The Abu Dhabi Experiment

101107 zoepf web The Abu Dhabi ExperimentABU DHABI—By 8 a.m. on a September morning in Abu Dhabi, the sun is already so strong that if you forget to put on your sunglasses before you step outside, your eyes start to tear up and you sneeze from the sheer burnt whiteness of the light. By midday, the flat landscape is bright beyond any contrast and the air is so hot that if you're trying to cross a street in high heels, it's prudent to walk on tiptoe to avoid sinking in the grip of the softened tar.

The climate here is not exactly beckoning. Yet people are starting to speak of Abu Dhabi and Dubai—the two wealthiest and most powerful of the oil-rich principalities that make up the United Arab Emirates—with the kind of eagerness for the exotic that, say, Bali evoked a decade ago. Celebrities like the Beckhams and Robbie Williams are said to have bought vacation homes in Dubai recently. Abu Dhabi is selling itself as a cultural destination. The U.A.E. is blessed with enlightened royalty and a seemingly bottomless supply of energy wealth, including about 10 percent of the world's oil reserves, and it is pouring billions of dirhams into reconstructing its global image.

Abu Dhabi's government has recently unveiled plans to build branches of the Louvre, the Guggenheim and—according to early rumors—the Hermitage here. A satellite campus of NYU is reportedly under discussion. A pamphlet about planned building projects on Saadiyat Island, just off Abu Dhabi's coast, reads like a roll call of the world's most famous architects, including Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry.

But once you’re actually in Abu Dhabi, the largest Emirate and the country's capital, the prognostications about its grand future as a global cultural capital seem ludicrously at odds with the city's present offerings, which are slim by any standard.

A more accurate reflection of Abu Dhabi as it is today can be found in the classified ads in the local newspapers.

Engulfed by promotional material about Abu Dhabi's future, it's weirdly refreshing to find advertisements that are so grittily descriptive of Abu Dhabi's present. Anti-discrimination laws aren't a consideration here, so housing and help wanted ads are very specific about matters like gender, nationality, religion and visa status in a way that would be unthinkable in the United States:

"House Boy, Filipino male, live-in, preferably with HRM degree, required to serve as a Personal Assistant to an American executive."

"Lady Driver, Indonesian/Indian, with UAE driving license, required for a local family."

"Receptionist, female, Indian, on father's/husband's visa, required in Abu Dhabi."

There are scores of notices advertising labor camps, bed spaces, and spare bedrooms in family apartments to be shared by two or three people. Again, these tend to be quite precise about the ethnic groups that the advertisers are hoping to reach. It is hard to read them without imagining the economic pressures that have brought so many people halfway around the globe, the cots pressed close together in stuffy rooms, the anguished sense of dislocation.

"El Dorado cinema building, bed spaces available for Filipino bachelors."

"300 rooms labour camp available in Al Quoz."

"Big room plus wardrobe in Electra available for a non-cooking, single, executive bachelor, to share with a Tamilian family."

As the ads suggest, city life in Abu Dhabi has a strange, provisional quality. Most of the buildings are newly constructed. Their windows are tinted green or blue or purple, and iridescent like the inside of a shell. Construction cranes loom everywhere.

Abu Dhabi's planners want you to believe that the city is a model of contented multi-ethnicity. In fact, it is a deeply stratified society, and Emirati nationals, who make up only about 10 percent of the population, are at the top. None of these strata really mingle, though all of Abu Dhabi's inhabitants seem to spend much of their leisure time in the city's vast, chilly malls.

The U.A.E. also has a gender ratio that is more radically skewed than any nation in the world. There are about 2.74 males for every female here, though that number alone does not convey the horror of these contracted laborers living away from their wives and families for years on end.

Sometimes it can seem like everyone you meet in a given day has been here for less than five years, like everywhere you look, in cheap little restaurants all over the city, men are eating meager little meals alone, all facing in the same direction, not reading anything, looking slightly stunned to find themselves here.

Companies of all kinds are starting up here willy-nilly, and the housing ads are wrapped in advertisements for a host of firms that promise various kinds of assistance (attestation, debt collection, labor, immigration) necessary to start a business. A friend here who works for the Abu Dhabi government describes life in the emirate as "our gold rush," and it's true that there's a very Wild West feel to the place.

But that doesn’t begin to describe what a novel thing is truly happening here. Abu Dhabi is testing, as no place has ever tested before, whether money can make a society, and how fast this can be accomplished.

What happens if you drop, just as suddenly as modern capital markets will allow, a practically infinite supply of money onto a mostly inhospitable and uninhabited stretch of salty sandy soil? How do you build a great city? How do you build a great society? Will it work out? If Abu Dhabi builds it, will the people of the world come?

For now, they are coming in their multitudes. Yet the UAE doesn't extend the promise of citizenship, or even permanent residency, to more than a handful of these people. Does it matter that everyone is here for a more or less temporary stay, and that so few of these people have any kind of lasting stake in the society that they are spending years of their lives helping to build?

The new museums and performance centers will eventually go up, and Abu Dhabi no doubt has a lot more growing to do. But for now, beneath the breathless predictions and the gold rush excitement, the present here feels soulless and a bit surreal.