Dubai has sold its soul to globalization like few cities have. A glittering capitalist fantasyland has taken shape at the heart of the Arab world. It's a center of international trade, a holiday paradise and a carnival rolled into one.
High above the Persian Gulf, in Vu's Bar on the fifty-first floor of Dubai's Emirate Towers Hotel, a woman calling herself Nikita drinks pink mai tai cocktails like tap water. She smokes pearl-white Cartier cigarettes. She's moody and irritable -- a thin whore from Kazakhstan at the heart of the strict Islamic world. "Get lost if you don't want me," she says. "You're bad for business, here in my little rat's cage."
Men linger around the tables, locals and vacationers from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. They're wearing snow-white dishdasha robes and their heads are framed in the traditional kaffiyeh head garb. These are the men who play the moral authority in their families, and then to go out late at night and drink Johnnie Walker Gold Label. They're guzzling sin down greedily, Cuban cigars in hand. Desire for a woman like Nikita flickers in their eyes.
Her body is available for $300. "Three zero zero," she says, drunk. "I'm sad, I'm funny, buy me another mai tai." Behind her slim silhouette and far down below lies the city, shrouded in its nightly mugginess. You can see the row of skyscrapers on Sheikh Zayed Road. Further back and closer to the sea lies the Jumeirah neighborhood's broad strip of villas, a blinking chessboard.
Seen from this hotel bar 300 meters (984 feet) above the ground, it's a quiet and festive panorama, an image fit for travel magazines. But this is only a small part of the city. Like so many images of Dubai, it's illusory. Those images make everything look like something from a glossy brochure, but the city isn't so much a grand festival as a place undergoing profound transformation, a place torn with contradictions. Dubai is like a bag full of puzzle pieces, and no one knows what picture they will make once fit together.
It's Sunday, the work week in the Islamic world is beginning. The temperature is crawling to almost 50 degrees Centigrade (122 Fahrenheit), a mist of evaporated seawater is forming along the coast. Olaf Fey, a paunchy Bavarian with a moustache, brings his cherry-red Mercedes with cream-colored leather seats to a halt. He's willing to give a tour of his own Dubai -- for a fee. Fey worked as a policeman in Munich for 20 years. At the end of his career, he led a canine unit. When the dog died and his relationship shortly thereafter, he decided it was time to start a new life -- far away from the long German winters and the gloomy mood that comes with them.
He resigned from his position, giving up the benefits of being a civil servant, including his pension. That was four or five years ago. At the time, everyone said he was crazy, but now he's 43 and proud to have re-invented himself here in the desert. Fey sells vacation trips and information, calling himself the managing director of Travel Service Dubai, a kind of one-man business consisting of roughly a dozen Web links that provide 1,000 pages of information on Dubai and always feature a path leading directly to Fey's booking service.
Click on the map for a larger view.
Fey knows Dubai well, especially those parts of the city that tourists like to visit. He has connections to hotel and restaurant managers all over the emirate. Take a tour with him and you'll meet Dutchmen, Pakistanis, Germans, Saudi Arabians. They wave as soon as they see Fey coming. He's set up a little network of business friends out here in the desert. "So, what do we want to do?" he asks over lunch at the bistro of the Royal Meridian hotel. "The usual? Everything's great in Dubai? Just wonderful? Or do we want to tell people how things really are around here?"
Rising and falling buildings
Not even Fey knows exactly "how things really are." He mentions the rent increases, as much as 40 percent a year, and the rapidly rising cost of living, the price of water and electricity, the trouble with new buildings that collapse. This view of Dubai reflects the everyday experience of a mixed-up international middle class. Life is hard for the members of this middle class, in Fey's opinion: It's a demanding life, not the tax-free, sunny dream that people all over the world associate with Dubai -- which is turns out to be many cities.
The glittering fantasy land from the travel brochures is only one of those cities, a beautiful optical illusion arranged by the the world's public relations managers. Whoever believes in it must think of Dubai as a kind of fairy tale, a place of Arab magic, an oasis of camels and sheiks and a cluster of luxury hotels where no day goes by without a golf tournament or swanky horse races.
