning from Las Vegas in the same way that more pious Moslems have memorized The Quran. (One of the Sheik's proudest achievements, by the way, is to have introduced gated communities to Arabia.)

Under his leadership, the coastal desert has become a huge circuit board into which the elite of transnational engineering firms and retail developers are invited to plug in high-tech clusters, entertainment zones, artificial islands, "cities within cities" -- whatever is the latest fad in urban capitalism. The same phantasmagoric but generic Lego blocks, of course, can be found in dozens of aspiring cities these days, but Sheik Mo has a distinctive and inviolable criterion: Everything must be "world class," by which he means number one in The Guinness Book of Records. Thus Dubai is building the world's largest theme park, the biggest mall, the highest building, and the first sunken hotel among other firsts.

Sheikh Mo's architectural megalomania, although reminiscent of Albert Speer and his patron, is not irrational. Having "learned from Las Vegas," he understands that if Dubai wants to become the luxury-consumer paradise of the Middle East and South Asia (its officially defined "home market" of 1.6 billion), it must ceaselessly strive for excess.

From this standpoint, the city's monstrous caricature of futurism is simply shrewd marketing. Its owners love it when designers and urbanists anoint it as the cutting edge. Architect George Katodrytis wrote: "Dubai may be considered the emerging prototype for the 21st century: prosthetic and nomadic oases presented as isolated cities that extend out over the land and sea."

Moreover, Dubai can count on the peak-oil epoch to cover the costs of these hyperboles. Each time you spent $40 to fill your tank, you are helping to irrigate Sheik Mo's oasis.

Precisely because Dubai is rapidly pumping the last of its own modest endowment of oil, it has opted to become the postmodern "city of nets" -- as Bertolt Brecht called his fictional boomtown of Mahoganny -- where the super-profits of oil are to be reinvested in Arabia's one truly inexhaustible natural resource: sand. (Indeed mega-projects in Dubai are usually measured by volumes of sand moved: 1 billion cubic feet in the case of The World.)

Al-Qaeda and the war on terrorism deserve some of the credit for this boom. Since 9/11, many Middle Eastern investors, fearing possible lawsuits or sanctions, have pulled up stakes in the West. According to Salman bin Dasmal of Dubai Holdings, the Saudis alone have repatriated one-third of their trillion-dollar overseas portfolio. The sheikhs are bringing it back home, and last year, the Saudis were believed to have ploughed at least $7 billion into Dubai's sand castles.

Another aqueduct of oil wealth flows from the neighboring Emirate of Abu Dhabi. The two statelets dominate the United Arab Emirates -- a quasi-nation thrown together by Sheik Mo's father and the ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1971 to fend off threats from Marxists in Oman and, later, Islamists in Iran.

Today, Dubai's security is guaranteed by the American nuclear super-carriers usually berthed at the port of Jebel Ali. Indeed, the city-state aggressively promotes itself as the ultimate elite "Green Zone" in an increasingly turbulent and dangerous region.

Meanwhile, as increasing numbers of experts warn that the age of cheap oil is passing, the al-Maktoum clan can count on a torrent of nervous oil revenue seeking a friendly and stable haven. When outsiders question the sustainability of the current boom, Dubai officials point out that their new Mecca is being built on equity, not debt.

Since a watershed 2003 decision to open unrestricted freehold ownership to foreigners, wealthy Europeans and Asians have rushed to become part of the Dubai bubble. A beachfront in one of the "Palms" or, better yet, a private island in "The World" now has the cachet of St. Tropez or Grand Cayman. The old colonial masters lead the pack as Brit expats and investors have become the biggest cheerleaders for Sheikh Mo's dreamworld: David Beckham owns a beach and Rod Stewart, an island (rumored, in fact, to be named Great Britain).

An Indentured, Invisible Majority

The utopian character of Dubai, it must be emphasized, is no mirage. Even more than Singapore or Texas, the city-state really is an apotheosis of neo-liberal values.

On the one hand, it provides investors with a comfortable, Western-style, property-rights regime, including freehold ownership, that is unique in the region. Included with the package is a broad tolerance of booze, recreational drugs, halter tops, and other foreign vices formally proscribed by Islamic law. (When expats extol Dubai's unique "openness," it is this freedom to carouse -- not to organize unions or publish critical opinions -- that they are usually praising.)

On the other hand, Dubai, together with its emirate neighbors, has achieved the state of the art in the disenfranchisement of labor. Trade unions, strikes, and agitators are illegal, and 99% of the private-sector workforce are easily deportable non-citizens. Indeed, the deep thinkers at the American Enterprise and Cato institutes must salivate when they contemplate the system of classes and entitlements in Dubai.

