A grim vision of the future mega-city.
Mere moments ago I was whinging about Seattle being unable to build the monorail, paralyzed by an excess of open, transparent democratic process. Then I read this — "Camel trainers claim that the children’s shrieks of terror spur the animals to a faster effort." — and I remembered that there are worse problems to have than too much democracy.
The Persian Gulf city-state is rapidly being fashioned into a kind of massive walled community for the global wealthy and dissolute:
Dozens of outlandish mega-projects — including “The World” (an artificial archipelago), Burj Dubai (the Earth’s tallest building), the Hydropolis (that underwater luxury hotel), the Restless Planet theme park, a domed ski resort perpetually maintained in 40C heat, and The Mall of Arabia, a hyper-mall — are actually under construction or will soon leave the drawing boards.
Under the enlightened despotism of its Crown Prince and CEO, 56-year-old Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Rhode-Island-sized Emirate of Dubai has become the new global icon of imagineered urbanism. Although often compared to Las Vegas, Orlando, Hong Kong or Singapore, the sheikhdom is more like their collective summation: a pastiche of the big, the bad, and the ugly.
Under his leadership, the coastal desert has become a huge circuit board into which the elite of transnational engineering firms and retail developers are invited to plug in high-tech clusters, entertainment zones, artificial islands, “cities within cities” — whatever is the latest fad in urban capitalism. The same phantasmagoric but generic Lego blocks, of course, can be found in dozens of aspiring cities these days, but Sheik Mo has a distinctive and inviolable criterion: Everything must be “world class,” by which he means number one in The Guinness Book of Records. Thus Dubai is building the world’s largest theme park, the biggest mall, the highest building, and the first sunken hotel among other firsts.
It should come as no surprise that all this opulence comes at a price:
At the top of the social pyramid, of course, are the al-Maktoums and their cousins who own every lucrative grain of sand in the sheikhdom. Next, the native 15% percent of the population — whose uniform of privilege is the traditional white dishdash — constitutes a leisure class whose obedience to the dynasty is subsidized by income transfers, free education, and government jobs. A step below, are the pampered mercenaries: 150,000-or-so British ex-pats, along with other European, Lebanese, and Indian managers and professionals, who take full advantage of their air-conditioned affluence and two-months of overseas leave every summer.
However, South Asian contract laborers, legally bound to a single employer and subject to totalitarian social controls, make up the great mass of the population. Dubai lifestyles are attended by vast numbers of Filipina, Sri Lankan, and Indian maids, while the building boom is carried on the shoulders of an army of poorly paid Pakistanis and Indians working twelve-hour shifts, six and half days a week, in the blast-furnace desert heat.
In addition to being super-exploited, Dubai’s helots are also expected to be generally invisible. The bleak work camps on the city’s outskirts, where laborers are crowded six, eight, even twelve to a room, are not part of the official tourist image of a city of luxury without slums or poverty. In a recent visit, even the United Arab Emirate’s Minister of Labor was reported to be profoundly shocked by the squalid, almost unbearable conditions in a remote work camp maintained by a large construction contractor. Yet when the laborers attempted to form a union to win back pay and improve living conditions, they were promptly arrested.
Paradise, however, has even darker corners than the indentured-labor camps. The Russian girls at the elegant hotel bar are but the glamorous facade of a sinister sex trade built on kidnapping, slavery, and sadistic violence. Dubai — any of the hipper guidebooks will advise — is the "Bangkok of the Middle East," populated with thousands of Russian, Armenian, Indian, and Iranian prostitutes controlled by various transnational gangs and mafias. (The city, conveniently, is also a world center for money laundering, with an estimated 10% of real estate changing hands in cash-only transactions.)
This dystopian vision — what Davis calls a "monstrous caricature of futurism" — is the mirror image of the eco-city being discussed by so many greens right now. Rather than devolving power, increasing efficiency, and living in balance with the natural world, this city built on oil money simply imports and burns up more and more of the one renewable resource the oligarchs love: the labor of the desperately poor.
If you ever had any doubts that the green movement is intimately bound up with the movement to secure democratic and economic freedom for the world’s poor, Dubai should banish them once and for all.