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The Potemkin City-States of the Gulf

Reader comment on item: Can the Dubai Model Inspire Arabs?

Submitted by Pied Piper (Saudi Arabia), Jan 2, 2016 at 10:15

In 1787, when Catherine the Great visited the Ukraine, a series of fake buildings were hastily set up at her rest stops before her arrival to impress her on the progress being made in her territories. These fake village/buildings came to be known as Potemkin villages, named after Grigory Potemkin, a minister at Catherine's court and the creator of these fakes. As soon as she was on her way, the buildings were taken down and transported tout de suite to the next village on her itinerary where they were set up again.

The Gulf emirates, particularly Abu Dhabi and Dubai, ("Place of the Gazelle" and "The Little Sand Mound" respectively) the two most glamorous and best known of these emirates, have much in common with the original Potemkin villages. Quite dazzling at first sight, one soon perceives the emptiness within.

Thus, when one visits the "Khalifa Tower", the "tallest structure" in the world (although soon to be overtaken by a new one being built in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia), one cannot but be favorably impressed with the structure – until, that is, one enquires what it was built for and no one seems to have an answer (Ditto for the one in Saudi Arabia, one might add).

The "Khalifa Tower" in fact, becomes less impressive the more one delves into its origin. One might even say, for instance, that the tower is really a triumph of Western inspiration and innovation. True, it was Gulf wealth that made it possible in the first place and the location is within the Persian (aka Arabian) Gulf, but the plans, the architectural savvy, the construction, the myriad preparations required for such a monumental feat, were all done by Westerners.

Like the construction of the Causeway linking Saudi Arabia with Bahrain (two other Gulf countries but not "emirates",) it was the westerner who really did the work. I would not hesitate to declare that as far as the Tower is concerned, it is doubtful that a single Emiriati citizen lifted a single brick in the actual building of the tower. The "ribbon-cutting" opening ceremonies were, no doubt, heavily attended by the locals, and the ribbon may even have been snipped by a royal.....but that's all they did.

One should also remember that the UAE, despite its surface "westernization", is subject to implacable and uncompromising Sharia law. We all know what that means.

Not too long ago in 2012, Abu Dhabi closed down two well known international think-tanks – Germany's KAS and the American NDI, both democracy-promoting organization. Also ordered closed (which amounts to deportation) were the office of the RAND Corp. in Abu Dhabi. One of the things all this means is that western freedoms are allowed up to a certain point. Go beyond that point and you're cut off – in an instant.

Bottom line: the Gulf Emirates, in my estimation, appear as impressive examples of what other Arab states might want to become. But nothing of what impresses a foreigner visiting the Gulf is local, Arab or Middle Eastern. Everything that dazzles is Western in origin and conception.

Like the Potemkin villages of Catherine the Great, the modernity one sees in the Gulf is simply borrowed and temporary. Nothing is home-grown nor will it last. There has not been, and I would say there can never be, at least not for decades if not centuries to come, a fundamental change.

Submitting....

Note: Opinions expressed in comments are those of the authors alone and not necessarily those of Daniel Pipes. Original writing only, please. Comments are screened and in some cases edited before posting. Reasoned disagreement is welcome but not comments that are scurrilous, off-topic, commercial, disparaging religions, or otherwise inappropriate. For complete regulations, see the "Guidelines for Reader Comments".

Daniel Pipes replies:

Of course the money & technology come from the outside world, especially the West. Did I suggest otherwise? My point is that the UAE's leadership is using the money intelligently and offer a potential model for their Arabic-speaking colleagues.

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Note: Opinions expressed in comments are those of the authors alone and not necessarily those of Daniel Pipes. Original writing only, please. Comments are screened and in some cases edited before posting. Reasoned disagreement is welcome but not comments that are scurrilous, off-topic, commercial, disparaging religions, or otherwise inappropriate. For complete regulations, see the "Guidelines for Reader Comments".

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