Dubai's Dramatic Drop
by Daniel Pipes
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As the Muslim world settled into ever-deeper decline over the past decade, mired in political extremism, religious sickness, economic irrelevance, WMD, anarchy, dictatorship, and civil wars, Dubai stood out as a happy anomaly.
But if Dubai seemed to be an exception to the general Muslim trajectory, it was only temporary.
In three distinct arenas – economics, culture, and sports – very recent developments show how much the statelet has in common with the impoverishing and separating Muslim world.
Dubai's leadership, Ibrahim notes, invested its profits "from selling Disneyland desert fantasies in enduring assets outside the Gulf," such as port facilities and hotel properties.
When the music stopped last fall, with a world-wide recession and the price of oil tumbling over two-thirds, no one got harder hit than the Dubai dream machine. Just as it ascended with panache, so it now sinks con brio. One example, as reported by Robert F. Worth in the New York Times:
This unique abandoned-car syndrome results in part from the emirate's stringent work rules. As Worth explains, "jobless people here lose their work visas and then must leave the country within a month. That in turn reduces spending, creates housing vacancies and lowers real estate prices, in a downward spiral that has left parts of Dubai — once hailed as the economic superpower of the Middle East — looking like a ghost town."
Signs of the new penury abound:
Expatriates in Dubai are now so down on the country, Worth explains, some see it "as though it were a con game all along."
There is every reason to think that the economic descent has just begun and has a long way to go. As this happens, foreigners are fleeing. Christopher Davidson, a specialist on the UAE at Durham University, notes that "When Dubai was rich and successful, everyone wanted to be its friend. Now that it has no money in the pocket, nobody wants to be pals anymore."
When it comes to cultural extravagance, Dubai cedes first place to its neighbor, Abu Dhabi, which in early 2007, announced the "Cultural District of Saadiyat Island" to include satellites of the Guggenheim (costing US$400 million) and Louvre ($1.3 billion) museums, plus about two dozen other museums, performing arts centers, and pavilions.
Still, Dubai has ambitions, if more modest ones and the first Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature, opening on Feb. 26, is to serve as its literary coming-out party. A welcoming message from the director of the festival, Isobel Abulhoul, explains:
All good, but the EAIFL hit a bump before it even opened, one that threatens to overshadow the event itself. Never mind "the world of books in all its infinite variety"; the festival banned British author Geraldine Bedell because Sheik Rashid, one of the minor characters in her novel The Gulf Between Us (Penguin), is a homosexual Arab with an English boyfriend; to make matters worse, the plot is set against the background of the Kuwait War.
As Abulhoul wrote to Bedell, disinviting her. "I do not want our festival remembered for the launch of a controversial book. If we launched the book and a journalist happened to read it, then you could imagine the political fallout that would follow." As for the Kuwait War, that "could be a minefield for us."
Bedell responded that her novel "is incredibly affectionate towards the Gulf. I feel very warmly towards it, except when things like this happen. It calls into question the whole notion of whether the Emirates and other Gulf states really want to be part of the contemporary cultural world ... You can't ban books and expect your literary festival to be taken seriously."
Indeed, the biggest name of the Dubai event, Canadian author Margaret Atwood, stayed away in protest at Bedell's exclusion ("I cannot be part of the festival this year."), eventually agreeing to appear via video link-up in a debate on censorship to be staged by International PEN at the festival.
Why? Well, she is Israeli. Organizers of the event cited security fears as their reason to bar Pe'er.
In consultation with Pe'er, the Women's Tennis Association decided to continue with the Dubai tournament. "She didn't want to see her fellow players harmed the same way she was being harmed," said Larry Scott, CEO of the WTA.
Still, Pe'er's exclusion had immediate repercussions for Dubai. The Tennis Channel canceled coverage of the event; The Wall Street Journal Europe revoked its sponsorship; event organizers were fined US$300,000 ($44,250 of which will go to Pe'er); and American star Andy Roddick said he would boycott the male championship in Dubai. During the trophy ceremony, tournament winner Venus Williams discomfited the hosts by mentioning Pe'er's exclusion.
Not only was Scott bombarded with messages from upset fans ("It's an issue that obviously touches a nerve") but he reported "a real snowballing effect": "I've been contacted by representatives of other businesses, academic institutions, cultural institutions that equally would only have invested in being in the UAE if they had the same assurances we had that Israelis could participate in the activities."
As a result of the Pe'er fiasco, Andy Ram, an Israeli ranked 11th among male doubles tennis players was granted a "special permit" to enter Dubai and will play this week in the male Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships. To stay on the tour schedule in 2010, the Dubai organizers must guarantee Pe'er a wild-card entry, so she gets to play there even if she fails to qualify, and must grant qualifying Israeli players visas eight weeks in advance.
In other words, Dubai must accept international rules or it excludes itself from championship play. That is no small matter in a statelet that has gone into top-tier sports in a big way as a way to attract tourism; the Associated Press notes that it "hosts the world's richest golf tournament and horse race, is home to the world governing body for cricket and is building a $4 billion Dubai Sports City to house stadiums, sports academies and one of several lush golf courses."
Through a heady mix of speed and affluence, Dubai tried to vault over tough economic, religious, and political decisions. The establishment hoped that building big would substitute for a sound base. It hoped to finesse troublesome issues, that glitz would overwhelm substance. For example, it expected that patronizing prestigious events would permit it to change the rules; Dubai says no minor homosexual literary characters or no Israeli tennis players? So be it! Dubai rules, the globe follows.
But that will not happen. The sharp drop in oil prices exposed the country's inescapable weakness, while Dubai's literary and tennis debacles confirmed the point. Instead, an entirely different model now tempts it – what I call the separation of civilizations. Unable to impose their way, Persian Gulf Arabs are retreating into a Muslim ghetto with its own economics (including Shar'i compliant tools), consumer goods, media, transportation, fast foods, sports competitions, search engines, and even systems of keeping time.
This course is doomed to failure. At a certain point, the issues at the center of Muslim life for the past two centuries – the tension between tradition and modernity, the opposition of Muslim identity to universal values, the strains of economic development – will have to be faced. Hucksterism and fast talk will not solve these problems. As Dubai's vacation from history abruptly ends, its hard work begins.
Feb. 25, 2009 update: In a comment on this article, "Not Quite That Bad," Ken Wise, a journalist based in Dubai, takes issue with some of Robert F. Worth's observations about abandoned cars, population, and traffic jams.
Mar. 8, 2009 update: Just days later and the Dubai authorities are at it again, this time excluding Sarah Younger of the Israel branch of the International Chamber of Commerce. And like the women's tennis federation, the ICC responded unequivocally, deciding in the future not to hold its conferences in countries that do not allow representatives of all its 140 member states to enter. Mark one more step toward the separation of civilizations.
Apr, 7, 2009 update: For a scorching on-site analysis of "a city built from nothing in just a few wild decades on credit and ecocide, suppression and slavery," see Johann Hari's long article, "The dark side of Dubai," in today's Independent. One quote, from a bankrupted Canadian woman: "The thing you have to understand about Dubai is – nothing is what it seems. Nothing. This isn't a city, it's a con-job. They lure you in telling you it's one thing – a modern kind of place – but beneath the surface it's a medieval dictatorship."
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