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The Towering Dream of Dubai

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.

At the heart of what Dubai and its globalization are creating, two cities overlap. One is a dystopic, even soulless vision of the future, where notions of civil society, individual rights and identity are subsumed in the logic of capital. The other is a rare triumph of the private sector in an Arab city that provides a model for prosperity and a force for integration, reversing decades of disappointment and defeat.

Sharaf, speeding past the World Trade Center, once the region's tallest building and now one among many, has his take.

"If it's good for business, it's good for Dubai," he said. "We've passed the beginning of it. Dubai is not to be an island, to be an oasis. The hope is that we propagate change for the good all around us."

'The Best of the World Here'

Sharaf, a tall, 39-year-old Emirati who was educated in Michigan and Colorado and worked in Houston with oil giant Conoco, pulled his car into a warren of cranes, past gaggles of workers in orange overalls and hard hats and half-completed construction that could serve as the emblem of today's Dubai. Before him was one of the most ambitious projects of his company, Tatweer.

"This whole area," he said, parting his hands across a window, "is all Healthcare City."

Healthcare City is one of the latest examples of what officials here call clustering: creating free-trade zones in the desert that, with marketing and infrastructure, attract cutting-edge companies and provide an engine for growth. There is Media City, Internet City, Knowledge Village and plans for Dubai Outsource Zone, Dubai Techno Park and Dubai Biotechnology and Research Park, among others. There are no taxes, no customs, no restrictions on transferring funds, little red tape -- in short, a capitalist free-for-all. The bustle and building around Internet and Media cities, with nearly no space left to rent, have transformed scrubland grazed by camels a decade ago into a city center awash in steel and glass.

Healthcare City is no less ambitious. By partnering with Harvard Medical School, the project hopes to create a global center for treatment, education and research. Tatweer is pouring $1.8 billion into the project, which will begin operating in 2009 and sprawl across 4.5 million square feet. The next phase will cover an area four times as big.

"People who needed treatment had to pick up and leave. They had to go to Europe, they had to go to the United States, they had to go to Asia," Sharaf said. "This really is making a statement that you no longer have to go. We have the best of the world here."

The Dubai model boils down to a self-consciously corporate approach to government: a can-do attitude that appeals to business, speed in decisions possible under an authoritarian system and achieving results that create momentum. The approach infuses the landscape. In a gesture at efficiency, government buildings bear the department's Internet addresses on their facades. Advertisements tantalize with a stilted lingo, a sort of Arabic newspeak. One company's ads read: "Responsibility is our motto," "Progress is our specialty," "Excellence is our goal." English translations followed. Even McDonald's has picked up the vocabulary. "High quality is our standard," one ad reads. ("I'm lovin' it," it says underneath.)

Over a lunch of Lebanese appetizers at a fashionable restaurant, Sharaf and his boss, Saeed al-Muntafiq, chief executive officer of Tatweer, traded aphorisms on the rise of the Dubai model. Dubai had little oil of its own (oil accounts for just 5 percent of Dubai's economy), so it was forced to diversify to prosper. To prosper, it needed skilled workers. To attract that talent, it had to ensure that it would be the most free-wheeling, hospitable and libertine of the traditional Gulf Arab states.

"Look around you in this restaurant," Sharaf said proudly. "Just take a look."

At the tables, none of them empty, were Emiratis in traditional dress, men in suits and women in skirts. Snippets of English and a plethora of Arabic dialects were audible. There were perhaps 30 nationalities seated here, he said.

"Here's an example of what I'm talking about," he said. "They're all sitting side by side and all doing it with respect."

It is remarkable how little U.S. policy figures in conversations here. The dispute this winter over a Dubai company's plans to manage six U.S. ports was seen less as an insult and more as a failure of Dubai officials to market themselves and master public relations. Religion comes up usually only in the context of illustrating Dubai's tolerance. Unlike in Egypt, Lebanon or Syria, almost no one mentions the Bush administration's talk about democratic reform. Politics, in fact, is rare in Dubai, where power resides with a single family, the Maktoum clan. In this city of transients, 85 percent of its workforce foreign, politics hardly exists.

