Not Buying Dubai
Apologies to all for my extended absence from the world of Octopus. Foreign travel limited my internet access (and, frankly, gave me better things to do with my time). Anyways… now that I’m back I thought I’d do some quick travel thoughts, starting with Dubai, where I spent a day on a long lay-over.
Before I start down the road of my personal travelogue (abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner once said that men of “established character” would never read a travel book) I should point everyone to this recent New York Review of Books article on Dubai to properly establish my high-minded intellectual cred. Dubai has not, according to Hammer, weathered the global financial meltdown well:
During the past few months, I was told, Sheikh Mohammed has been trying to confront his dream’s collapse. He has said little publicly about the economic meltdown, other than issuing a handful of sunny pronouncements about Dubai. “Sheikh Mo is an angry man,” I was told by a source who knows him well; he feels “betrayed” by the real estate promoters who had assured him to the end that their ventures were healthy. According to my source, the sheikh has been taking long solo drives in his Mercedes at night, stopping in front of construction sites, and gazing pensively at the many vacant and half-built skyscrapers. Mohammed recently completed his autobiography for a US publisher with the assistance of a ghostwriter, but, a source in publishing said, he had refused to add a chapter about the bursting of the real estate bubble, the debt crisis, and the bailout by Abu Dhabi. He saw no reason to discuss these sources of humiliation.
Dubai rests on a 3 part caste system. On the top are the citizens, those that actually own passports of the U.A.E. These are less than 1/5 of the actual residents. In the middle—or perhaps they’re really on the top—are the wealthy ex-pats who find Dubai a wonderful place to deposit their cash. On the bottom are a vast sea of Indian, Bangladeshi, and Filipino indentured servants who lack citizenship, meaningful political rights, are legally bared from forming unions, and can be deported the second they cause any trouble. If Singapore discovered that capitalism minus democracy was a profitable equation, then Dubai has discovered that capitalism minus actual citizens is an even better equation.
So while the gleaming pamphlets and video presentations on Emirates Air (the national airline) tell me that the ingenuity of founding Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyen and the general go-getterness of the country explains its sudden wealth, the real answer is that Dubai has, at least for now, beat out its other competitors in the pure shamelessness with which it allows international capital free reign to do as it pleases. No pesky workers forming unions, no annoying environmentalists telling you not to air-condition an artificial ski mountain in the middle of the desert, no neighborhood associations complaining about your hideous skyscraper, no taxes to keep widows or orphans alive.
In this sense the fact that Dubai, as a city, is so new is perfect for its purposes (as late as the 1960s, Dubai was basically just a backwater village). History, after all, implies a society with a sense of past, present, and future. As Karl Polyani argued, societies will inevitably revolt against the logic of the market, protecting themselves from “acute social dislocation.” Global capitalism, then, solved this the most obvious way: by getting rid of society. The lack of any meaningful history has its enormous advantages: the commons come pre-enclosed, you have no solidarities of tradition and culture to run up against, no legacies of resistance or memories of revolution. Just an endless blank slate of sand and water in which to build as the dictates of international capital flows demand.
What’s so fascinating, then, about Dubai is the window it opens into the deepest desires of global capitalism. The city is neoliberalism’s id written in concrete, steel, and glass. Not a union to be seen, but cops everywhere. Plenty of cheap laborers, but no need to pay for their social reproduction. A bloodless cosmopolitanism but no democracy or free speech rights. The engine of the economy, as near as I can tell, has been endless real estate speculation, though its unclear who exactly will be living in all these high-rises. Its like they skipped all those phases of the economy in which you build things and jumped right into the decadent autumn of financial speculation. If all those pesky Marxists are correct, and we’re entering a crisis of global capital over-accumulation, then Dubai, at least until recently was the perfect receptacle for all that excess capital. Dubai encouraged foreigners to buy Dubai real estate. They generally made the down payment and then flipped the property to others at inflated prices. Eventually it all catches up with someone. M can’t keep creating M´ out of thin air forever.
At the peak of the bubble, in 2007, he told me, “about twenty-five hundred” property brokerage firms had operated in Dubai. Many of these firms had collapsed when property prices began to plummet in late 2008. Now, he said, only a few hundred such companies were left. He and his twenty-four-year-old British girlfriend lived in a condo on one of the “fronds” of Palm Jumeirah—a configuration of artificial islands shaped like a palm tree, and the only one of three Palm projects to be completed—and prided themselves on having survived the shakeout. Dozens of acquaintances had lost their jobs, had their visas revoked, and been forced to leave. An unfortunate few had been thrown in jail for failing to pay their debts. “It’s the survival of the fittest now,” he told me.
Aesthetically the city is spectacularly grandiosely boring , “everywhere and nowhere,” as Hammer describes it. At first you’re amazed by all the skyscrapers, and then you wonder how the hell anyone tells them apart. I’m sure the Emirates have a culture of their own, but all I ever saw were Versace stores and Cold Stone Creameries. It is true that some of the buildings sported a faux-Arabian aesthetic, but this was more likely to summon visions of Disneyland than Mecca. The city is a bizarre combination of urban density and extreme car-culture. The main drag—Sheikh Zayed Road—is 14 lanes wide, but girded with 40 story skyscrapers. Its like the worst parts of New York combined with the worst parts of LA. One result is that there are no real sidewalks, no downtown where a public can form and interact. A related feature is that Dubai is the only city you’ll ever visit in which the tour brings you to only private locations—all the relevant tourist attractions are malls, skyscrapers, hotels, gated communities, etc… There are no public monuments, no parks for the people to relax in, no historical sites. My tour guide was especially interested in rattling off for us the vital statistics of various hotels as we passed them (how many rooms, how much they cost, what absurdly unnecessary luxury item they came with, etc…).
That said, despite my obvious distaste for Dubai, I have to admit that I’m also bizarrely fascinated by it. The whole city has this intense dystopian sci-fi feel about it that, if nothing else, catches your eye. I suspect Dubai will be a failure- capital will find somewhere even more willing to prostrate itself- but at least its an interesting failure.