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3 April 2000

The citizens of nowhere in Arabia’s Hong Kong

In Dubai, almost everybody is foreign-born. Is this the future of the world, asks Christian Caryl

By Christian Caryl

Of the many luxuries offered in upwardly mobile Dubai – the Hong Kong of the Arabian Peninsula – the one that I least expected was the abundance of good English-language news. On a typical morning, I would sit in the relentlessly air-conditioned breakfast room of our hotel, surrounded by a couple of sunburned Russian tourists and a drunken flight crew from Kazakhstan Airlines, and leaf through what was probably the best of the four daily local papers published in English, The Gulf News. Its coverage of world and Middle East affairs was fine enough, but what really engrossed me was the miscellany of local life.

A Palestinian father suffers a heart attack when his son, who has been working toward a medical degree in Romania, returns to the Gulf and informs his family that their years of sacrifice have been in vain – he is breaking off his studies. Seven Bangladeshi gast-arbeiter are digging a hole for a private pool when the excavation collapses around them (one dead, six injured). General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Dubai’s Crown Prince and the United Arab Emirates’ Defence Minister, makes surprise inspection visits to a number of local government offices, “finding empty offices and absent managers”, as the paper tut-tuts.

Best of all are the social pages. A gaggle of Pakistani pop stars have come to town to shoot a new soap opera. A Filipino business association is sponsoring a golf tournament fundraiser for sick children. An Indian actor presides over the inauguration of the Sharjah chapter of the Toastmasters.

If you want to see globalisation at work, in short, it would be hard to find a better place than Dubai. It has all the requisite ingredients. It has in-your-face multiculturalism. It has ruthlessly laissez-faire economics, with vestigial taxes and tariffs.

On the purely visual level, Dubai resembles Araby a lot less than, say, Houston – except that, in Dubai, the cars are newer, the roads better and the skyscrapers more daringly designed. Dubai advertises itself, exhaustively, as the “gateway to a market of more than one billion people”, and it does its best to live up to the ads. The airport is run on a strictly “open skies” policy, meaning that no landing slots are sold; if you have an aeroplane, you can land there. The Dubai Ports Authority ranks among the world’s top 15 in terms of container throughput. If you want to bring in cargo, you can slip it in by traditional dhow or unload it at state-of-the-art roll-on roll-off terminals. The amount of gold traded through Dubai every year is equivalent to the annual amount of new gold mined in the world.

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Dubai has more than its share of ATMs and internet cafes; it also has Kentucky Fried Chicken and Proctor & Gamble and IKEA. The sports-minded can watch camel races or traditional desert falconry displays, but they can also play boules or cricket, or even pay a visit to the Gaelic Athletic Association. The lingua franca, as those four daily papers suggest, is English rather than Arabic.

In short, it would all seem like a wonderful advertisement for the Whig interpretation of globalisation as the inevitable triumph of western-style laissez-faire and tolerance – an equation in which global trade equals global democracy, and where economic rights make for political rights. In fact, however, Dubai provides some powerful arguments for just the opposite.

The commercial spirit that prevails here dates back to medieval times, when the port cities along the Gulf played a key role in Arabia’s monopoly of the spice trade between Europe and South-east Asia. Today, Dubai, with a population of 670,000, is the most aggressively capitalist of the seven federated city states that make up the United Arab Emirates. The richest member of the UAE is the capital city of Abu Dhabi, afloat on a sea of oil. But that does not stop the country from earning 80 per cent of its annual income from trade and tourism – the lion’s share of which goes through Dubai.

The emirate’s marketing experts, who have spent years promoting the place as an entrepot and tourist destination, are naturally less keen to publicise the city’ s enduring reputation as a centre of smuggling (especially drugs and gold). But there is little dispute that the emirate’s present prosperity owes much to the far-sightedness and market savvy of the governing family, the Maktoums, who decided to dredge their harbour in the 1940s when their main competitors were letting theirs silt up.

Dubai has never looked back. There are a few museums where choice examples of the past are maintained under carefully climate-controlled conditions, but you won’t find many natives there. Otherwise, local colour is largely restricted to the spice souk (where dealers still sell the gifts of the biblical wise men under suitably exotic conditions) and the surrounding desert, where a few bedouin still ply the old trade routes on camel.

At 7.30 on a mild February evening, a cooling breeze is blowing in from the Arabian Sea (as people in these parts prefer to call the Gulf). The traders in the heart of the old Dubai neighbourhood of Deira are open for business: this is their hour. They are selling computers, Korean toys, office supplies, French perfumes, jewellery. There is a distinctly Las Vegan attitude towards the use of neon: it glimmers, it pulses, it cycles sideways, up and down, circuitously.

