Dubai on Empty
Its skyline erupting from the desert in just two decades, Dubai is a cautionary tale about what money can’t buy: a culture of its own. After gorging on the Viagra of easy credit, the emirate has the world’s tallest building, the world’s most expensive racetrack, and a financial crisis to match. From the Western mercenaries and Asian drones who maintain the gaudy show to 100-odd families who are impervious to any economic reality, A. A. Gill discovers that no one truly belongs in Dubai, where the legacy of oil has made everything worthless.
The only way to make sense of Dubai is to never forget that it isn’t real. It’s a fable, a fairy tale, like The Arabian Nights. More correctly, it’s a cautionary tale. Dubai is the story of the three wishes, where, as every kid knows, with the third wish you demand three more wishes. And as every genie knows, more wishes lead to more greed, more misery, more bad credit, and much, much, much more bad taste. Dubai is Las Vegas without the showgirls, the gambling, or Elvis. Dubai is a financial Disneyland without the fun. It’s a holiday resort with the worst climate in the world. It boils. It’s humid. And the constant wind is full of sand. The first thing you see when you arrive is the airport, with its echoing marble halls. It’s big enough to be the hub of a continent. Dubai suffers from gigantism—a national inferiority complex that has to make everything bigger and biggest. This includes their financial crisis.
Outside, in the sodden heat, you pass hundreds and hundreds of regimented palm trees and you wonder who waters them and what with. The skyline, in the dusty haze, looks like the cover of a dystopian science-fiction novella. Clusters of skyscrapers lurch out at the gray desert accompanied by their moribund cranes, propped up with scaffolding, swagged in plastic sheeting. Dubai thought it was going to grow up to be the Arab Singapore—a commercial, banking, and insurance service port on the Gulf with hospitality and footballers’ time-shares, an oasis of R&R for the less well endowed. But it hasn’t quite worked out. The vertical streets of offices are empty. A derelict skyscraper looks exactly the same as one that’s teeming with commerce. They huddle around the current tallest building in the world—a monument to small-nation penis envy. This pylon erected with the Viagra of credit is now a big, naked exclamation of Dubai’s fiscal embarrassment. It was going to be called Burj Dubai, but as Dubai was unable to make their payments, they were forced to go to their Gulf neighbor, head towel in hand, to get a loan. So now it’s called Burj Khalifa, after Abu Dhabi’s ruler, who coughed up $10 billion to its over-extended neighbor.
Dubai has been built very fast. The plan was money. The architect was money. The designer was money and the builder was money. And if you ever wondered what money would look like if it were left to its own devices, it’s Dubai.
My driver gets lost more than once. He’s lived here all his life. He says he always gets lost. The roads keep changing. It’s a confusion of orange traffic cones and interlocking barriers; access roads peter out into long drops to rubble and dust. Nothing actually goes anywhere. The wide lanes loop around endlessly, and then there’s no place to go. No plaza or square, no center. Nowhere to hang out, nowhere to walk. Why would you walk? In this heat? You pull over and throw your keys to a valet, and get indoors as quickly as possible, generally in one of the countless shopping centers that look like the airports of lesser nations or Egyptian tombs. They echo with the slow footfalls of the security guards. In the boutiques, the glossy assistants stare at mannequins with a mutual mime of cashmere-folding despair.
Dubai has been mugged by its own greed. Its consumer economy is being maintained by oil-rich families to whom depressions, booms, lottery wins, and recessions mean little. Riches and wealth are relative terms. But not ones we’re related to. There is an indoor ski mountain, probably the biggest indoor ski mountain in a desert, where the Arab boys queue for suits and boots and skis. The smarter locals arrive in their own designer après-ski gear, with fur and moon boots. You walk through the doors and it’s like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—the land of permanent winter. The fat boys push past carrying their snowboards toward the Tyrolean chocolate shop and Swiss fir trees and slide down the hill with a practiced arrogance. The girls slither, splay-legged, hijabs fluttering, in the manufactured snow.
No one dreamed of this. Twenty years ago, none of this was here. No Narnia. No seven-star hotels. No tallest prick buildings. Just a home of pastoralist tented families herding goats, racing camels, shooting one another. And a handful of greasy, armed empire mechanics in khaki shorts, drilling for oil. In just one life span, Dubai has gone from sitting on a rug to swiveling on a fake Eames chair 100 stories up. And not a single local has had to lift a finger to make it happen. That’s not quite fair—of course they’ve lifted a finger; to call the waiter, berate the busboy. The money seeped out of the ground and they spent it. Pretty much all of it. You look at this place and you realize not a single thing is indigenous, not one of this culture’s goods and chattels originated here. Even the goats have gone. This was a civilization that was bought wholesale.
The Gulf is the proof of Carnegie’s warning about wealth: “There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else.” Emiratis are born retired. They waft through this city in their white dishdashas and headscarves and their obsessively tapered humorless faces. They’re out of place in their own country. They have imported and built a city, a fortress of extravagance, that excludes themselves. They have become duplicitous, schizophrenic. They don’t allow their own national dress in the clubs and bars that serve alcohol, the restaurants with the hungry girls sipping champagne. So they slip into Western clothes to go out.
The Gulf Arabs have become the minority in this country they wished out of the desert. They are now less than 20 percent of the total population. Among the other 80-plus percent are the white mercenary workers who come here for tax-free salaries to do managerial and entrepreneurial jobs, parasites and sycophants for cash. For them money is a driving principle and validation. They came to be young, single, greedy, and insincere. None of them are very clever. So they live lives that revolve around drink and porn sex and pool parties and barbecues with a lot of hysterical laughing and theme nights, karaoke, and slobbery, regretful coupling. In fact, as in all cases of embarrassing arrested development, these expats on the short-term make don’t expect to put down roots here, have children here, or grow old here. Everyone’s on a visa dependent on a job.
Then there is a third category of people: the drones. The workers. The Asians: Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, and Filipinos. Early in the morning, before the white mercenaries have negotiated their hangovers, long before the Emiratis have shouted at the maid, buses full of hard-hatted Asians pull into building sites. They have the tough, downtrodden look of Communist posters from the 30s—they are both the slaves of capital and the heroes of labor. Asians man the hotels; they run the civil service and the utilities and commercial businesses; they are the clerks and the secretaries, the lawyers, the doctors, the accountants; there isn’t a single facet of this state that would function if they didn’t maintain it. No one with an Emirati passport could change a fuse. Yet, the workers, who make up roughly 71 percent of the population, have precious few rights here. They can’t become citizens, though some are the third generation of their family to be born here. They can be deported at any time. They have no redress. Many of the Asian laborers are owed back pay they aren’t likely to get. There are reams of anecdotal stories about the abuse of guest workers. I’m told about the Pakistani shop assistant who, picking up an Arab woman’s shopping bags, accidentally passed gas, got arrested, and was jailed.