At the top of the social pyramid, of course, are the al-Maktoums and their cousins who own every lucrative grain of sand in the sheikhdom. Next, the native 15% percent of the population -- whose uniform of privilege is the traditional white dishdash -- constitutes a leisure class whose obedience to the dynasty is subsidized by income transfers, free education, and government jobs. A step below, are the pampered mercenaries: 150,000-or-so British ex-pats, along with other European, Lebanese, and Indian managers and professionals, who take full advantage of their air-conditioned affluence and two-months of overseas leave every summer.

However, South Asian contract laborers, legally bound to a single employer and subject to totalitarian social controls, make up the great mass of the population. Dubai lifestyles are attended by vast numbers of Filipina, Sri Lankan, and Indian maids, while the building boom is carried on the shoulders of an army of poorly paid Pakistanis and Indians working twelve-hour shifts, six and half days a week, in the blast-furnace desert heat.

Dubai, like its neighbors, flouts ILO labor regulations and refuses to adopt the international Migrant Workers Convention. Human Rights Watch in 2003 accused the Emirates of building prosperity on "forced labor." Indeed, as the British Independent recently emphasized in an exposé on Dubai, "The labour market closely resembles the old indentured labour system brought to Dubai by its former colonial master, the British."

"Like their impoverished forefathers," the paper continued, "today's Asian workers are forced to sign themselves into virtual slavery for years when they arrive in the United Arab Emirates. Their rights disappear at the airport where recruitment agents confiscate their passports and visas to control them"

In addition to being super-exploited, Dubai's helots are also expected to be generally invisible. The bleak work camps on the city's outskirts, where laborers are crowded six, eight, even twelve to a room, are not part of the official tourist image of a city of luxury without slums or poverty. In a recent visit, even the United Arab Emirate's Minister of Labor was reported to be profoundly shocked by the squalid, almost unbearable conditions in a remote work camp maintained by a large construction contractor. Yet when the laborers attempted to form a union to win back pay and improve living conditions, they were promptly arrested.

Paradise, however, has even darker corners than the indentured-labor camps. The Russian girls at the elegant hotel bar are but the glamorous facade of a sinister sex trade built on kidnapping, slavery, and sadistic violence. Dubai -- any of the hipper guidebooks will advise -- is the "Bangkok of the Middle East," populated with thousands of Russian, Armenian, Indian, and Iranian prostitutes controlled by various transnational gangs and mafias. (The city, conveniently, is also a world center for money laundering, with an estimated 10% of real estate changing hands in cash-only transactions.)

Sheikh Mo and his thoroughly modern regime, of course, disavow any connection to this burgeoning red-light industry, although insiders know that the whores are essential to keeping all those five-star hotels full of European and Arab businessmen. But the Sheikh himself has been personally linked to Dubai's most scandalous vice: child slavery.

Camel racing is a local passion in the Emirates, and in June 2004, Anti-Slavery International released photos of pre-school-age child jockeys in Dubai. HBO Real Sports simultaneously reported that the jockeys, "some as young as three -- are kidnapped or sold into slavery, starved, beaten and raped." Some of the tiny jockeys were shown at a Dubai camel track owned by the al-Maktoums.

The Lexington Herald-Leader -- a newspaper in Kentucky, where Sheikh Mo has two large thoroughbred farms -- confirmed parts of the HBO story in an interview with a local blacksmith who had worked for the crown prince in Dubai. He reported seeing "little bitty kids" as young as four astride racing camels. Camel trainers claim that the children's shrieks of terror spur the animals to a faster effort.

Sheikh Mo, who fancies himself a prophet of modernization, likes to impress visitors with clever proverbs and heavy aphorisms. A favorite: "Anyone who does not attempt to change the future will stay a captive of the past."

Yet the future that he is building in Dubai -- to the applause of billionaires and transnational corporations everywhere -- looks like nothing so much as a nightmare of the past: Walt Disney meets Albert Speer on the shores of Araby.

Mike Davis is the author of Dead Cities and the forthcoming Monster at the Door: the Global Threat of Avian Influenza (New Press 2005).

Copyright 2005 Mike Davis

This piece first appeared at Tomdispatch.com.