For good reason, Muntafiq said.

"Democracy is a means, not an end," he said. "It's a system, a process, a tool. What is the end? I don't know, but I have my own opinions -- a world-class health-care system, a world-class education system, a job for every person willing and able, rule of law, civil rights and liberties. I would have thought these would be the outputs of democracy. Does it matter how we get there? I don't know, but I'm asking the question. I'm not saying we should or shouldn't have it, I'm just saying it doesn't really matter here."

Muntafiq smiled. Everything achieved so far, he said, is 10 percent of what Dubai's ruler, Sheik Mohammed Bin Rashid al-Maktoum, said he has envisioned for the model. "Ten percent," Muntafiq said again, shaking his head.

"And that scares the hell out of me."

Soaring Plans, Asian Laborers

Tatweer is part of Dubai Holding, the sprawling investment arm of the government that has overseen the creation of Media City, Internet City and Knowledge Village. Another of its projects is the Jumeirah Beach Residence, near the Persian Gulf, where Abdel-Rahman Shrooz Miah and Mohammed Noor al-Amin work each day, beginning at 7 a.m.

At the end of one shift, covered in paint, the Bangladeshi laborers walked past the project's advertisements. "The Lifestyle of a Lifetime," one reads. Another, in succession, beckons, "Invest in Life," "Invest in Choice," "Invest in Fun," "Invest in You." It is a 90-minute ride, sometimes two hours, to their shantytown of a home in neighboring Sharjah.

"When the work comes to an end, it feels good," Amin said, settling into the seat.

Amin is 24, Miah 19. Both look 14. Here for three years, Amin makes about $400 a month, Miah $245. Each paid an agent in Bangladesh more than $3,000 to secure a visa and work in Dubai, and both still owe a large share of that. Neither has visited home. They call their families once or twice a month, usually talking for the 10 minutes that an $8 phone card will buy.

"The first thing they ask us is to send money," Miah said. "And we usually don't have it."

A perpetual haze hovers over Dubai, redolent of pollution or a sandstorm. More likely, the frenetic construction cloaks the city in excavated dirt. It softened the sun, as the men set out for home. The street toward Sharjah was congested. The lane into Dubai was free. They turned their heads as a black Porsche Cayenne sport-utility vehicle, without a license plate, barreled the other way; they speculated the driver was Sheik Mohammed's son, the car his trademark.

They passed Burj Al Arab, a landmark hotel taller than the Eiffel Tower whose facade is woven of glass fiber. Residents call it a seven-star resort, although its brochure claims five. Other advertisements along the street flitted past. "Live the Future," one said. "There's one language everyone understands. Gold," read another. Finally, for the Dubai Mall: "The Earth has a new center." Intermingling with the slogans were billboards for Saks Fifth Avenue, Dior, Harvey Nichols and Virgin Atlantic.

At the biggest developments, knots of workers in coveralls of matching colors waited for company buses, their vacant stares greeting the traffic of a city where occupation is often stratified by race: Asian laborers, Lebanese and Western managers, Emirati owners. A proposed subway that will begin operating in 2010 will reserve one of five cars for VIPs.

"We're here to earn money, not for happiness," Amin said. "No one comes to this country for happiness."

Most of the hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers are from India and other South Asian countries, with strong union traditions. Episodes of unrest began last year over living conditions, low pay and hazardous workplaces. At Amin's site, two Indian painters had died a few days before, when ropes holding their platform aloft snapped. In the worst outburst, as many as 3,000 workers rioted in March at the site of Burj Dubai, wrecking cars, computers and construction equipment.

Amin's and Miah's complaints echoed others': The company seized their passports when they entered the country, their pay comes months late, complaints can lead to deportation, and they make too little to offset the $175 they pay every month for rent and food.

