Tuesday, June 21, 2011

On Dubai

Something about this short Anne Applebaum piece really rubs me the wrong way. It compares present-day Dubai to 19th century urban America: a new type of city, strange to foreign visitors, but ahead of its time in many ways. She concludes, "Like the Europeans before me, I resist the idea that Dubai heralds the civilization of the future. But I have to concede that in some senses it might."

Now Dubai, of course, is enormously wealthy -- although not from oil, as most people believe. It derives its modern wealth from its zeal for the provision of unregulated financial services, and its location as a center for trade through the Persian Gulf (in particular, trade coming across the Gulf from Iran). And Dubai, of course, has hardly been modest in showing its prosperity, containing a good percentage of the world's tallest skyscrapers and some of the most extravagant construction projects ever attempted.

But how does Dubai represent the city of the future, exactly? To Applebaum, Dubai's modernity is expressed in its lack of any discernible history, culture, or heritage. As evidence, she cites the (in my opinion, extremely dubious) architectural similarities between Sears Tower and the Burj Khalifa, as well as the open expropriation of cultural indicators from around the world, ranging from Venice and Paris to Las Vegas. She talks about the mix of races and ethnicities living side-by-side in the city. To her, I suppose, Dubai has taken the funds it wrung from the global economy and used them to whitewash the streets, building thousands of feet of shining steel overtop any relic of past cities. She doesn't approve, but she notes that "there have always been people who dream of escaping from their culture, who long to forget their history, and who are content to live without the past."

Well, okay. I've never been to Dubai so I can't speak to how thoroughly adrift from history it really is. But I do know that Dubai is a very strange place. For instance: by a ratio of nearly 3 to 1, most of its residents are non-citizens. By a ratio of nearly 3 to 1, most of its residents are male. This is because a huge portion of its residents are undercompensated laborers living in camps outside the city, trucked into town every day and set to work building the towers, manning the shops, and cleaning the streets. And Dubai appears to require enormous amounts of labor to run, much more than an ordinary city. It maintains a huge tourist economy, and seems to cater almost exclusively to wealth, with all the trappings that catering to wealth entails.

One assumes that Applebaum didn't stay in -- or even see -- the labor camps that house most of the population. It stands to reason that most of the Dubai's residents would find her experience of the city unfamiliar -- maybe even unrecognizable. So while she's eager to declare Dubai's sleek capitalistic polish "vulgar," there's something equally vulgar about her willingness to expound on the "civilization of the future," while living in that civilization's palaces and, apparently, rarely peeking behind the curtain.

For Westerners, Dubai is by all accounts a fantasy of wealth. It's a gilded Potemkin village, where the walls are propped on the backs of imported Indian labor. It's those laborers that build and run the fake Louvres, the cavernous malls adorned with international trademarks. In other words, the reason Dubai doesn't have any history is because it (barely) paid hordes of politically powerless workers to scrub all the history away.

And that leaves us with a question: how does she propose that the ahistorical cities of the future accomplish the same, without doing the same? She thinks she's describing a future in which people live in a gray void of cultural ennui, but she's wrong. She's describing a future where most people live miserable, impoverished existences, scrapping out a living by serving their social betters. Her city of the future isn't soulless -- it's nightmarish.

I think the best story to tell about Dubai isn't about the rise of rootless capitalist culture, or about a fortunate few can escape to its towers, where they'll only ever be confronted with familiar names and clean, empty spaces. It's about the city's sewage system -- or rather, its lack of one. Instead, in the middle of every night, hundreds of trucks travel around the city, draining septic takes. They take all the waste that would otherwise flood the streets and carry it into the desert. Some of them deliver it to a treatment plant; other, less scrupulous drivers simply dump their cargo into the Gulf.

It's an absurd system, no doubt undertaken at absurd expense. It barely seems sustainable, or even rational. And despite the city's best efforts, it's not terribly functional: enough of the waste pollutes the waters of the Gulf that beaches outside the billion-dollar hotels have become a health hazard.

It's the perfect metaphor for Dubai: you have workers, under the cover of darkness, literally spiriting away all the filth generated by normal human society. It's the only way a city like Dubai works. And yet it all floats back to them in the end. It turns out, the way you build something -- and why you build it -- is important. Whoever does end up building the cities of the future should keep that lesson in mind.

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