Port of Entry Promise and Illusion in a New Arab City
The Towering Dream of Dubai
Sunday, April 30, 2006
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates There aren't a lot of qualifiers in Ahmad Sharaf's vocabulary. Like his city, he prefers superlatives. As he accelerated his 1995 white Porsche 911 down a grand boulevard landscaped with palm trees and periwinkles, Sharaf, the senior executive of a government corporation, looked out at a city-state that is building the world's tallest skyscraper, the largest shopping mall, the most luxurious hotel, the largest man-made marina and the biggest artificial island.
Out the left of his car was the Persian Gulf, its turquoise waters bordering a region booming by virtue of the highest oil prices in history. To the right was forbidding desert stretching into Saudi Arabia and the tumult of the rest of the Arab world.
"The only limitations are your own limitations," he said matter of factly. "No one tells you that it cannot be done, that it should not be done. The only pushback has always been let's do it bigger, let's do it better, and let's do it smarter."
He reflected on what was being built -- the Dubai model, as its advocates call it, the region's most ambitious experiment in bringing success to an Arab city by shearing away the qualities that have long defined it as Arab.
"You know how the West was won?" Sharaf asked of the American experience. "From the Eastern seaboard to the West, you had to build a railroad -- the fastest way to get there and the most efficient way to get there to exploit the resources."
"Dubai," he said confidently, "is the railroad for the Middle East."
Railroad is a metaphor often heard in Dubai, an autocratic city-state ruled by a dynasty that evokes a language uncommon in the Arab world today: an utter confidence, brimming with pride and optimism, that collides with the dejection heard elsewhere in the Middle East. It has emerged as a 21st-century phenomenon, a city of perspectives, whose globalization suggests its inspiration and the discontent of those left behind.
To Sharaf and others, Dubai is the answer to the Arab world's ills, so diverse that conversations in taxicabs are sometimes a patois of Arabic, English and Hindi. Its architecture suggests Pharaonic ambition; at 3 billion square feet, the amusement park known as Dubailand will be three times the size of Manhattan, complete with a replica of the Eiffel Tower and a 60,000-seat stadium. The city's growth, vision and dynamism -- to advocates, at least -- chart a way forward for Arab development independent of the Bush administration's emphasis on democratic reform. Arab expatriates who have flocked here declare Dubai a success and say that the Arab world needs a success story.
"We're seeing the beginning of an Arab renaissance, and I find it very hopeful," said Nasser Saidi, a former Lebanese minister and the chief economist of the Dubai International Financial Center.
But a darker undercurrent pervades the success of Dubai. Hundreds of thousands of foreign workers toil with few rights and sometimes just above subsistence. Unrest has mounted; last month, laborers rioted near the site of Burj Dubai, planned as the world's tallest skyscraper, where a new floor is added every week. The Islamic piety visible in the rest of the Persian Gulf has receded behind a rollicking nightlife of bars, clubs and prostitution so rampant it is assumed to have official sanction. The city has a history as a shipping hub for contraband, including illegal drugs and nuclear weapons components. Rumors of money-laundering are laced through the real estate speculation that has sometimes driven prices to double in six months.
A backlash over the pace and direction of change is simmering among the city-state's citizens, who make up just one in five of its 1 million residents. Some of them ruefully note that speaking Arabic is not enough to survive in a nominally Arab city.
"Some people feel they are losing control of the city itself, of the society," said Mohammed al-Roken, a lawyer and human rights activist who was barred from teaching at a university and banned from writing a column after airing complaints.