But Dubai these days is mostly a noisy, rough, unkempt city -- one of the world's largest construction sites. Construction work is going on throughout most of the urbanized coastal strip, and the jackhammers can still be heard from the terraces of seaside hotels at night.
In five or six years, the around-the-clock construction work will produce a patchwork metropolis, a place with many town centers, divided up into theme parks for living, working, shopping, going out -- a post-urban city the likes of which has never existed before. And it will be an architectural mess: an aesthetic blend of Shanghai, Las Vegas, Disney World and southern Tenerife.
The Burj al-Arab hotel in Dubai is located on an artificial island. It's the tallest hotel in the world.
Closer to the city center, one construction site follows another. Our trip takes us past gigantic offshore construction projects with names like "The Palm" and "The World," artificial islands for Europeans who have grown weary of civilization. It continues through new business districts like "Knowledge Village" and "Media City." Then, near the city center, there's a cluster of skyscrapers being built with names like "Business Bay," "Old Town," "Dubai Living" and "Festival City." In the middle of a gray sand field riddled with cranes stands the foundation of what will soon be the highest building in the world, Burj Dubai. In two or three years it will stand 180 to 200 stories high, up to 800 meters (or 2,625 feet) -- more than twice the height of the Empire State Building.
The metropolis of superlatives
World records are a major consideration in Dubai's urban planning schemes. When Olaf Fey drives through the city, he points left and right, stringing together superlatives: the tallest building, the biggest shopping mall, the largest airport, and the biggest entertainment park, complete with the highest Eiffel Tower in the world, slightly higher than the original in Paris.
What about the large port in Jebel Ali? "Oh," Fey says. He doesn't have any contacts there. "That's not really very interesting." But Fey's answer is a long way from the truth.
Jabal Ali is the largest seaport ever built. The cranes, the ships, the wharfs -- everything is enormous. Take a tour through it and you'll feel like you're seeing the backdrop to an overblown sci-fi flick. The view from one of the giant cargo cranes is also striking: Millions of cargo containers form straight rows as far as the eye can see. There are ten or twelve such rows, each as broad as a highway. They seem endless, and they're as colorful as the world economy itself.
This panoramic view of the port facility is as overwhelming as London must have been in the 18th century, or Paris 150 years ago. It's a view that says: History is being written here; this is where old certainties break down. Dubai's port shatters the belief that America, Europe or China are the most modern of today's societies. It foreshadows an entirely different 21st century -- and an Arab world altogether different from the one the West thinks it knows.
The port recounts the magical tale of Dubai's rise to glory: Twenty years ago, four companies operated a few cargo cranes in this free trade zone. Today 6,300 companies from 100 countries have a presence here, and they are joined by new companies every day. A nodal point of world trade has taken shape in an extremely short time, linking India and Africa, China and Europe. It's as if the world had always been waiting for this transfer point.
That the port was built in the first place is owed to the boldness of Dubai's ruling Maktum family. When construction began in the 1970s, they had two things: money from oil sales and their old tradition as tradesmen -- not much more. What they added was the audacious plan to transform a barren stretch of desert into a buzzing free-trade zone and a tourist playground.
Ever since then, they've been handling capitalism like a construction kit. They built the new country by assembling pre-fabricated elements: ports, airports, airlines, streets, hotels, shopping malls. The most famous of their mammoth projects has become Dubai's trademark. The Burj al Arab is the tallest hotel in the world, shaped like a sail and positioned on a platform in the sea.
It's a seven-star establishment, and maybe the most famous hotel in the world. Olaf Fey drives up to it in his Mercedes. He knows the people at the gate. The area is surrounded by guards, security mirrors and ditches, as if a World Bank meeting were being held here. Two large white Rolls Royce cars stand parked at the top of the driveway. "So enjoy yourself here, I'll see you later," says Fey as we reach the entrance. He talks like the director of the hotel.
Inside the high lobby, Arab clan leaders walk by, surrounded by a dark orbit of veiled women. Two maids and a butler lead me to my room. One of the maids is from Bavaria. "We Bavarians are everywhere," she says and giggles as if she's made a dirty joke. The Butler is a Filipino wearing a tailcoat. His name is Filibert. Asked if he likes life in Dubai, he replies: "But of course, sir. This way please. You're staying in room 510."
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.
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