Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Las Vegas by the Persian Gulf

In what appears to be almost purely a promotional piece by Fox News, the city of Dubai has been crowned by the writer as the world’s ‘hippest’ city. It goes on to list the number of celebrities who frequently visit or own property in this city-emirate state on the shore of the Persian Gulf. Apparently, the chief sheikh of Dubai invested his riches into infrastructure improvements and most importantly in real estate ventures that have paid off well, with his city becoming quickly the preferred destination of the international business jet-set. He realized that the United Arab Emirate’s oil reserves were far too limited to ensure continuing wealth and so opted to diversify the economy.

The building developers in Dubai are nothing if not highly ambitious. They are intent on building the tallest, largest, and most whimsical structures around. The Burj Dubai tower will be finished in 2009 and will be far much taller than the current title-holder, Taipei 101. Their shopping malls are huge, and they contain several major water-parks. Nowadays the hot real estate trend is creation of man-made islands in the shape of common objects like palm trees or the world map. Although I have never traveled there, I’ve worked in firms that are quite grateful to Dubai’s building boom. It has allowed major architecture firms to conceive of projects free from budgetary or even regulatory constraints. Dubai is similar to Las Vegas in many ways: Both were sleepy desert settlements for most of their history and grew quickly from speculative development. Both offer an urban environment markedly liberating for outsiders, with relaxed cultural norms and an architecture that celebrates fantasy. I submit that Dubai aims to be more than Las Vegas in terms of the scale of its construction and its willingness to forgo any consideration by local inhabitants in the city’s expansion.

What concerns me about all this development has to do with the last point, the interest of the local population. The social structure of Dubai is very stratified, with a low-class mostly south Asian population doing all the menial labor, and the extremely rich professional and business class, often from great industrial powers that enjoy all of the new buildings and their amenities. Dubai has often been compared to Singapore, but it is evident that the wealth isn’t distributed at a level that promotes social stability as well as mobility. Dubai appears to offer little in the way of education, lacking any kind of university with respectable stature. So far I get the impression that Dubai continues to serve as a getaway for the rich and internationally mobile while being catered to be a massive underclass. I welcome readers who have been to Dubai to share your insights in the comments below.

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