The sidewalks can barely contain the volume of passers-by, who are clothed in every conceivable variant of robe, pyjamas and headdress. One woman is wearing a black abaya, or chador, from head to toe, with a metal mask covering the mouth and nose. A family of middle-class Indians walk by pushing a pram, mother in a red sari, dad in jeans and short-sleeved shirt.

The streets are likewise crammed with Japanese minibuses, American SUVs, and delivery trucks with ornamented grills that embrace, but also display, their bulging cargo. The textile markets along Naif Street have all tastes covered – from Ralph Lauren knock-offs to glittered silks to black T-shirts with the printed portraits of Iranian pop stars, from the indigenous dishdasha to lungis to Cerutti.

The receipt is printed in three languages: English, Arabic and Russian. You can hear all those languages, in all their dialects, on the street outside. You can also hear Tagalog, Farsi, German, Gujarati, Afrikaans, Swahili, Bengali, Urdu and Turkish. Of European faces, there is but a smattering. Most of the people out on the street are dark-skinned, either Arab dark or south Asian dark.

What is striking about all this diversity, however, is the disparity behind it. Most of these people are not citizens of the country in which they live. Only about 25 per cent of the UAE’s population of 2.4 million consists of citizens, or “nationals” as they are known in the local parlance. For Dubai, it is a mere 15 per cent.

No wonder, then, that the place boasts 85 private foreign schools. Local “non-nationals” can range from bank executives to those hapless Bangladeshis who were digging the trench, and salary differentials are equally vast. Each year, foreign workers send hundreds of millions of dollars in remittances from Dubai to their home countries. In other words, rather than sending productive capacity abroad to take advantage of lower labour costs (the way a peripatetic American multinational would do), Dubai simply imports the labour. The result – immigration without citizenship – implies a voluntary surrender of political rights in the cause of economic betterment.

On the other hand, perhaps there is not much practical difference between citizens and non-citizens in a country that does not have any democracy anyway. Dubai’s economic libertarianism contrasts sharply with the unapologetic despotism of its politics. Decision-making inside the emirate starts and stops with His Highness, the ruler Sheikh Maktoum. But to most of the people living in Dubai, who come from places where government is either totalitarian (Iran) or ineffectually interventionist (the subcontinent), the government’s non- interference in business life is already freedom enough. Everyone told me, essentially, that they were just too busy trying to get rich.

There are plenty of problems. Racism, in a multitude of forms, is a hot topic, but reluctantly discussed. The legal capriciousness inherent to any form of one-man rule gives some investors second thoughts about long-term investments. And the implicit compact between citizens and guests – we won’t try to make you like us as long you do your jobs and keep your mouths shut – is showing signs of strain. Like other Gulf states, the UAE government is promoting plans (“localisation” or “nationalisation” ) to throttle back on the hiring of migrants and give more jobs to citizens.

There is another, even more interesting edge to the trade-off between nationals and non-citizens. “You cannot impose your cultural agenda on the majority of society when you’re in a minority of 15 per cent,” as one local journalist put it. That applies not only to language, but also to religion. The UAE version of Islam is about as “fundamentalist” as you can get. As in Saudi Arabia, most Emiratis subscribe to the ultra-conservative Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam, and there are quite a few Shi’ites around as well.

Yet, in contrast to the Saudis, the government of the UAE would never dare to impose an Islamist cultural agenda on non-Muslims in the country – and cosmopolitan Dubai is the most undemanding part of the UAE. The religion problem boils down to a few cultural precepts that are easy enough to respect. If you want alcohol, you drink in your house or go to a hotel or restaurant that has a licence. Most non-nationals go about their lives pretty much as they would at home. The women wear bikinis to the beach, where they are ogled by national men.

Situations such as this have led to a typically Emirati stopgap called the Marriage Fund, which offers government subsidies to the increasingly rare species of Emirati men who are willing to marry Emirati women. The reluctance is partly economic – weddings among nationals carry enormous obligatory costs, such as extravagant dowries and wedding feasts – but also cultural. “I would like to marry a foreigner because they’re more independent-minded,” one Arab told me.

In short, the Dubai model leads to some intriguing conclusions. Among other things, it gives the lie to the dichotomy of “McWorld versus jihad” – the idea that Islam, as an inherently anti-modernising force, is at odds with worldwide integra-tion. Dubai suggests that some of the big problems of the 21st century may look rather different from the usual journalistic commonplaces.

To use the example of a recent book on globalisation, the conflicts of the coming era, judging by Dubai’s standards, will have less to do with simplistic contradictions between the “Lexus” of modernisation and the “olive tree” of tradition. Globalisation a la Gulf, with its odd compromises and its pragmatic pacts, could change the way we think about what it means to be a citizen, and what it means to participate in a society.

It would not be the first time that Arabia has changed the world.

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