We don't go to Dubai-holm
November 18, 2012 10:43 PM   Subscribe

In most Western media, what little I've read of Dubai has largely been negative, terming it a 'folly', a mistake, a blunder, and other synonyms. (apologies for no links) Can someone explain someone who knows nothing about the place, what the matter is with that city? What's wrong about it, and why doesn't the West like it, as opposed to other Asian developed Asian cities like Kuala Lumpur or Singapore?

Links, videos and such also appreciated.
posted by Senza Volto to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I always thought the main issue was property speculation and white elephants, like those artificial islands and a bunch of buildings nobody wants or needs. Plus a reliance on the financial sector. So, when the 2007/08 economic crisis hit, the economy went into a tailspin.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:49 PM on November 18, 2012

Best answer: Well, for one thing, a lot of those enormous, glittering skyscrapers don't hook into a municipal sewer system at all, they just truck out the sewage. There's a problem with sex trafficking. There's also something of a slave labor problem and issues with human rights. To say nothing of the environmental issues caused by building that kind of city in the desert.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:03 PM on November 18, 2012 [27 favorites]

From what I hear, it's the insane conspicuous luxury and waste, a city with a very high environmental footprint built in the middle of a desert on credit from the oil industry and slave labour from south east asia
posted by jacalata at 11:04 PM on November 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't think Dubai thinks of itself as "Asian", first of all?

There is a lot of critique of Dubai's (lack of) planning process from elsewhere in the Arab world. Most of the Western media critiques I've read include local critical voices. Non-Western nations outside the Middle East also critique Dubai's lack of environmental foresight and exploitation of workers.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:07 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: For me, the Independent article The Dark Side of Dubai made it clear that all Dubai's hyped-up ├╝ber skyscrapers are built on slave labor. (In this day and age! In a "modern" country! Disgusting isn't strong enough a word.)

The article also covers many other disturbing issues in Dubai; recommended.
posted by homodachi at 11:12 PM on November 18, 2012 [9 favorites]

The incredible focus on apparent luxury layered over a complete lack of municipal, developmental or financial planning. Huge swaths of the population living the kind of lifestyle where they might own a wardrobe of gucci and chanel and a football-field-size pool, with the financial planning that might render them completely unable to pay the electricity for the following month (fingers crossed!)
posted by Kololo at 11:17 PM on November 18, 2012

Well, for one thing, a lot of those enormous, glittering skyscrapers don't hook into a municipal sewer system at all, they just truck out the sewage.

The trucks in the Boing Boing article have Alberta license plates. So, like anything else, there is a mixture of hyperbole and reality.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:19 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hi from Dubai,

It would probably take too long to touch on all the points above, which generally strike me as true, though huge swaths of people are not in the Gucci realm. About 51% of the population is Indian, 17% Emerati and 16% Pakistani....

On the very broadest level, it can strike me as a city of extremes, with examples at both margins of the good and bad one can find pretty much everywhere. Too often, though, a sense that the what the place stands for, represents, reveres and is driven by are the worst forces--greed, dishonesty, materialism, exploitation of those less powerful, environmental abuses--around us all.

Also a sense that for various reasons, those forces are allowed to thrive (maybe even encouraged to do so) here more than they are in other places.

Feel free to MeMail me if you have any specific curiosities and questions.
posted by ambient2 at 11:40 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

KokoRyu, it's a photo illustration for a blog post about a radio program, which I'm pretty sure didn't come with visual materials. The specific issue has been well-covered in credible media. And I'm not sure how much one needs to exaggerate.

The list of issues, though, is really endless. The skyscrapers in green plazas is something of an urban planning relic dating back to mid-century last. (And they're not supposed to burn like this -- suggestive of inadequate codes, or enforcement, or endemic corruption in the building and health and safety sectors.) The glitz and glamour supported by massive cheap-to-the-point-of-slavery labor. The sense of a metropolis literally built on shifting sand, with no economy to truly support it (as shown at the trough of the recession -- when the 1% thin out, so does Dubai). The scale and newness of the city.

