12.01.2009

Dubai is Good




The Burj Dubai sticks out from the city's skyline like a raised middle finger. Head, shoulders, torso and waist above all comers, the tower tells off legions of Dubai doubters. Indeed the building, which opens in January, is so tall as to be ludicrous. I first saw it from the plane as we prepared to land, and more than anything it looked like a creation beyond human capability, it rose so high, so sharply, piercing the sky like something out of a sci-fi movie. That the tower is stunning, a feat of both imagination and engineering, awe-inspiring and a wonder to behold is without question. But now that Dubai World has defaulted on its debt, the narrative of this Gulf city's glorious rise to global prominence -- as a financial center, a playground for the rich and adventurous, a laboratory for new ideas on architecture and urban planning -- and the meaning of the Burj have taken a darker turn.

A writer friend of mine, responding to mostly unfounded rumors that the foundation of the Burj had long since cracked, called the tower "the height of hypocrisy -- a most apt symbol for the city." Of course the Burj is a metaphor, but of what is as yet unclear. It's unlikely to become the Titanic, for one. Westerners seeking high salaries, ideal weather and the good life will continue to wash up on these shores.

Abu Dhabi will most likely bolster its economy and Dubai the dream will move on - and thank god for that. For Dubai is both a positive force in an unsettled Muslim world and a much-needed poverty reduction machine. Its economy is about as liberal and market-friendly as they get. Its government, although monarchic, is more laissez faire than any from Pakistan to Morocco -- and Muslims are all too aware of this. Ask any non-radical across the Muslim World where he'd like to go on holiday, or for the duration, and you'll likely hear "Dubai" within the first few options. Perhaps more importantly, there are few better places for developing world poor to go looking for work and success. The majority of Dubai's population is not Emirati, nor is it predominantly Western-expats splashing out for pads in Jumeirah beach. This city is comprised of mostly Indians and Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Pakistanis and Fillipinos -- people from poor countries who've come looking for a better life, and mostly found it.

Still, with its reputation tarnished, its leadership chastened in the wake of the debt default, Dubai must now move out of its adolescence. Most likely, the opening of the Burj Dubai will represent the end of an era, and an awakening -- the moment Dubai accepted its mortality, stepped back from the brink and steadied itself.

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