"The law doesn't protect us," Miah said. "The government looks after the companies, and the companies don't care about us."

They remain because coming home poor would shame them in the eyes of their families and villages, they said. They were expected to make enough to buy land and a house, take care of their families and pay for their siblings' educations. "My hopes haven't come true," Amin said. "The dream that I had is still just a dream."

"I came here, and now I'm stuck here," added Miah.

They entered Sharjah. At a traffic circle, a billboard asked, "Are your employees leaving for better pay?" Along a park, a greeting was landscaped in pink flowers: "Smile," it said, "you are in Sharjah." The men arrived home, a collection of concrete huts, some with 10 beds crammed in a room. Three more sleep on mattresses laid out on the floor. In Miah's room, a plastic garland of red flowers hung over the sole light, a fluorescent bulb. The smell of hot chilis, mixed with fish, mingled with the stench of sewage.

"This is what we have in our country," said Miah, smiling. "I never thought Dubai would be like this."

"It's worse than our country," Amin said. He grimaced. "Is it not? Sitting in dirt and eating dirt?"

A Middle East Gold Rush

For Saidi, the Lebanese economist, the reasons for Dubai's transformation from a sleepy, pearl-diving village to a modern metropolis are many. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, rich Arab states began investing in their region and Dubai, in particular. Oil prices have unleashed a spending and investment boom in the Persian Gulf on par with the 1970s. The city-state has invested in infrastructure -- only China has more cranes, and Dubai's ports can unload a ship in 24 hours, on average 12 faster than Rotterdam. There is little official corruption, less political instability, and Dubai ranks high in surveys on rule of law and regulatory quality. Money-laundering -- residents describe multimillion-dollar houses paid for in cash, sight unseen -- has come under growing scrutiny, Saidi said. Then there is the rare combination of highly skilled workers and cheap laborers, like Amin and Miah. "It's as though you could say, 'Let me take 100 million Chinese and put them in the United States,' " Saidi said.

The result is a gross domestic product that has grown 45 percent in four years. Everyone seems to have a different number for nationalities here -- 150, 180, more than 200, all drawn by a modern-day gold rush. English is the lingua franca. Lucy and Camilla d'Abo, two British nationals who spent part of their youth here and returned as professionals, said they found more opportunity, as women, in Dubai than in Britain. Their public relations company, d'Events, has doubled in size each year.

"I believe it's the land of opportunity," Camilla d'Abo said. "It's a case study in . . . " She thought a moment. "It's like nothing else."

The boom has drawn the Arab world's best and brightest, and many of its most influential expatriates speak with the force of the converted. Saidi is one. He recalled a generation of disappointments. In 1960, he noted bitterly, Egypt had the same per capita income as South Korea. More than a decade ago, when he returned to Lebanon after its civil war and served as a Central Bank official and later a government minister, he envisioned a Dubai model for Beirut. Those hopes were dashed by Lebanon's intractable politics.

"What is attractive for me is they effectively told me that what you weren't able to do in Lebanon, we're going to open the door here," he said from the 14th floor of a building aptly called the Gate, the cornerstone of the new International Financial Center.

He sees Dubai as the champion of greater economic unity in the Arab world, finally realizing the promises nationalist leaders made for 50 years that were broken by political divisions and economic failure.

Already, signs of Dubai's impetus are visible around the Gulf. Qatar, in self-conscious competition with Dubai, has launched a spectacular building campaign. Saudi Arabia is planning a free-trade zone on the Red Sea. Bahrain and Kuwait are trying to recapture prestige they lost to Dubai in the 1990s. In recent months, private and quasi-government companies in Dubai have announced investments in Arab countries stretching from Morocco on the Atlantic coast to Jordan in the Middle East.

"We missed an opportunity in the 1970s when the oil wealth was there or emerging. People have learned their lessons, and I think we're getting it right this time," Saidi said. "You never had a champion. Today you have one."

