Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Some Impressions of Dubai
Burj Al Arab
Photo Credit: Kellogg, NWU
I spent the first week of March in Dubai (UAE) visiting friends, watching birds (see the report here), and checking out the business climate. Due to my dress and accent, it was fairly obvious to most people that I was American. While a few people did give me the fish eye, I found the majority of people in Dubai to be warm and friendly. The presence of a large ex-pat population was undoubtedly a factor. However, even among Emiratis, my family and I felt welcomed.
On the surface, Dubai has a thriving economy. It has enjoyed one of the highest levels of GDP growth in the world of the last several years. From a western perspective, one would conclude that the standard of living there surpasses that in the US – at least economically. The average price of a home there is comparable to that here in the states. Most families have two vehicles. And the average annual income is about the same. However, there are no income taxes in Dubai! Thus, the people get much more benefit from the fruits of their labor.
As far as personal freedoms go, Emiratis enjoy less freedom than we do here in the US, although I would not call it oppressive. For starters, there is no democratic electoral system. Each of the seven emirates is ruled by a Sheik whose power is hereditary. The Sheiks, in turn, are subservient to the Sheik of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE. All laws are reviewed by a Supreme Council composed of the seven ruling sheiks and a appointed Council of Ministers. All the emirates have both secular and Sharia (Islamic) law for civil, criminal, and high courts. Islam is the de facto religion. While religious freedom is tolerated, non-Islamic proselytizing is illegal.
There is also significant to overwhelming social pressure to conform to Islamic standards in dress and personal conduct. Native woman are expected to cover with an abaya and head scarf. Ex-pats and foreign nationals are expected to dress modestly, although they don’t always do so. In truth, I found it quite comforting. One does not always need to be affonted by testosterone-raging Hercules wanna-bes on their way from the gym, or college age women with the pillows of motherhood leaping out of their blouses.
So, overall, the standard of living in Dubai is fairly good, at least for those who are financially comfortable. However, one thing I found worrisome was the cultural and economic stratification that is developing. As it turns out, most of the lower paying labor and social service jobs in Dubai are not provided by Emiratis. They are provided by foreign nationals - mostly from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China. Go to any hotel, restaurant, or construction site, and you will be hard pressed to find an Emirati among the ranks. This is particularly true in the construction industry. Like all capitalist societies, the upper class extracts its comforts and pleasures off of the sweat of the exploited classes. (OMG, I sound like a communist!)
Burj Dubai Tower
Image Credit: WeeklyDrop.com
Speaking of construction, Dubai has gained a lot of notoriety over the last few years due to all its construction projects, and there are a LOT of them. Projects from the Palms to the Burj Dubai (world’s tallest building) to the Lagoons. In fact, almost everywhere you look in Dubai there are construction projects underway. From one vantage point alone, I counted over 15 construction cranes in action. Due to the worldwide economic turmoil we are experiencing right now, some projects have been put on hold; however, there is still plenty of work going on.
Where is all the money for these projects coming from? The popular opinion is that the money is coming from Dubai’s oil; however, these does not seem likely to me. Contrary to popular opinion, Dubai is not an oil country. In fact, oil revenues account for only 6% of Dubai’s economy. Most of their money comes from tourism, trade, and commerce. That leaves the investment banks. They are the ones pumping the economy full of steroids.
If one were to take a quick view around the city, this fact becomes apparent. The city is dominated by western banks (Barclay’s, Citibank, HSBC, Credit Suisse) and western/asian companies (IKEA, Armani, Sony, Toyota, McDonalds). If you were to theoretically step out of your teleporter into the heart of Dubai with out knowing where you where, you would be certain you were in the middle of New York or Hong Kong (sand, palm trees, and ever-present mosques aside). I must say that I find these developments saddening. It seems as if the entire culture and economy in Dubai is coming under the sway and control of western interests – interests whose only concern is their own self-interest.