As to your last question, I think it's an interesting one, because I've felt that Dubai is a special case among world-class cities in its being so conspicuously non-Western in its orientation. Partly that's a trade-related thing: Dubai doesn't export anything of significance other than oil, and Dubai exists primarily for a particularly sheltered-yet-worldly class of elite. Almost all the "there" there is invented from whole cloth and it is primarily a kind of intersection (of cultures, of commerce) rather than a destination.

I don't think Dubai thinks of itself as "Asian", first of all?

They're in Asia for football purposes and for UN purposes, for starters, so it's not like they have a choice. I think culturally they view themselves as Middle-Eastern before anything else, with Islamic and Arab commonalities coming before any wider geography, but at the same time they are chock full of people who come from anywhere else -- so they are, for this scale, uniquely non-national and somewhat orthogonal to traditional allegiances of culture, genetics, or geography. Interestingly, I think these qualities are something one would find in a capital (of something), and if any city springs to mind as a comparison it's ... Coruscant. It's what you might call a "third place" kind of culture because so many of its residents are from elsewhere and may retain primary identification with that elsewhere. This can, of course, be both negative and positive, even simultaneously and contradictorily.
posted by dhartung at 12:09 AM on November 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Very few cities could have survived such scrutiny, if Western media were around to witness their inceptions. Quite a few couldn't survive such scrutiny even now.

As I see it, Dubai becomes a big target by being a humongous overnight ostentatious new rich development that hurts the refined tastes of civilized Westerners, in a world of ubiquitous cameras an instantaneous information exchange. We get to see the life cycle played out in its accelrated speed, pretty much in real time, in a way we've never quite been able to do before.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:30 AM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Related Metafilter thread.
posted by bardophile at 1:05 AM on November 19, 2012

I've known or know of people who go and work in Dubai to make a lot of money, because it's tax-free - so perhaps there's a perception of it as a place you go to be a capitalist for a while, at least for non-Middle Easterns, rather than because it's a nice place to be. It's a popular holiday destination in the UK and it doesn't appeal to me in the slightest - it's promoted as a place to go if you like golf and massive luxury malls, and is commonly thought of as quite boring otherwise.
posted by mippy at 1:41 AM on November 19, 2012

Best answer: The short answer is that it's a city built by slaves for the whims of the wealthy, in the least environmentally responsible way possible to create a place that is terrible to live in unless you're fabulously wealthy; of course, every city is fine to live in if you're that rich.

What's wrong about it, and why doesn't the West like it, as opposed to other Asian developed Asian cities like Kuala Lumpur or Singapore?

I think that part of it is that it's all folly and very little reason for existing, and in particular, existing in the showy way it is. Kuala Lumpur is the capital of a mid-size country, growing rapidly in prosperity. Taipei, another tall-building champ is as well. Singapore is one of the world's great shipping hubs, due to its' location, and in an ever-more-global economy, that has to matter. Shenzen, Dongguan and the rest of the Pearl Delta have been exploding, but when you put like half the manufacturing in the world all in one place over a period of 20 years, you are bound to get a hell of a lot of buildings built.

Most of these places have a stupid building or two; Singapore has a lot of restraint given their prosperity and more importantly, their limited land mass. Dubai is building after building that doesn't need to exist. The Burj Khalifa has been open for 2 years and is still 20% vacant. Less prominent structures are doing even worse. If you ignore the million and a half guest workers from South Asia (and the locals certainly do), Dubai is a city of less than a million, built with an endless, flat desert on one side. Compare it's skyline to a smallish city anywhere else on a coast in the prosperous parts of the world; Jacksonville, Florida, perhaps, or Newcastle, England.

By no reason, I mean no rational economic reason, by the way. The two second version of urban geography theory says that as cities get bigger, their central areas become pricier, which drives out first farms, then factories, then residents until there is a central core of businesses. This core will grow up into skyscrapers as the city gets larger and more prosperous, because central rents get so high that it's worth the crazy expense to build a tall building, just so you have more space to rent out.

