Osama's Nightmare Las Vegas in the Arabian Desert
Part 2: The first truly global city
One night here costs 800 ($1,015), and for your money you get 180 square meters (1,938 square feet) of living space and your own private lobby. The ceiling is easily six meters (20 feet) high and features a chandelier large enough to have been taken from a knight's castle. Underneath the chandelier, a curved staircase leads up to sumptuous bedrooms with mirrors above the beds and ivory bathrooms with whirlpools.
Guests arrive at the Burj al-Arab hotel in Dubai.
The Burj al-Arab is an endearing attempt to show off the good life, but most of all it's a prime example of the illusory nature of Dubai's fantasy world. The building wasn't erected mainly to create a swanky hotel. What was at stake was a new image of Dubai's entry into the future.
Experts have calculated that even if the hotel is constantly filled to capacity, the investment will take 50 years to pay off. But those calculations belie a lack of imagination. The hotel has already managed to put the country on the map of international tourism and made Dubai a visible competitor in the grand race that is the world economy.
Dubai's economy has been growing for years at 10 percent per annum. It has long since overcome its dependence on oil. In 1985, oil still accounted for almost 50 percent of the country's gross national product; by 2004, the figure had shrunk to barely six percent. The Maktum family expects about 20 million tourists to visit every year. They want to turn the emirate, now inhabited by less than two million people, into a country of 10 million. The family is recruiting potential citizens all over the world. Dubai may be the first city that takes globalization seriously.
The forbidden question
The mercenaries of capitalism have been drawn to Dubai by the fact that personal income and corporate profits aren't taxed. Foreigners make up more than 85 percent of the population. They come from 150 different nationalities. They're businessmen and adventurers, mostly -- alongside tens of thousands of workers raising the towers of the future in the blistering heat, a new, multinational proletariat from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq. They have to live in huts in segregated neighborhoods outside the city gates, devoid of any sort of rights.
The local family clans reside in palaces whose portals feature life-sized, galloping golden horses. Their underground garages feature one or two Mercedes cars per family member, along with a couple of Porches or VW Touaregs just for fun. This world and the people who live in it are not a caricature. They really exist.
Mohammed and Kassim are sitting at a table on the forty-fourth floor of Grosvenor House, where the fancy bar is buzzing with people talking business lingo and drinking wine for $300 a bottle. The two men, both of them 58 years old, have been friends all their life. They don't want their full names to appear in print. Together, they dispose of more money than many German cities. They've earned it with construction projects, and by investing in the publishing business and in industrial plants. They've been involved in the cattle and milk industries, and in the oil industry.
Villas at the Jumeira Palm Island in Dubai.
They talk about their childhood. Mohammed is a short man with a stubbly beard and nickel glasses. Kassim is stocky, with a face like Anthony Quinn's. They talk about the time when Dubai was a village without fresh water and about how they had to wash in the sea, about how they played with stones and camels when they were small. Then, the world beyond the desert and the sea was something they knew only from faded pictures.
They talk about how the economic boom really got going 10 years ago and transformed everything else. Yes, they say, it really is incredible. "Nine thousand workers are employed just for building a subway," says Kassim. "It's great," says Mohammed. For a time, he dined with Dubai's rulers every Thursday. He's a powerful and influential man with considerable social status, but he's also a modest, charming person who has no trouble making conversation in English.
In his traditional white robe and headscarf, he seems like a manager from London or Boston who is going to a costume party dressed up as a sheikh. But the impression is deceptive. Even after two bottles of wine, much laughter and much mutual probing of the other person's character, it takes courage to ask the really tough questions.
Is no one worried about tradition here? Or about Islam? Mohammed avoids my gaze. The expression on his face signals that this question is inappropriate. He says: "There may be some skeptics in Saudi Arabia and in Qatar, but the overall development is positive."
And isn't there criticism from within Dubai itself? Isn't there any trouble related to the number of foreigners? Mohammed and Kassim don't look away, but their body language becomes defensive. They glance at the woman who organized the meeting and introduced me -- the foreigner -- as a friend. "We welcome foreigners. They're doing great business. We all profit. Everything is fine."
And what if a few angry young men were to show up, their intentions not quite benevolent? The men look at their glasses and say nothing. They don't like this question at all. It's the forbidden question here in Dubai. It's not appropriate for the visitor, the foreigner, to ask. They don't reply. They look away to the side.
A city of opposites
"Well, if there were a terrorist attack!" Kassim exclaims, after the question is posed again. "What then? Nothing! We're not afraid. Foreign countries are always fearful. If there's terror, then that's that. But this development can't be reversed anymore. This development is a good one." Mohammed says: "Let's go have dinner, it's time." They're going to have fist-sized filet steaks down in the mezzanine, and they'll drink blood-red Brunello wine with their meal. But they won't enjoy it.
Dubai is the most contradictory city in the world. It's a picture show of crazy opposites and at the same time a place that would be outlawed under sharia rule. It's Osama bin Laden's nightmare. Girls veiled from head to toe rummage for Italian underwear in the shopping malls. The supermarkets feature butchers who sell pork, although they're sectioned off like porn shops in a European video store. The holy city of Mecca isn't far away, but you can get liquor and prostitutes everywhere, and Christmas is already celebrated more extravagantly than the end of Ramadan.
The basic political principles are confused, too. When the war against the Taliban started in Afghanistan, Dubai's rulers were allies of the Taliban. But the United Arab Emirates supported the USA in the war against Iraq. You can see US warships in the port, and there are hundreds and hundreds of Western military advisors at the ruling family's court.
If one accepts the commonplaces of the debate on world cultures, Dubai is an impossible city. On the one hand, it's more cosmopolitan than eastern Germany and southern Italy, more tolerant than Poland or Louisiana, and consumers spend more here than in Munich or Madrid. But on the other hand it's a dictatorship, almost a rogue state, a desert regime without a parliament or a political opposition, without trade unions, political parties or associations. All books and newspapers are subject to censorship. Sharia law is observed, including corporal punishment, and all Jews are strictly banned from entering the country.
Dubai is an impossible city. Perhaps that's why it's also a model, a laboratory for the relaxed co-existence of East and West, a place where people from all over the world can meet. It's not a melting pot, but it's a place where different people are somehow able to live side by side, a bit like neighbors in an anonymous skyscraper.
That could work, even in the long run -- maybe. But it's also possible that everything will go wrong. There have already been food riots by construction workers. There have been demonstrations in the center of town. Perhaps the only reason the city has been spared a terrorist attack is that, at the moment, every other digger, every other construction crane and every other caterpillar truck belongs to the Bin Laden Group, the largest construction business in the Arab world. Maybe even al-Qaeda needs Dubai to launder money for future operations -- who knows. It's a guessing game. Dubai is dazzling and confusing.
Before leaving, I take a trip to the suks, the bazaars along the Creek, the body of water that separates the old part of town from the sea. Olaf Fey and Lilly come along. For a few cents you can travel across the water by boat and enjoy the warm breeze. It's only here by the creek that Dubai looks like an old-fashioned city -- crowded, sprawling, with alleys and old buildings, a government palace, ancient fortresses and imposing mosques.
The Indians and Pakistanis live here. This neighborhood teems like Calcutta. It's pleasant to go for a walk here, outside the theme parks and far from the shopping malls where people go skiing on artifical slopes. Life hasn't been neatly ordered here. "Don't stray too far," says Olaf Fey. "It's easy to lose one's way." Which is almost the whole truth about Dubai, in a single sentence.
- Part 1: Las Vegas in the Arabian Desert
- Part 2: The first truly global city