Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Dubious Existence of Dubai

Recently I led a group of broadcasters on a trip to Bangladesh, literally on the other side of the globe, twelve time zones away from the Eastern U.S. On our excursion we had stopovers in each direction in the United Arab Emirates’ capital of Dubai, which is what I like to call a “made-up city.” 

Much like Las Vegas, it was basically a dot on a map for centuries.  Up thru the middle of last century, its population was basically hovering in the 40,000 range, made up mostly of fisherman and nomadic shepherds who had grown tired of wandering the vast expanses of desert that makes up the Saudi Arabian Peninsula. But when oil was discovered in the neighborhood in 1966, it quickly took off.  By the mid 70s it had ballooned to 200,000 people. By the mid 90s it had more than tripled to over 700,000.  And now, it is nearly 2 million souls.

When the oil boom came, the economy was built around export of that fuel source.  But as experts began to declare that the oil resources were drying up, a shift has been made to information services, retail, and tourism.  The first time I visited there in ’93, I was struck by two things: 1) I taken aback by the ridiculous opulence of the place.  It struck me as more gaudy than Beverly Hills; 2) the construction boom it has become infamous for was in its earliest stages.

Since that time, there have been 170 buildings constructed over five hundred feet tall.  Twenty-six of those over a thousand feet tall, including the Burj Dubai, the tallest building in the world at nearly 2,700 feet (a half mile high).  By contrast, NYC has 35% fewer structures over five hundred feet and just eight of those are over a thousand feet.

The shopping malls are massive.  The retail districts full of shops that make Rodeo Drive look like Branson, MO in comparison.  The high tech Metro Train system has dozens of stations that look like Cylon bases from Battlestar Galactica.  Four huge resorts full of palaces have been built on manmade island conglomerates offshore. One of them is called The World, and features hundreds of little island paradises that when viewed from above looks like a map of the earth. 

Ridiculous attractions like the planet’s largest indoor ski resort further cement the reputation of people who have more dollars than sense.  Having been there in late July one year, I can attest that the outdoor temperatures rise above 120 degrees.  So keeping appropriately frigid air temps for such an endeavor are exorbitant.  But Dubai is all about being ostentatious for the sake of it.  It has become the eighth- most-visited city ion the globe, and certainly the most desired place to live for Arabs with means.

But the dirty underbelly of conspicuous wealth is becoming more apparent in the past decade with the introduction of casinos, horse tracks, dog racing, and gambling of all sorts on just about anything you can imagine. And the prostitution trade is growing by leaps and bounds.

A further proof that human nature has no real capacity to keep from being self-centered, the rich Arab populace and likewise well-to-do out-of-towners don’t seem to care about the bulk of the citizenry which is there to service their desires. Over half of the population is made of imported poor from India, The Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and Ethiopia working in below minimum wage conditions.  Human Rights Watch claims that hundreds of thousands of these folks live in “less than human” conditions with eight people existing per room.

What is particularly intriguing is where all of this flamboyant extravagance is located geographically.  Directly across the Persian Gulf, at its narrowest passageway known as the Strait of Hermuz, less than a hundred miles away, is Iran.  Yes, that Iran…the home of the Khomeini clan that started referring to the United States as “The Great White Satan” thirty-five years ago.  The same Iran featuring a theocratic government that has fostered Islamic radicals out to destroy anything and anyone that stands in the way of their most conservative interpretation of Koranic law.

And just 120 miles to the south, the United Arab Emirates borders on Saudi Arabia, the Sheikdom that practices some of the most horrific human rights abuses under the guise of religious purity in the name of Mohammed.  The same Saudi Arabia where 80% of the Al Qaeda conspirators involved with the 9/11 attacks were born and raised.

It would seem that this glistening city of wanton consumerism and grandiose selfishness that sits betwixt these two inflexible kingdoms has been given a free pass.  The modern-day Towers of Babel that dominate its skyline demonstrate that human hypocrisy knows no bounds.  You would think that before these jihads against westernized infidels be carried any further, that they should remove the Burj Dubai out of their own eye. Now, I’m not defending the luxuriant hedonism that has characterized much of Americana over the past several generations.  And, likewise, I’m certainly not advocating terrorist attacks of any sort in any locale on any people.  But the irony of Dubai’s swank and pretentious existence is monumental in proportion.

Perhaps there is some poetic justice taking place under the guise of the Great Recession sparked by the international real estate fiascos the past four years.  The tentacles of that downturn have affected Dubai’s overbuilding, creating a glut of half-empty skyscrapers and abandoned construction sites.  It will be fascinating to see if, like Las Vegas, this “made-up city” survives over the next twenty years, or will it succumb to the ravages of unbridled greed and copious consumption. 

Personally, I’m hoping for the latter.  

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