Environmental and Social Impacts
Image Credit: Emirates Network
This boom in the commercial development of Dubai is not without its side-effects. Of particular concern are the Palm and Lagoon projects. There are, and will be, huge social and environmental repercussions.
The Palm Projects essentially involve the creation of artificial islands off the north coast of the Dubai – in the Arabian Gulf (don’t say Persian Gulf, nobody knows what that is). Sand is dredged from the gulf or excavated from the desert to build up the islands. Then high-rise condos, hotels, and apartments are put up. Developers then charge top dollar to buyers who want beach front property. In most cases, the buyers will be greatly disappointed, as the only view they will get is the back door of their neighbors home on the adjacent “palm frond”.
There is also the issue of the environmental impact. I visited the Jumeirah Palm Island while there. I took an opportunity to walk along the “beach” in my obsessive quest to watch birds. I was disheartened by what I saw, or more correctly, didn’t see. The beaches were sterile! There were virtually no birds to be seen. No gulls patrolling the coast. No stints combing the surf line. No terns diving for fish. There was also the hint of a stagnant marsh in the air. The only creatures we did see were a few starfish - several of which were dead, and a few bivalves. With several Palm Projects still underway, the prospects for a the ecology of the coast do not look good.
Then there is the Lagoons. Similar to the Palms, the goal of the Lagoons projects is to create more artificial waterfront property around which residential communities and commercial centers will be built. We drove by one of the soon to be developed Lagoon sites on our way to visit the Ras Al Khor Wildbird Sanctuary on the Dubai Creek. The sanctuary, located at the base of the creek, is home to over 5000 Greater Flamingos and a variety of other shore birds.
Flamingos at Ras Al Khor
Photo Credit: Gulf News
While admiring the Flamingos, I began to wonder about the Lagoons Project site we passed on the way. The construction site is visible from the sanctuary – in fact, it’s just upstream. To make the project go, the banks of the creek will have to be dredged and an artificial inlet will have to be put in to let water into the soon to be build residential and commercial areas. Roads will be laid down, buildings will be put up, and eventually cars and people will move in. I can’t imagine the adverse impact this will have on the wildbird sanctuary.
And what about the land where other Lagoon projects will be undertaken? Some of it is desert, some of it is of ecological significance, but the vast majority of it is presently occupied by residential areas. In other words, there are already neighborhoods with people living in them. What will happen to these neighborhoods and their residents? Can you say eminent domain?
The government is forcing the people to move out and find other housing. While it’s true the people are being compensated, they are not getting real value for their homes. This also does not take into account the social cost of the break-up of communities that have been living in the area for generations.
The recent worldwide economic crisis has also had an unforseen impact. People who were told to move from their homes began selling furniture and stripping their houses to get cash for their doors and windows. Since some of the projects are now on hold, the government did an about face and told the people to stay in their houses – houses that now have no furniture, no doors, and no windows. Those who already moved or purchased new properties are now stuck with their original property which they can not sell.
Overall, Dubai is a thriving state (emirate) with a potentially bright future - provided they don't follow the example of the west. With the impending collapse of the U.S. dollar, the massive construction boom in the Emirates, along with expanding markets in India and China, it seems that the financial center of the world is moving east. Dubai will undoubtedly emerge as one of its hubs.
For Dubai to avoid repeating the mistakes of the west, it will have to learn from our history and put appropriate safeguards in place. Unfortunately, Dubai does not appear to be doing so. Rather, they are following in our footsteps. Their economy is driven by credit. While I have no statistics to determine the level of personal debt, my converstations with locals lead me to believe it is significant.
Dubai must also take steps to avoid the loss of its culture, and its supplantation by western culture. Emirati culture is getting lost behind the facade of capitalism and consumerism. They are losing touch with nature and with their identity as a people. They are quickly become like westerns clad in a dishdash and a headscarf. Just how far Emiratis have strayed from their culture can clearly been seen by making a breif trip over the border in to Oman. Hopefully, Emiratis will do more to preserve and safeguard their culture... Insha'allah.