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There are a few inaccuracies in this piece. Recreational drugs are absolutely not tolerated - a recent case saw an Egyptian teenager sentenced to four years in jail for smoking hashish in Egypt (having a drug in your bloodstream counts as possession in Dubai, and cannabis stays in the blood for months). Child camel jockeys are (now) illegal - they use robot jockeys instead - although that has only been the case since 2002, I think. I also wouldn't really say the architecture is Speer-like - it's way too disparate and strange for that. But... It's a very young country, developing much faster than many members of its society are comfortable with. It does have big, worrying problems - but it's not unremittingly bad.
Posted by:BukowskiJune 11, 2007 12:49:26 AMRespond ^
Babylon of Revelation
Posted by:mr.mojoJune 24, 2007 11:41:00 PMRespond ^
How are they going to fuel this city? Fairy dust?
Posted by:catboxJuly 7, 2007 10:14:35 PMRespond ^
what strikes me is all this developement is at sea-level!!And the news from the arctic is the sea ice is melting 3 times faster than predicted.good thing those towers are tall!
Posted by:Peter CouplandJuly 8, 2007 5:51:16 AMRespond ^
Yep, let me tell you now guys... The End Times is coming up pretty darn quick. This mega tower is as what they did in the Bible. They tried to build a tower that could reach to Heaven, but God made it so none of the workers could understand each other. Each speaking in a different tongue. But there is a second Babylon which will be built before the Lords second coming. That is where the Antichrist will dwell during his small rein.
Posted by:fallyndreamsSeptember 20, 2007 12:16:10 AMRespond ^
i really think all this is sooo cool but when will countries like the US or UK really take notice?
Posted by:Ibrahim salmanNovember 9, 2007 1:46:28 AMRespond ^
u couldnt be more correct
Posted by:dNovember 13, 2007 7:02:44 PMRespond ^
i'am a child who loves drowing building but ilive in toronto i wish the cn tower is the biggest building im the world but when i saw this burj dubai i'am so happy to see that tower and i love the tower and really nice
Posted by:grimsonDecember 5, 2007 3:00:05 PMRespond ^
i'am a child who loves drowing building but ilive in toronto i wish the cn tower is the biggest building im the world but when i saw this burj dubai i'am so happy to see that tower and i love the tower and really nice
Posted by:grimsonDecember 5, 2007 3:00:11 PMRespond ^
ive been to dubai and i really dont like this place. its hot like hell, there are more cars than people(i think) and people are just friendly because they expect you to have money. i mean somehow im happy for all the indians that find a job in this crazy gigantic amusement park but still i just cant understand how little taste someone must have to go to this place. btw im an architect student and its amazing what they are building. but not because i think its great; just because its that much rediculous.
Posted by:bastianDecember 13, 2007 11:43:18 AMRespond ^
A society based on some of the citizens being the slaves of others is an ugly and depraved place to live and call a high achievement of mankind.
Posted by:Bill FitzsimonsJanuary 4, 2008 9:11:59 AMRespond ^
PEOPLE in DUBAI have so much money, a 13 yo child spends about 100$ a day, their money is unlimitted, they dont know what to do with it , SO 1- they are buildind the 3 tallest towers in the world 2- they are drowing in the sea 3- they are building 360 island, that presents the worls 4- they are tring to make everything in dubai ( the largest or the longest or the best ) thing in the world. I love DUBAI - 30 years ago we was a desert ,( population 3500) now we are 3,500,000
Posted by:DXB BLOOD GANGFebruary 4, 2008 1:23:14 PMRespond ^
very interested in all yhe stories
Posted by:joseFebruary 20, 2008 4:58:05 PMRespond ^
Posted by:louie02March 1, 2008 4:35:25 AMRespond ^
Fellow Americans - here is where our money is going. They are bleeding our country dry by design. We have been SCAMMED - and these evil men are living high on the fat of it.