Yasar Jarrar, a British-educated Jordanian who serves as the executive dean of the Dubai School of Government, put it more bluntly. Forget the American Dream, the goal of a generation of young Arabs, he said. "This is the Dubai dream."

On the Rails or Off the Tracks

Like others, Jarrar invoked the metaphor of the railroad. He acknowledged that not everyone in Dubai is comfortable with the relentless globalization. "Dubai is a very fast-paced city," Jarrar, 35, said. "There are big ambitions, and whether we accept it or not, returning to those days" in the past "is no longer an option. The train has passed that station. Dubai has moved on."

Roken, the human rights lawyer, uses the same analogy -- a train -- but with different implications.

"The people of Dubai are on a first-class train, a speedy one, seeing nice views, but there is one drawback to this train, and many people are not aware of it," he said, his sparse room decorated with a Koranic inscription, a rare show of religion in Dubai. "It has no brakes. They're enjoying the luxury of the compartment, the scenery, but without brakes, it might crash one day, unfortunately."

Roken, 43, with thick glasses and a salt-and-pepper beard, shies from labels. His promotion of human rights and civil society might make him a liberal in a Western context. In the Arab world, his defense of tradition and morals mirrors the themes of political Islam. Taken together, he is a gadfly, which has repeatedly landed him in trouble.

Three times in three years, government security services canceled his lectures, usually with a phone call to the organizer. One talk was on the U.S. invasion of Iraq, another on the importance of holding popular elections for the first time in the country.

In 2000, he was banned from writing his column in the Gulf newspaper. In 2002, he was forbidden to teach at the university. Two years later, with 21 others, he submitted an application for a human rights group.

"They just took it and put it in the drawer," he said.

Roken's focus is his society and what it is no longer. The city's gritty beginnings have become part of the legend of the Dubai model. Its museum celebrates records that as recently as 1908 summed up Dubai's wealth in a few typewritten lines, including 4,000 date trees, 1,650 camels, 45 horses, 380 donkeys, 430 cattle and 960 goats. Pearl diving and fishing were mainstays until a generation ago. The Indian rupee served as the currency until 1966.

The itinerant city Roken sees today is unrecognizable, not even Arab. All that remains of the neighborhood of his youth is the mosque. When he goes to a mall, he estimates that 99 percent of the patrons are foreigners, and he rarely hears Arabic. Despite religious prohibitions, drinking is unabashed, and he fears public wine-tasting parties are on the way. The beaches of his youth were either taken over by hotels and their occasionally topless sunbathers or frequented by Westerners whose dress he deems inappropriate. He grimaces at women jogging in the streets, sometimes with their dogs, considered unclean under Islamic law. The celebration of Islamic holidays and the country's national day on Dec. 2 pale before the more commercialized commemoration of Christmas.

To maintain his identity as an Arab and Muslim, he has retreated farther from the city -- first from the central neighborhood of Deira, then a few miles away to an area near the airport, a few more miles away to Merdif and now even farther to Mizhar.

"Internal exile," he said.

Arguments for democratic reform in the Arab world are often offered as an antidote to the region's stagnation and repression. Roken argues for democratic reform, but on different grounds. Only with more say by citizens like him can the process of Dubai's globalization be stanched. His democratic vision is not of a different society, but of a society he once had.

"The brakes are accountability, sharing in the decision-making," he said. "These things will work as brakes on the train's speed. If citizens had a say, I don't think the city would have turned into this."

Government surveys reflect the unease among native Emiratis, even though officials are unsure how to respond. Roken said the society's traditional deference to the leadership of the ruling family remains intact. People prefer retreating to fighting.

"Until now, there is no violence, thank God," he said. He spoke slowly, knitting his brow, and he chose his words carefully. "The people are very accepting, understanding and tolerant. But who knows what will happen if it crosses red lines?"

"I don't think it's too late," he added. "But in five years time? If it's not dealt with?" He shook his head and left the question unanswered.

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