Most of what is done in Dubai is done to be expensive, not because there is any reasonable need for it. Building a 1700 foot skyscraper in lower Manhattan is expensive as hell too (especially since the workers are actually being paid a living wage), but there is no more land in Manhattan and lots of demand. Dubai? The buildings sit empty, and there are only a few hundred thousand actual citizens (as opposed to guest workers).

The only city that I can think of (outside of similar Gulf cities like Abu Dhabi and Doha and Manama) that follows the model of stupid architecture in a ridiculous desert location is Las Vegas. But everybody understands that Las Vegas has built a bunch of stupid buildings to draw people there, to look at the stupid buildings and spend their money. So they at least have a purpose. The Gulf cities are fundamentally stupid buildings just to show off.

In conjunction, there is a trend of Middle Easterners buying their way into the global society; purchasing prominent sports franchises, and then spending ludicrous amounts of money on more players than they need. Whatever mix of bribery was needed to have Qatar awarded a World Cup ahead of countries with more than two million people. The Louvre opening up a branch in Abu Dhabi. There are class issues and race issues and religion issues all folded up here, but take what you will.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 2:05 AM on November 19, 2012 [14 favorites]

Best answer: I think it is worth comparing Dubai with Oman.

They are neighbours. Both are rich with oil. Both have dynastic rulers. Both have seen huge change since the 1970s, and the transition from sleepy Arab fishing communities to modern states.

Sultan Qaboos of Oman put Omanis at the heart of his plan, and in particular high levels of literacy and employment by Omanis for Omanis. He is trying to bake in a national identity and a skill set among his people. Downtown Muscat is not brash. Oman is not a country of excess. There are not legions of guest workers brought in from India or Asia. There is an expat white manager class but it is small. He is also a despot. His benevolent public profile is matched by a stifling hold on free speech and organisation in Oman. He has a purist's vision for Oman which makes it a lovely place to visit, a nice place to live, a difficult place to have an alternative view. And while Oman has an identity, what sort of a future does it have? I've been there and liked the place a lot as a tourist. But post-Qaboos, Oman has as much chance of becoming Yemen as it does a modern, functioning state.

Dubai is ambitious. And rather vulgar. I remember a friend who lived there in the 80s telling me about the newly built grass golf course. In the desert. Such ambition seems quaint now. The ludicrous buildings. The legendary laziness and opulence of Dubai's minor Sheikhs. The whole gleaming facade underpinned by a whole country's worth of South Asian guest workers who will be worked to the bone and treated like shit. And the expats. The disparaging acronym for Hong Kong's expats was FILTH (failed in London, try Hong Kong) and there is more than a whiff about that in Dubai as shiny suited chancers still make their way there to see if the pavements were made of gold.

But, is Dubai really that dumb? For all its trophy buildings it's clear to me at least that the al Maktoums aren't just building Vegas in the sand. Unlike, say, Saudi Arabia, where the money just drains away abroad, Dubai is a functioning state investing in its future. In 30 short years it has gone from backwater to being the major economic trade city of the Middle East. Along with the likes of Mumbai, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo and Singapore it occupies a short list of places out east where people go to meet and do business. I don't think it is any more or less silly than the stacked high rises of Hong Kong or anomalous than Singapore. It has built a peerless national airline and with it a hugely successful hub airport. It is investing in solar power. With the winds of trade the Sheikhs know they are having to modernise Dubai society, including stuff like boundaries of free speech and treatment of women. Beneath the brash exterior, despite the baggage of entitled minor royals, Dubai might actually be building for the future.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:44 AM on November 19, 2012 [17 favorites]

If you're looking for an alternative way of doing things in the same region, check out Muscat, the capital of Oman, just down the road.
posted by mdonley at 2:46 AM on November 19, 2012

What's wrong about it, and why doesn't the West like it...

