Dubai Mall - click to enlargeAt one level Dubai is a shining example of the determination and ingenuity of the human race. Here a city of more than 2 million inhabitants built in double quick time in the most unlikely of locations, lacking water to sustain its population and enduring suffocating heat and even humidity. Yet it somehow works.

The customer service at the hotel where I stayed was better than anything I’ve ever experienced, the pathway beside the marina is verdant with trees and fountains and the purring Metro with its spaceship like stations is not like anything I’ve ever seen. It also feels tremendously safe, everywhere, and – where the construction works are complete – everything is spotless.

In the words of one of the people from the company that had contracted me to work for 3 days in Dubai, it’s a country where anything seems possible. At one level that’s appealing as I sit at the airport writing this blog entry, heading back to a Europe beset by economic woes and a scant lack of confidence about the future.

But life is not only about the economy. It’s about the quality of our human relationships, our ability to relate to each other in a society based on universal values, and what those universal values are. At that level Europe, and even the UK, still excel.

The rules and social strata in UAE are crushing and depressing, and clear for all to see at the very start. At the top sit the locals, comprising less than 1/5 of the population. In the streets around Media City and the Marina they are seldom to be seen, and when seen there is a Filipino maid in tow. In second position are the expat Americans and Europeans in their 4x4s. But at least these people drive, rather than getting someone else to do it.

Further below are the Indians and Filipinos, the vast majority of the population, yet confined to service jobs (if they are lucky) or construction (if they are unlucky). I simplify to a certain extent, but try walking the streets north east of Al Jafiliya Metro and you will not see many caucasian faces or middle eastern headdresses, and the dismissive nature of many hotel guests towards service staff was unpleasant to see.

Then there are the rules of what is and is not allowed, starting online as that impacted my work. Some websites – like Orkut, the Brazilian equivalent of Facebook also popular in India – are completely blocked. Others such as Flickr and Skype work sometimes and not other times. Accessing obscure UK blogs (and, oddly Ed Balls’s website) would not work initially, presumably until some scan is complete by the powers that be, to then work a few hours later.

Offline, just as online, arbitrary and sometimes contradictory rules are everywhere. At the Mall of the Emirates, flash LCD screens warn shoppers to cover up at least shoulders and knees, while the shop behind the sign sells tarty dresses. Public signs of affection are supposedly frowned upon but raunchy music videos on satellite tv channels abound. Punishments for breaking the law are draconian, and even apply to the parents of children if it’s the child who accidentally does something untoward at school. For the UAE, homosexuality doesn’t exist (the words again of the people I was working with), and democracy and freedom of speech… don’t even go there.

Lastly the whole place is an environmental catastrophe. The Metro notwithstanding, it’s a city organised for cars, with huge distances and wide freeways. Everything is air conditioned – it has to be, else you would be a pool of sweat all the time. Building design does not seem to take the extremes of the climate into account when it’s possible to just add extra aircon units. The Mall of the Emirates even has an indoor ski slope. Dubai is one giant environmental crime.

So, far from being a land where everything is possible, it’s a land where plenty is possible within rather narrow parameters that are not shaped by the people operating within them. Want to earn a fat wage and drive a huge car – sure, it’s your place. Get rich and show it off. But there’s more to life than that, and that’s what leaves me very uneasy about Dubai.

(pictures to follow)

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