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Rich Man's World

06 January 2005

There are 22 states in the Arab League, stretching from Morocco in western North Africa to Oman on the Indian Ocean.  A quarter of a billion people live in this large swath of land.  It would appear at first glance that there are commonalities between all of the countries; religion and language being the two biggest ones.  However, the dialect spoken by Arabs in Casablanca is very different than that spoken in Kirkuk.  It is not just a matter of accent; often times people from either end of the Arab Homeland can’t understand each other in conversation due to the extreme variation in vocabulary.  As for religion, not even that is always a common denominator.  There are millions of Christians living in the Middle East, and the Muslim community is divided into Sunni and Shi’ia.  To make matters even more complicated, there are large communities of people in the Arab World who are not even Arab.  The Kurds in northern Iraq and Syria and the Berbers of Algeria are just two of the distinct ethnic groups with their own language and culture.  It turns out the “Arab World” is a bit of a misnomer.  Each country has its own story.  In fact, there are many different stories within each of these countries.   

Even the term “Arab” might need revamping.  As Sheikh Auda Abu Tayi (as played by Anthony Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia) remarked, “The Arabs?  The Howeitat, Agayl, Ruwala, Bani Sakhr, these I know.  I have even heard of the Harith.  But the Arabs?  What tribe is that?”  Contrary to how this region is portrayed on American television, this large piece of ground running from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf is very diverse and surprises can be found in every quarter. 

Dubai is one such surprise.  Located on the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf, Dubai is part of the United Arab Emirates.  I’d heard good things about the place, so I decided to use my New Year’s weekend pass to pay it a visit. 

The first thing I was struck by was how new and clean and orderly everything was.  Dubai is a huge city with almost a zero percent crime rate.  The reason for this, according to an official guide book, is “powerfully enforced law and order and a vigilant police force.”  I suspect “powerfully enforced” is code for dismemberment and electric shock, but whatever the case, it is rated the safest city in the world. 

The highways in Dubai are big and wide, with freshly painted white and yellow lines.  During my four days there, I did not encounter a single pothole.  What I did encounter repeatedly were an abundance of high performance automobiles such as Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Bentleys, and Rolls-Royces. 

The Dubai skyline is spiked with magnificent glass and steel towers that provide glowing reflections of the brilliant blue sky.  Every five star hotel chain in the world has an offering in Dubai.  And the Burj Al Arab, which towers 200 meters above the sea and was designed to look like a billowing white sail, is the world’s only seven star hotel. 

The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, president of the UAE, and the still living Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai, are the men responsible for turning what was a virtual sandlot into the jewel of the Gulf.  Recognizing that Dubai could be a business hub linking Asia, Africa, and Europe, they instituted liberal commercial laws to encourage multi-national corporations to set up shop.  They followed the “if you build it they will come,” strategy and turned Dubai from a field of dreams into a field of gold.  An OPEC member, oil and gas today make up only 10% of the UAE’s gross domestic product; a good measure of the success of the country’s intentional economic diversification.   

Dubai is one giant exercise in best practices.  The government finds the best consultants from all fields—law enforcement to central banking—and brings them to Dubai at double or triple their normal salaries.  In the past few years, beehives of business have blossomed in the form of the Dubai International Financial Centre, the Dubai Healthcare City, the Dubai Internet City, and the Dubai Media City.  Other such centers are forthcoming. 

In the next couple of years, some truly inspired building projects will be completed.  The Palm and The World are two collections of man-made islands that are designed to look like a palm tree and a world map, respectively.  They will be studded with housing developments, office parks, and shopping centers.  The Burj Dubai tower promises to be the tallest building in the world.  It will also feature one of the world’s largest shopping malls.  

Social life in Dubai seems to center around shopping malls.  The modern shopping mall can probably trace its roots to the covered markets or “souks” that have been operating in this part of the world for a thousand years.  I visited the Deira City Centre and Wafi City.  These are just two of several enormous shopping arcades located throughout the city.  Imagine the biggest, nicest, cleanest, most diverse mall you’ve ever been to in America.  Well, it’s a dump compared to the malls in Dubai.  Dubai is a shopper’s paradise, the “shopping capital of the Middle East,” according to the Lonely Planet Guide.  There is even an annual Dubai Shopping Festival, which attracts charge cards and their holders from all over the world.  Every store in every mall found in the United States can be found in Dubai.  On top of that, you have all the Arab and Iranian stores where you can buy, most notably, handmade silk carpets of the most ornate design.  The malls in Dubai even come with mall rats; angry-looking Arab kids who walk around with ball caps turned sideways and oversized pants worn too low.  (America’s beacon of culture shines brightly even over here.) 

Dubai is real melting pot.  You’ve got your Arabs of course.  But there are Iranians, Filipinos, Central Africans, Eastern Europeans, Brits, and Texans in abundance.  I have never seen such diversity of dress, appearance, and language in one place.  From my table at Chili’s in the Deira City Centre, as I was eating a delicious T-bone, I watched Saudi women in burkas and Ukrainian blonds in belly shirts--walking by, chatting away on their cell phones and sucking down fruit smoothies through a straw.  (The Saudi women had to slip the straw under their veil, which looked kind of funny.)  Indian folks were everywhere, too.  I later wondered how many I’d offended by eating my piece of cow right there in front of them in the food court.  (There are still some kinks to be worked out in this whole globalization thing.) 

In terms of modernity, glitz, and glamour, there is no place in the Middle East like Dubai.  My Jordanian friends speak of it almost reverentially.  There is Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem (Al-Quds), and Dubai.  These are the four holy cities in the Arab Middle East.  For people who are used to modest surroundings, Dubai must seem like a shining city on a hill, or rather, a shining city on a coastal plain.  However, I do not share my friends’ enthusiasm.  Dubai is a great place in the sense that it defies our stereotype of what “Arabs” can achieve.  It shoots a pretty big hole into the notion that the Israelis are the only ones who have made the desert bloom.  It is also nice to see Arabs, Iranians, Africans, Indians, and Westerners all cohabitating and working together peacefully.  But Dubai, as perfect as it is, is rather soulless and devoid of culture and history.  There is no Petra or Jesus Baptismal site or funky little neighborhoods.  Every unpleasant smell or person seems to have been put away somewhere, so that what remains is an Arab Disneyland.   

I am glad I saw Dubai, but if I want The Gap or Kenny Rogers Roasters (they have them there), I can go to Kansas City or Houston or Columbus or any other one of America’s increasingly interchangeable cities.  After ringing in the New Year listening to an ABBA cover band singing “Money, Money, Money” in a bar at the Intercontinental Hotel, I was ready to come home to Jordan, with its history and culture and more relaxed pace of life.   

I’d like to think Jordan will always be this way, but this morning I picked up the paper and read of the grand opening of the first Starbucks in Amman.  I wonder how you say “there goes the neighborhood” in Arabic?