I don't really think it is true to assert that the West does not like Dubai: most media coverage of is positive for example (here are links from The Guardian relating to travel to Dubai as a tourist destination for example - no mentions of slavery or sewage). Tourists and expats get their sun, sea, shopping and Salary in abundance. Things like tax, crime, environmentalism and human rights - which might spoil the fun - are minimised or removed. If you belong to the class of people who reap the benefits of this system then it is quite easy to see why this might be viewed as an acceptable compromise. Those western individuals and journalists who are openly antagonistic to the city are rather a niche, by contrast.
posted by rongorongo at 2:59 AM on November 19, 2012

Others have linked to it above, particularly the Vice.com video, but much of what's wrong with Dubai can be summed up: Sonapur.
posted by thewalrus at 3:23 AM on November 19, 2012

Also let's not forget that the UAE is a country which runs all Internet connections through a government-controlled choke point, blocking websites and "objectionable" traffic at the whims of those who run the place. Internet-wise and freedom of speech wise Dubai is no different from Uzbekistan or China.
posted by thewalrus at 3:27 AM on November 19, 2012

I don't really think it is true to assert that the West does not like Dubai

Yes. This question is the first time I realized anyone didn't like Dubai. I've always heard glowing reviews about it and the ambitious scope of its projects - that it was like the West of the Middle East, only better.
posted by corb at 4:44 AM on November 19, 2012

The thing that is troublesome about Dubai, besides the slavery and other stuff brought up here, is that a lot of the building was done with ridiculous assumptions about the world economy: "things are great now, there is no reason to believe it won't keep getting better forever!" So my understanding is that as the economy corrected, a lot of the buildings are unoccupied or unfinished and have little hope of being occupied for a long, long time.

But it isn't unlike a city like Chicago 150 years ago. Built at "sea" level on a swamp rather than a desert, poor sanitation, crossroads of a new economy, lots of bad building decisions.

The sewage pumping isn't all *that* of a big deal. I would imagine most big buildings have similar systems, since their basements are lower than the sewers anyway. So pumping the waste from the cesspool to trucks isn't all that different from pumping it into the pipes.
posted by gjc at 5:01 AM on November 19, 2012

Best answer: I think that part of it is that it's all folly and very little reason for existing, and in particular, existing in the showy way it is. Kuala Lumpur is the capital of a mid-size country, growing rapidly in prosperity. Taipei, another tall-building champ is as well. Singapore is one of the world's great shipping hubs, due to its' location, and in an ever-more-global economy, that has to matter.

This is of course, the purest sort of nonsense. Dubai has been a trade hub for a long time and has some of the largest and busiest transit port facilities in the region. That's like saying that NYC or London don't have a reason for existing because finance, fashion, and services aren't "real". No-one could see the nearly horizon to horizon container yards and light manufacturing facilities of the Jebel Ali Free Zone and think "nope, all folly!".

Honestly I think it is mostly the contrasts. We all know that there is great luxury available in the great cities of the West and we all know that there is great poverty in many cities around the world, including in the slums of many Asian cities. What is startling is to see a city where you can see both.

Also, I think people often have trouble with the geographical and historical context. To quote from an earlier comment:

Remember people, this country shares a looong land border with Saudi Arabia, strong historical ties with Pakistan and Iran. Many of the leading Emirati families, especially in Dubai - not so much in Abu Dhabi, are actually ethnically Pakistani and Iranian. Many of the midlevel managers here who are the footsoldiers in the abuse of the workers are from Pakistan, from sub-saharan Africa, from the Central Asian bits of the CIS - these are all places where workers are often treated even worse than they are 'here'. So these supervisory dudes are thinking, what's the problem? this is better than how we treat manual labour in Sudan.

I think part of the problem for Dubai is the way they marketed themselves, as some kind of Utopian holiday destination in the sun. People don't think of the physical geography, they think in terms of airline hubs and spokes - it's like a Tube or Metro diagram rather than a map. People think "Place I saw on the telly with nice hotels and shopping" not "Surrounded by Saudi Arabia and Iran". (Obviously the local tourist board downplays the geography)

So of course when they market Dubai as a modern city-state, people develop Expectations.
They say - that shit might fly in Saudi (where nobody goes on beach holidays) but in Dubai, no. It jars with their desired media image.

