The idea behind The World is that it will look as much like the world as possible. When finished, this collection of hundreds of man-made islands, dredged up out of the Persian Gulf off the coast of Dubai, will be shaped like the seven continents of planet Earth. It will be sold to extraordinarily wealthy people (tabloids spread the apparently baseless rumor that Rod Stewart will buy "England") who want their own little (or not so little) piece of this emirate's latest exercise in superlatives. The World, which will be big enough to be seen from space, will join The Palm (yes, islands shaped like two gigantic palms, also big enough to be seen from space), and the Burj Dubai, a skyscraper that, if finished, may be the tallest on Earth (the actual height is being kept secret).
But neither The Palm, nor the Burj Dubai, nor even a proposed amusement park that would be eight times bigger than Disneyland, really captures the essence of Dubai quite like The World. This is a fiefdom of plenty that compensates for a lack of here here by creating vast imitations of other places. Las Vegas may seem like the obvious analogy, but Vegas's vulgarity is bush-league stuff, mere caprice compared to what is planned for Dubai.
The emir of Dubai, Sheik Maktoum bin Rashid Maktoum, invariably described here as "farseeing" and "wise," is planning against the day when this patch of torrid sand floating on a sea of oil will be just a patch of torrid sand. He has thrown the place open to business and investment, with all the don't-ask, don't-tell financial promiscuity of the Swiss. And money has flooded in. Towers rise, vast shopping malls spread out beneath them, and everywhere there are cranes on the horizon.
The World keeps putting you in mind of a book you almost understood in college, Jean Baudrillard's "Simulations," which began with an analysis of a Jorge Luis Borges tale in which a map is made of an empire, and the map is so detailed that it grows to be as big as the empire. The World won't be that big, but you can't help but think that somebody was reading Baudrillard, or at least Borges, when they planned this. For a moment, contemplating a map of the world, owned entirely by rich people, you think you have a sense of what Baudrillard meant when he talked about the "simulacrum" that would replace "reality," and bemoaned that in America, "Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real."
The real, here, is in no danger of being entirely confused with the manufactured. The real and the artificial are locked in an uneasy detente. It is, for instance, really hot, in the summer, outside, and really cold inside, where the air conditioning is set so high that the point seems not so much to keep the 115-degree heat at bay, but outdo it with arctic extravagance. You don't say to yourself, thank God for air conditioning; rather, you think, by God, if they unplug this country, I'm dead in 20 minutes.
Among Dubai's most influential exports is another simulacrum of sorts. Al-Arabiya, an Arabic-language news satellite channel, is based here, in a sprawling office park. Al-Arabiya, like its better-known competitor al-Jazeera (based in Qatar), is in the business of creating an image of the Arab world for the Arab world, an image that counterbalances the one produced by Western news networks.
Al-Arabiya is in "Media City," a long drive down a hot but beautifully paved highway from the center of town -- past "Interchange No. 4" and just before "Interchange No. 5," near "Internet City" and down a stretch from the turnoff to "Health Care City." Driving to Media City, past these nameless exits and compartmentalized techno-villages, makes you think of all those places in America that are vaguely embarrassed about being sandwiched between here and there, about people from New Jersey who identify not by town, but turnpike exit. Here, there's no embarrassment, just candor. The writer, William Gibson, once described Singapore as like Disneyland, with the death penalty. Dubai is like Disneyland, without all the guilt tripping that American intellectuals like to do when enjoying the hydroponic fruits of American materialism.
Al-Arabiya's newsroom is on the fourth floor of the Middle East Broadcasting building. Everything in this building is cool and slick, including the newsroom itself, a fantasy of glass and steel with a round, spaceship cockpit news desk in the middle. From here, various impeccable anchors pursue the 24-hour news channel's mission: "Al Arabiya is an independent, self-empowered, informative and free-spirited satellite channel. It is an Arabic station, from the Arabs to the Arabs, delivering content that is relevant to the Arabs." Or so reads their Web site.
Al-Arabiya is a relative newcomer to the news business. It began beaming its broadcasts just before the most recent war against Iraq began. Shortly before its debut, in spring 2003, Advertising Age quoted sources at the channel's parent, Middle East Broadcasting, saying that the goal of al-Arabiya, was to be seen as more balanced and objective than al-Jazeera. The hope was to soak up all the ad dollars that al-Jazeera's supposedly anti-American tone scares away.
It's been a bumpy road. In November 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had no more love for one or the other, calling both channels "violently anti-coalition." But by this past May, President Bush considered al-Arabiya enough less violent to use it to tell the Arab world that, contrary to what those pictures and reports from Abu Ghraib seem to say, most Americans don't think it's okay to ride an old woman like a donkey, and lead men around on leashes, even if they are in prison.
On-screen, al-Arabiya feels just a little more glossy than al-Jazeera. The motto might properly be, from Arabs to Arabs, in the style of Fox News. One news program has the classic Fox feel, short, urgent news bites, with an ominous musical riff keeping the whole thing humming along. The news feels edgy and dangerous.
