Dubai: Globalization on Steroids
by William Morehouse in The American Scholar, Winter 2008, 1st December Promotions for Dubai on CNN, BBC World, and other satellite channels show a shimmering skyline of glass and steel office towers with their graceful curves and aquiline shapes, suggesting a distant galaxy where all the unpleasantness of urban life has been airbrushed away. But advertising almost always offers more promise than reality, whether the product is potato chips or a city or a country. Seen through the lens of the everyday, nothing in this city is so clear. It’s hard to come to terms with Dubai, because there is confusion even in the way it is described by the media. It is often referred to as a Persian Gulf country (which it definitely isn’t), or a city-state (wrong again), or a Gulf emirate (also not accurate, because Dubai, the city, is only part of Dubai, the emirate, which is an integral part of the United Arab Emirates). But one thing is clear: during the three years I’ve lived here, it has undergone the kind of transformation that a city might experience once in a lifetime. Each time I leave my apartment block, I drive past shells of unfinished buildings with piles of sand and rubble spilling onto the sidewalks, and I’m struck by another irony of Dubai— that the more the city aspires to be the premier megalopolis of the 21st century, the more it resembles 1945 Dresden. The pace of growth has left many residents wondering what the hurry is. Yet everyone seems to be in a rush. On Sheikh Zayed Road, the 12 lanes linking Dubai with Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital 100 miles to the south, drivers barrel down the fast lanes at 90 miles an hour. Late on a Friday night, drivers weave in and out of the speeding traffic, which results in an appalling accident rate that leaves crushed fenders and tangles of gnarled metal piled along the roadsides. Has any place on earth grown as quickly or been transformed so completely? Aerial photos from the early 1960s show a dusty, ramshackle trading post tucked be-tween the Persian Gulf and the Creek, Dubai’s inland waterway and outlet to the sea. Ten years later it was beginning to take on the look of a prosperous city; a decade after that it had changed so much as to be almost unrecognizable. The one-runway airstrip had been replaced by an international airport, a forest of office towers had grown up along the Creek, and residential tracts had spread across barren expanses of desert that stretched to the horizon. Dubai today is often described as a Wild West town, and the widespread economic opportunism lends some truth to the description. Driving the expansion is neither natural resources nor old-world industrialization but rather the gears of a 21st-century economy—banking, technology, trade and tourism, real estate, and media outlets. The tycoons cutting business deals in hotel restaurants and on beach-club patios are representatives of this new global economy—Taiwanese bankers and Lebanese import/exporters, Russian oligarchs and Iranian property investors. But even Dubai is not
immune from the vicissitudes of global economics—the September worldwide financial crisis drained almost $6 billion from its financial markets. In spite of its rapid growth and the influence of globalization on Dubai, a bit of the old city can still be found. Walk through the covered market on the Deira side of the Creek, past spice vendors displaying their wares in 100-pound sacks; then go up winding, narrow lanes past the gold, silver, and textile dealers from Pakistan and Iran and the Indian merchants who speak fluent Arabic, their roots in Dubai reaching back generations. From there it is only a short walk up to the Al-Hamadiya School, now a museum, the first place to offer formal education in Dubai. Exhaust-spewing water taxis still shuttle commuters across the Creek between the twisting streets of Deira and the traditional Bastakia quarter, home to the pre-oil ruler’s palace, a covered...
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