Confusion! This theme resonated with me as I toured three of the Gulf Coast Countries (GCC) – Bahrain, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain – for two weeks in November 2015 with a group of educators sponsored by the Bi-lateral Chamber of Commerce, Houston Texas. The GCC, like other countries around the world, are a fascinating collection of contradictions, tensions, successes, dilemmas, and confusion.
In this 4th blog in my series on the region, I will focus on the city of Dubai, a visually spectacular city that merits a closer look. In my estimation, this stunning city personifies the confusion theme running through these blogs. The confusion theme especially resonated with me as I wrote this blog on the day of New Year’s Eve. How could a city launching some of the most spectacular fireworks in the world also have one of its luxury hotels in the city center be reduced to a burning inferno?
Our sponsors treated our group of educators to a one-day bus tour of Dubai as part of our educational program. Hardly enough time to acquire an in-depth “sense” of the city, but enough time to provide some impressions that I would like to share.
Dubai is the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and is one of the seven emirates that make up the country. Dubai joined with Abu Dhabi and 5 other emirates to form the UAE after intense negotiations in 1972. The population of Dubai is now just over 2 million people, and, as of 2013, only 10-15% of the population of the emirate was made up of Arab UAE nationals or citizens. Taking advantage of Dubai’s strategic location on the Persian/Arabian Gulf, planners are developing the city as a transportation, financial, consumer and vacation hub of the Middle East and, in fact, the world. One theory claims that the name Dubai came from a word meaning “money,” as historically people from Dubai were commonly believed to have made fortunes from trading. After visiting the city, I believe it.
Dubai’s close neighbor across the waters of the Persian/Arabian Gulf is Iran, making it a historic and important trading port. Dubai was known for its pearl exports until the 1930s when the Great Depression and the invention of cultured pearls contributed to the collapse of the pearling industry. Dubai fell into a deep depression and many residents starved or left the region.
The fate of Dubai changed in 1966 when oil was discovered in territorial waters off the coast, although in smaller quantities than the huge reserves in neighboring emirate Abu Dhabi. Oil revenue, flowing from 1969 onwards, supported the building of infrastructure and a diversified trading economy before the emirate’s limited reserves were depleted. Oil accounted for 24% of GDP in 1990, 7% of GDP by 2004 but slipped to 2% in 2008. Photos below: Burj Khalifa (left), Aquarium in mall (right) (Photos by Denise Ames)
Everything about Dubai appeared to be over the top! From the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, to the largest mall in the world housing the largest aquarium and home to the world’s largest candy store – the superlatives largest and grandest described practically everything we saw. In fact, Dubai is not just a city, it is a brand, and it is unabashedly being marketed as a brand. The brand showcased dazzling architecture, an entrepreneurial spirit, and enough glitz to make Hollywood look dull by comparison. However when touring the city I had an eerie “feeling” that I was just visiting a giant mall – complete with every high-end brand known to humankind – but lacking a true spirit or soul.
As our tour bus meandered through the grove of giant skyscrapers, each uniquely crafted masterpieces, I wondered who occupied all these structures. Many buildings seemed disconcertingly silent. The population of Dubai is just over 2 million people, not nearly enough to populate this cavernous city. Indeed, the occupancy rate for offices is about 60%, hotels even lower (although estimates vary widely). Dubai is built for a population twice its size. If not just oil, what is fueling this building and development frenzy in Dubai? Although trade, financial services, and consumerism are adding to the growth, after a bit of research I found that, as I suspected, debt, lots of debt, was a main contributor to growth. Dubai owes a total of $142 billion in debt, equivalent to 102% of its gross domestic product, according to the International Monetary Fund. By comparison, the percent in the U.S. is 102.98%. But Dubai is lucky to have a very wealthy neighbor, Abu Dhabi, who made massive emergency loans to them during the 2008 financial crises. Some $35 billion of the total Dubai debt belongs to or is guaranteed by the UAE government. About $60 billion comes due before 2017, according to the IMF.
I don’t want to be too negative, but I do want to give my true impressions of the city. I was actually rather depressed after the tour. Dubai touts itself as “a city of the future” and I don’t doubt its claim. However, the confusion theme crept in as I reflected on what I thought a future city should be like. There seems to be a disconnect between the future city model as represented by Dubai and the actual environmental capacity to support future cities such as Dubai. Will climate change make the city unlivable, as summer high temperatures can now hit 120 degrees (F). I wonder if humans can survive 130 degree F. heat, a number projected by some climatologists. Also, Dubai must rely on desalinization plants that require enormous inputs of energy to purify water. The city seems to promote all the things that have contributed to the environmental and inequality mess we are currently facing: hyper-consumerism, hydro-carbon fuels, global consumption instead of local, and an elite class garnering the “fruits” of globalization while the lower classes serve them. Importing labor from poor countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India to build the giant high-rises hardly seems a nod towards a more sustainable and equitable future that I envision.
The confusion theme was reinforced as I wrote this blog on December 31 when news emerged about a luxury hotel engulfed in flames just prior to the impressive New Year’s fireworks celebration in Dubai. As expected, the fireworks were spectacular and thankfully no one was injured in the blaze. But I was a bit confused, since the Islamic Year ended October 14, 2015. But I guess brand Dubai celebrated New Year’s according to the Western calendar. Can a city with endless confusion and contradictions continue to exist beyond a few decades? Although it is New Year’s Eve and predictions abound, I will refrain and just say “I don’t know!”
Happy New Year from the Center for Global Awareness!
- What is your vision for a “city of the future”? What parts of Dubai fit into that vision?
 Dubai Drowning in Debt, Trang Ho, March 16, 2014. Liberty Voice, http://guardianlv.com/2014/03/dubai-drowning-in-debt/