"We wanted to achieve news with entertainment, says Salah Nagm, head of news at al-Arabiya. "There are several elements: how to make news short, but deep."
Nagm presides over a large, diverse newsroom that, in many ways, reflects life in Dubai by having nothing to do with Dubai. The journalists here are largely from someplace else.
Maya Bitar, for instance, came to al-Arabiya after a French-language station she worked for in Lebanon was shut down by the government (for criticizing the Syrian occupation of parts of Lebanon).
"We have many cultures here," says Bitar. "A lot of Muslims, Druze. I am Catholic. When we are dealing with any issue, we try to deal with it only as it is newsworthy."
And how does that work, say, if you are a Lebanese journalist sitting next to a Syrian one?
"They are blending here perfectly," she says. Some of her best friends are Syrians.
All of this carefully buried tension is reminiscent of a play -- perhaps the only play set in an Arab satellite channel -- written years before there was an al-Arabiya, or an al-Jazeera. In 1992, Lenin Ramly published "In Plain Arabic," a compendium of inside jokes about the Arab world's incapability of finding unity in anything, played out in the studio of "Arabsat Satellite."
It is a merciless collection of caricatures -- the sensual and wily Lebanese, the misogynistic Saudis, the religiously paralyzed Egyptians, paranoid Syrians, backward Yemenis and a Libyan, who woos his sweetheart with revolutionary tracts ("Allow me to offer you my dearest possession! My copy of 'Revolutionary Unity Between Fundamentalism and Contemporaneity' ").
Before beginning a debate, Mighwar, a Moroccan character, lays down the following ground rules for discussion: "They are not, under any circumstances, to embark on topics concerning politics or religion or ancestry or sex or history or nationalism; they are also categorically forbidden to attack, directly or indirectly, or even symbolically, any great Arab figure, past or present. Other than that, we are prepared to participate with open hearts and minds."
If you want to work together, certain things must not be criticized. Tribal loyalties must be redirected into something productive. Mohammed A.R. Galadari, the publisher of the English-language newspaper the Khaleej Times (and chairman of a very prosperous group of businesses in Dubai) has an easy formulation for how this works.
"We are all capitalists," he says, with an easy smile. He says this inside his office, which is of awe-inspiring proportions. The windows are shaded, the room is cool, the noise of the nearby cement plant entirely inaudible. Galadari explains Dubai in terms of personal betterment. People are prosperous and getting more so. They are busy. They are happy.
The journalists of Dubai, or al-Arabiya, may not be criticizing the local government very often, but why would they?
"We have no politics here," he says. In the literal sense, there are no politics here. There is a ruling elite, and a lot of people who don't ask too many questions about that elite. And so long as prosperity continues, everyone seems to be happy.
Galadari's view is reminiscent of Calvin Coolidge's old line about the business of America is business. This might make you think that Dubai is an exception to the prevalent anti-Americanism of the region. But the polls are discouraging. In the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part, only 14 percent (according to a poll commissioned by the Washington based Arab American Institute) holds a favorable opinion of the United States. (Even that 14 percent feels elusive when you talk to people here, but Galadari, who admires Bill Clinton, firmly belongs to it.)
Unfortunately, there's no readily available poll that would tell us what the Arab world thinks of Dubai. And it's not an idle question. Dubai's busy industry is held up as a model of prosperity that the rest of the Arab world could only envy. And through al-Arabiya, Dubai is in the forefront of defining opinion, and creating an image of the whole Arab world. The pan-Arabic fantasy of Ramly's play is, in some ways, a reality in Dubai. But what would the rest of the Arab world think of the free-flowing booze (available in hotels) and the vigorous business of prostitution that flourishes here?
On the way back from Galadari's office, you pass something that seems, for a moment, to confirm his sunny view of America. On the side of one of the local skyscrapers (Dubai is a fantasy land of over-achieving modernist architecture) is a huge picture of the Statue of Liberty. It's there to advertise the air carrier Emirates' service to New York, and it's hard to tell if they chose the Statue of Liberty because of its iconic association with American opportunity, or its iconic association with New York tourism. Impossible to say. And then you start thinking about its size. As the car whizzes past you try to count the floors, 15, perhaps 20, or more? And then a mental calculation: The Statue of Liberty stands about 150 feet from base to torch. Which means this picture of the Statue of Liberty could be as big as the actual statue.
And that seems more important than whatever it is meant to represent. Imitation here is definitely not the sincerest form of flattery; it's a form of competition. And competition is not the means to something, but an end in itself. Materialism is not a reward for hard work, but the basic social glue that binds this small bastion of prosperity and openness. It doesn't seem like it should be enough to hold together a society, especially a society that is a motley collection of people from everywhere. If they falter in their effort to be always and everywhere the biggest or most expensive, will the whole busy, industrious, madcap energy of the place simply implode? For a moment, zipping down a highway named for a sheik, you can imagine this surreal landscape going back to desert, sand blowing through marble lobbies, and The World, if it is ever finished, a huge, empty folly in the ocean.