Dubai has certainly arrived as the next big thing in the minds of some, but even they might agree that it’s only the next big thing for now. Billions have been spent in an attempt to make the city a cosmopolitan metropolis with every amenity and frivolity imaginable. But even genuine marvels like the Palm Jumeirah have already become a bit gimmicky, and the Babel-like towers seem to be only the issue of an international “You show me mine, I’ll show you yours” game that will rouse not awe but giggles from future generations. Then there is Lyon-Dubai City: a scaled down replica of Lyon, France...in the middle of the desert. I think we’ve officially lost the substance by grasping at the shadow, to take a line from Aesop.
Ultimately, the spectacle remains a veneer for a traditional culture that has not much changed...and that’s just dandy. No one has the right to insist that Dubai abolish its repressive, extravagant, theocratic oligarchy—heaven, forfend!—but the leaders need to realize that there are consequences to being culturally obdurate when at the same time pushing to be an international hub. It’s lovely that they feel so compelled to maintain the decency and dignity of their own citizens—simply lovely!—but it’s a shame that the same can’t be said for the decency and dignity of the thousands of immigrant workers who have died in inhuman conditions during construction of the city’s architectural wonders.
I should add that the scandalous reputation of Western tourists (particularly those of countries who have colonized other countries) is frequently valid, and I applaud when one nation resists becoming the outhouse/brothel of another. We do not need another Vegas or Bangkok or Cancun or Amsterdam or Macau where anything and everything goes. But then, neither do we need an indoor ski slope, underwater hotel, nor islands shaped like the continents , especially if the phrase “anything goes” in Dubai is best applied in a sentence that also contains “justice” and “out the window.” So what does Dubai have to offer to keep investors interested and what are they doing to keep people coming back?
If some of the recent press that the city has received is any indication, the powers that be are either not committed to keeping people interested, or they think we’ll all just convert to their method of doing things. That would be a tad hubristic on their part (but these guys aren’t exactly known for their humility), and in order for Dubai’s reputation as a cosmopolitan and commercial Mecca to last, they need to keep negative PR to a minimum. So it boggles the mind that the city is actually trying to bill itself as a place for romantic resorts when one reads stories like this one from the BBC about a pair of Britons given a “light sentence” of three months jail time for getting a little too snuggly on the beach. Here is what the article says about their case:
Let’s see here...salacious, witch-hunt style witness reports or hard medical evidence. Pardon me for seeming biased, but I think I’ll side with the Britons on this matter, even though I agree that such gauche public displays of affection are deserving of some sort of punishment.
“The pair were arrested on Jumeirah Beach hours after meeting at a champagne
brunch at Dubai's five-star Le Meridien hotel.
A police officer told the court he had warned the pair about their inappropriate behaviour, but returned later to find them having sex on a sun lounger.
Palmer, who was sacked from her job in Dubai as a publishing executive after her arrest, said in a statement she and Acors had been "just kissing and hugging".
Mr Matter said witness statements, including one from the police officer, were "wrong" and medical examinations had proved Palmer had not had sex on the beach.”
Of course, this is hardly the worst case we’ve seen from Dubai; last July we saw the case of 15-year old French-Swiss citizen Alexandre Robert, who was kidnapped and raped at knifepoint in Dubai by three Emirati men (one of whom is HIV positive). When he didn’t smother the story, as perhaps some authorities had wished, he was threatened with a jail term of his own for engaging in homosexual activity—that is, the rape itself. After a major legal battle, Alexandre was not charged and his attackers were convicted, but not before French president Nicolas Sarkozy himself became involved. For the ghastly details, read this archived Time article.
Dare I draw a comparison between Dubai and the Neverland Ranch? Isn’t Dubai where Jacko is holing up currently?* Dubai may not be positioning itself as the next resort town or even the world’s next commercial capital. Nay, it almost seems to be a new utopia for people with wealth enough to live above the law while others are crushed beneath it, which is not the image one wants in this capricious world where entire cities can fade from relevance almost overnight, no matter how many water slides they have. And with increasing reports of corruption in the Dubai real estate market coming to the forefront, investors may not even feel that their money is safe there, let alone their physical person.
*(Update: Jacko has recently been spotted in Vegas...in a mansion...across from an elementary school. So we can all relax, now...)
So in the end, what shall Dubai become? A megalopolis-sized Neverland Ranch? A more innocuous Anti-Cancun? Or the global pinnacle of commerce and technology, as its leaders have hoped? No one can say, but I will venture a guess that if the Rat Pack were around today, they would not be crooning immortalizing tunes in Dubai’s honor. However, I’ll send you off with what they might have written, were they still around, sung to the tune of Arriverderci, Roma:
Goodbye, goodbye Dubai
City of a million condo towers,
City of a million wilted flowers,
Where I was detained by the ruling powers
Far from home.
my regards to the Sheikh:
the one who bludgeoned me for my rejection
of his amorous advances without protection.
Please let there be some form of extradition
on the books.
It’s time I made a break... Stuff the wedding bells; I shan’t be returning.
Keep your handcuffed arms outstretched and yearning.
Please be sure the flame of love keeps burning
at the stake.