Dubai, one of the seven United Arab Emirates on the south coast of the Persian Gulf, is a small tribe (now numbering about 300,000) of pearl fishers and date-palm cultivators who found themselves, in 1966, living on top of a small-to-medium-sized lake of oil. They arranged to have this oil pumped out and sold as quickly as possible and under the leadership of a heriditary sheikh invested the money around the world, largely in ports and luxury real estate and retailers, and locally, under the truly loony idea that if you build a city in one of the hottest and driest places in the world, and air condition everything in sight (including Metro platforms), ‘they’ will come to do things they could perfectly well do in one of thousands of habitable places. For a while, they did, including foreign workers amounting to six times the number of citizens, but the bloom is off an economy built on its own growth and no actual local source of primary value. Some of the internal contradictions of the whole idea are beginning to bite, especially the expectations of western tourists for amusements deeply distasteful to the official views of reactionary Arab/Islamic men (like prostitutes, nightclubs, uncensored internet access, and social intercourse among unmarried men and women), and the pretzels people have to twist themselves into to do ordinary business, like lending money and investing, within the Islamic proscription of interest.
The local real estate investments, fruits of the most creative and vacuously directed engineering skills of people from everywhere in the world except the UAE, comprise some of the most ridiculous follies on the planet, including the world’s tallest building, super-luxury hotels amid zero real tourism destinations, the famous indoor ski slope, and a set of artificial islands prepositioned to go under water with the Maldives when sea levels rise. Meanwhile, it is impossible to find a painting, song, novel, play, theorem, or any other enduring artifact of Dubai (or UAE, as far as I can tell) society – as opposed to stuff bought or rented from foreigners, like the Louvre in Abu Dhabi. A colleague with extended experience in the UAE described its fundamental post-oil philosophy as “Is there a problem? Well then, lets go shopping!” and they do, at retail for chotchkes like the odd Maybach and more grandly at Harvard and Singapore for a school of government. In a wonderful irony, a newly-salient conceptual import is the constitution of the city of Mahagonny, where the only crime was being broke, and in a completely unsurprising development, the bubble is breaking and UAE neighbor Abu Dhabi, which still has lots of oil, is trying not be dragged down as the ship founders.
I predict Dubai will be one of the most sought-after post-apocalyptic film locations in the world; there will be no competitor as a site of fantasy ruins, with lots of reliable sunshine. Meanwhile, a much smaller bubble, also built on the desires of people with no real class, lots of money, and a need to display both qualities, seems to be breaking at the same time. I’ve been waiting for this one for almost two years.