Thank the elites for this travesty.
Posted by:AnonymousMarch 3, 2008 5:06:03 PMRespond ^
Who eveer wrote this is a twat. camel racing does not have jockeys, but rather a mechanical jockey, as the use of child jockeys was outlawed years ago by Sheikh Mo. There is no and will never be any under water hotel. Every year the police round up hundreds of prostitutes and deport them, but they keep coming back. where there are rich men, there will be prostitutes, you own country is no better. do the research properly, the biggest problem for asian labour in Dubai are the asian labour supply companies from their own countries. they make each worker pay 2 thousand dollar for the privilage of being on the books. companies go to inda etc and deal with the agents. Pay in Dubai is double or triple that in their home country. The problem is that to put together the 2000 dollars they take loans from loan sharks and banks in their home country who charge them crazy interest and then they are trapped.
you really need to do your research before writing [deleted].
Posted by:colum mc keownMarch 31, 2008 4:56:42 AMRespond ^
you know what, if the American's and British stopped complaining and sticking their nose into the rest of the world, trying to take over everything and screwing it up, these two countries could be doing just as well. At least in Dubai, the ruler looks after his people, free education, medical, if someone needs a major operation, the government flies that person and family to the UK, pay all bills, hotel etc for family. In America, if you are dying and you got no money, you are thrown on the street. Everyone needs to look a bit closer to home. The american government has created the 'bougy man' to keep its people quiet while the rich get richer. has no one noticed that the current government are the ones who put Sedam in place and gave him his weapons and not the same guys, bush and chainy, are using their own companies in the private sector to make even more money by removing him. All American's are blind, i mean who votes an idiot into power , then watches his dad ( ex pres bush 0 pull the string, then 4 years later watches them rig an election, and a country says nothing. Idiots and here you are complaining about dubai, why, because its everything America and Britan is not. England is not even european anymore, its a majority Indian / Pakistan nation with Whites as the minority. Governments to busy filling their own pockets world wide to worry about what is destroying their own country. Pull your fingers out of your arse and stand up for your own country instead of crying ' arabs, arabs, i mean, most of your countries wealth is based on arabs investing their. If the arab nations wanted to destroy you lot, they would simply take their money out of the US and UK banks.
Posted by:A smart personMarch 31, 2008 5:12:18 AMRespond ^
Right on, Bill. Waaay too Orwellian for me!
Posted by:MalechaiApril 9, 2008 7:36:55 PMRespond ^
This author, like most of americans who probebly have never even stepped foot out of the united states are afraid of a country with a vision. There is no great civilization or society that was ever built without the hard work of others or the use of cheap labor. The united states of America or Great Britain would have never become the Superpowers they are today without the use of SLAVERY. At least in Dubai they are paid, and the money that they earn here they send back to their country TAX FREE. There are problems in Dubai, but there is not country in the world that does not. Dubai has done something different from any other country in the world. So get over it.
Posted by:American In dubaiApril 18, 2008 5:48:50 AMRespond ^
Before everyone goes gangbusters about how Dubai is doing everything right and the USA is some flim flam country, remember Dubai is a filthy rich oil country with a very small population vs national GDP (99% from oil). In about 15 years when both Dubai is out of oil and the rest of the world has switched to a non-oil based source of energy (homes, cars, factories etc), Dubai will become the perfect example of misplaced priorities and wasted wealth. The people and beautiful buildings will unfortunately suffer from a complete collapse of their economy. And as the middle east as a whole begins running out cash, the governments in the regions will panic resulting in violence that makes today's terrorism look like child's play...beware. BTW stop making Bush a scapegoat...Bill Clinton is where the term "Nation Building" was coined...get over it and grow up.
Posted by:Voice Of ReasonJuly 8, 2008 3:38:18 PMRespond ^
In a blink of an eye, our Lord Jesus Christ, the ONE true God, not Allah, can smash this into oblivion but He must be waiting for more people to repent and worship him. These people bankrolling and designing Dubai are evil, godless, users of the worst kind. They will burn in hell for what they have done to the poor children,adults and even animals they have built their
empire on. Pray for them to turn from their evil ways and make resistution.
Posted by:LorraineJuly 8, 2008 11:10:39 PMRespond ^
Dubai is a great place.It's a playground for the world's best engineers and thinkers.I hope to contribute something to my world someday!
Posted by:principalityAugust 27, 2008 7:19:22 PMRespond ^
At the same time,I really think that whoever is behind the wonders in Dubai should remember that some people in other parts of the world are not as comfortable as the inhabitants of Dubai.Think about it!
Posted by:principalityAugust 27, 2008 7:25:33 PMRespond ^
I think this is a bit to much. Every developing country and city has its problems, but I think in this aticle, the writer is trying to condem the city without seeing the good things about it, like the fact that there is no murders and crime like in the USA. So don´t be so dramatic and instead of looking at the dark side of the room, turn arround and look at the windows and the light. Not everything in the progress is bad and not everything in the Vatican is good. I consider myself a good catholic, but I don´t like fanat
Posted by:MartinSeptember 1, 2008 1:55:22 PMRespond ^
Not everything that shines is gold, but your aticle is a bit to radical and fanatic. I am a catholic and I can tell you that not everything in a large city is bad as well as not everything in the Vatican is good. Stop trying to dig in the bible in order to find similarities with everything that becomes the core of attention of the world.
Posted by:MartinSeptember 1, 2008 2:02:22 PMRespond ^

WOW! Look at what you have done!
Created a fansaty, the worlds biggest terrarisk magnate (The whole city)! and been messing with nature and mother earth all to be better than everyone else! Well Dubi I don't think your in for much luck :-(
Posted by:Jesse.H- MBAS!October 3, 2008 5:36:15 PMRespond ^
No one of the Arab picks on us; leave them alone, why you do not take care of the unlimited problems in your home country.
Posted by:DavidOctober 25, 2008 10:29:00 PMRespond ^

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