The Sand and the Fury: Misunderstood Dubai Is Like a Needy Child

Dubai—A friend and I once invented a game to keep us entertained at media events. We called it Dubai Bingo. Certain words and phrases crop up with such frequency in Dubai conversation that you could mark them off on a little card: Traffic, construction, heat, superficial, rent, Used to be just sand and This is not the Middle East.

The last item on the list— This is not the Middle East—is generally uttered by knowing expats when a newbie betrays excitement about being in Dubai. When I first came here, in August 2004, I was very excited—in the way one is before bungee jumping, anticipation tinged with mortal dread. Before I left the U.S., people expressed concern that I’d be met at the airport by a thousand baying jihadis. One friend PhotoShopped a going-away card: Me, hands bound and jump-suited, kneeling before the requisite rifle-clutching head-removers.

Pat D., the custodian at my former paper, summed up the prevailing attitude: “Are you fucking nuts?”

I was met here, it turned out, by a wall of gym-sock humidity and a thousand jostling Bangladeshis. The cab ride up Sheikh Zayed Road toward the Gardens, the sprinkler-fed complex of lawns and apartments where I was to spend my first few months, was a blur of skyscrapers and billboards. There was a giant Britney Spears clutching a can of Pepsi, and behind her the sand of the Arabian Peninsula, extending endlessly into the night.

Dubai has spent the last 15 years defying its Middle Eastern geography, turning its back on the restiveness and the thirst for petrodollars that define the bulk of the region. Instead of the Arab Street, we have our shopping malls. Instead of pilgrims, we have reddened tourists, expat creative directors, itinerant laborers from the subcontinent. You can go for weeks without seeing a burqa.

Of the 1.2 million people living in Dubai, about 80 percent are foreigners. The emirate is, in many respects, not just a multicultural model for the Middle East, but for the world. Mosques and Irish pubs stand minaret to beer garden. At the malls, European girls expose their sacral tattoos alongside local women in full body armor.

Cultural conflicts play themselves out on the letters pages of the newspapers, but never on the street. Certainly, anti-Western demonstrations wouldn’t be tolerated here, but even if they were, it’s doubtful too many people would drag themselves away from their satellite TV’s to attend.

And, while no one seems to quite know why, there has never been a terrorist incident in Dubai.

This last point marks the central irony to the Dubai Ports World debacle. Dubai’s wealth and pro-Western sentiment are coddled, in the midst of a grabby and disgruntled region, by a security apparatus that extends into all branches of its quasi-governmental business enterprises—none more so than its shipping industry. America wishes it had security like D.P. World.

When the D.P. World affair kicked off, a friend back home e-mailed to ask me what people’s reactions were here. Were they outraged? Were they talking of U.S. imperialism and racism? Erm, no. People weren’t saying much of anything about it. They were too busy complaining about the traffic in Sharjah, the construction in Jumeirah, the rising rents in Karama. (Bingo!)

What Dubai lacks in political discourse, it makes up for in clamorous self-promotion. A colleague of mine got a call recently from D.P. World chairman Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, who remarked that the controversy was in some way a boon for the emirate. Sure, we’ve received some coverage for developing the world’s tallest skyscraper, our indoor ski slope, the man-made islands that can be seen from the moon. But thanks to the D.P. row, Dubai is finally the talk of the town, globally. We’ve arrived.

Alongside the blatant political jockeying behind the U.S. rejection of the D.P. World deal—no, we’re tougher on terrorism; no, we are—there could also be a little metropolis envy at work. The Guardian recently pointed out that Dubai, “the fastest-growing city on earth,” was shaping up to be the millennial equivalent of 19th-century London and 20th-century New York: “Not the modern centre of the Arab world but, more than that, the Arab centre of the modern world.”

The Arab center of the modern world? No way, Hosnay. The U.S. reflexively views any up-and-comer—any challenger—with resentment. In the 1980’s, Americans shared fevered visions of Tokyo businessmen overrunning Detroit and, from there, Capitol Hill. Now it’s a bunch of Arabs stepping from shipping port to national monument to media conglomerate, taking over the whole damn show. Sept. 11 has provided a convenient backdrop for such protectionism. Never again!

Mostly, though, the rejection of the deal is founded on ignorance, a failure to grasp what Dubai is, what it hopes with all its heart to become. Dubai is like a child in its craving for attention and affirmation from the West. It courts outsiders with fantasies of an Oz-oasis. You can make money quickly here. You can spend it even faster. You can sit and sip cosmopolitans on the beach while a thrumming, futuristic metropolis rises at your back. There is a hotel beneath the sea in the making. A condo complex shaped like a chess set. There are Free Zones—Media City and Internet City—miniature principalities where the usual rules don’t apply.

This is not the Middle East.

Much of the world has bought into this fantasy. Tourism now accounts for almost 20 percent of Dubai’s $30 billion G.D.P.—compared to less than 5 percent for oil revenue. Last year, five million visitors came here, and that figure is expected to rise to 15 million by 2010. The economy is growing almost 20 percent per annum, much of that growth fueled by the constant influx of immigrants. It’s an economic miracle, a multi-cultural marvel—and Americans haven’t really played a role in it.

The U.S. does have a presence in Dubai—economically, diplomatically and militarily. But in terms of people, in terms of flip-flops-on-the-ground, America is out of the picture. Sit in the Agency, the swank wine bar at Emirates Towers, and you could easily imagine yourself to be in London. Visit the Deira souq and you could be in Mumbai. Dubai Media City often feels a lot like Beirut. You could never, though, imagine this place to be New York. There aren’t enough Americans.

But perhaps bin Sulayem had it right. Maybe Americans will now look more closely at Dubai, to see it as the terrorism-free, blue-sky haven it is. I, for one, can vouch for the place. The local Arabs may be standoffish, but they want us here—certainly, they’re not about to start chopping people’s heads off. I do worry, though, about the help.

Of the many expats in Dubai, the vast majority are from the subcontinent—the overworked and underpaid construction workers, the builders of this miracle who will never get to share in its bounty. These people are joined by the Filipino ashtray-emptiers, the Egyptian cab drivers, the Moroccan floor sweepers. Dubai is an extremely stratified city, not so much a melting pot as a layer cake. And you get a sense that those who occupy the bottom layer harbor a seething, potentially violent resentment toward the rest of us. Shortly after I arrived here, driving by a construction site, I was watched by a group of workers, squatting by the side of the road, sipping water in the terrible heat. One of them, a gaunt young man with bushy black eyebrows, looked at me with a mixture of shame and bitterness—a truly dangerous combination. That night, I e-mailed a friend of mine back home. “I’m no longer worried about being kidnapped by terrorists,” I wrote. “I’m worried about being force-fed my BMW.”