Of course their reach rather exceeded their grasp at the height of the bubble, but you have to understand who exactly was hurt by that. Many investors bought 10-15 apartments here as investment properties, those guys have lost a lot of money now that the properties are worth 50% of what they were at their peak. But Dubai as a city has gained an enormous stock of good quality housing, commercial property, and transportation infrastructure. Unless you think that regional trade is suddenly going to stop, or that the legions of traders, consultants, bankers, marketers, technology companies, etc. are going to move elsewhere in the Middle East, Dubai isn't going anywhere.

(The sewage thing is old hat - all the new buildings are tied into the sewage system. That dates back to the peak of the bubble when new construction out-paced the ability of existing infrastructure to deal with it. It's also sort of a goofy complaint.)
posted by atrazine at 5:10 AM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

My opinion on Dubai isn't particularly well-informed by anything other than the general conventional wisdom, but my impression of Dubai is that it's largely a result of people saying "hey! let's build a totally ridiculous city for no real reason!" and hoping that the city they built would be the reason for its existence. Thus, you get the "World" and "Palm" landfill developments and the Burj Khalifa.

This all gets very close to the definition of the architectural term "folly", basically a thing built for no other purpose than just to build it. Granted, development in Dubai generally has some kind of purpose to it, but the extravagances push it over the edge.
posted by LionIndex at 7:53 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is of course, the purest sort of nonsense. Dubai has been a trade hub for a long time and has some of the largest and busiest transit port facilities in the region.

I don't mean to contradict this statement - there's a reason for Dubai to exist, and I think a lot of Americans will remember the scandal when a Dubai-based port company was looking to buy out ports in the US. I think the public perception of Dubai as a folly comes from the development spurt of the late 90s-mid 00s. I don't think most Americans knew about Dubai before 2000. I'd never heard of it until the Burj-al-Arab (a hotel built on reclaimed land intended to look like a sailboat) showed up.
posted by LionIndex at 8:02 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

A friend that visited Dubai described the place as "culturally empty."
posted by oceanjesse at 8:34 AM on November 19, 2012

A friend that visited Dubai described the place as "culturally empty."

Dubai is so socially very fractured. Dubai also has a very active art scene and not just super expensive stuff, there is a lot of great Iranian and Arab modern art being made and sold at reasonable prices by artists living locally. I will say that it is very easy for a Euro expat to live here for years without encountering any of those sides at all and only socialising with their own kind.

I speak some Arabic and go hunting in the desert with my Emirati friends, but I know them because I went to high school in Dubai - it would be really hard for an expat (especially a non-Arab) to get any access to that culture.
posted by atrazine at 10:55 AM on November 19, 2012

Dubai is definitely not a folly, though there are people who would love for us to condemn and dismiss it as just a folly. It has a very serious and important reason to exist -- it is a monstrous, churning laundromat for cash of dubious provenance. Think of those skyscrapers as giant stacks of dirty money, kept smugly safe from the reach of any national justice system. As churches were once considered sanctuaries of mercy for criminals on the run, Dubai provides safety and a shiny veneer of respectability for some people who are getting very very rich from some very evil activities. Dubai is a melting pot for money, where the proceeds of all sorts of evil and corruption flow and mix with little restriction. With international organized crime existing on the scale that it does, there has to be a Dubai.
posted by Corvid at 12:46 PM on November 19, 2012

will say that it is very easy for a Euro expat to live here for years without encountering any of those sides at all and only socialising with their own kind.

I would actually go further than that and say that, for most expats in the Emirates, it's probably very hard (depending on class and ethnicity, it may be well-nigh impossible) to encounter actual Emirati culture, and it is challenging to find opportunities to build friendships and/or relationships with people other than "their own kind."

"Socially fractured" is a very good way to describe it.
posted by bardophile at 1:00 AM on November 20, 2012

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