September 18, 2008

The City That Oil Built

Ah Dubai...a modern day legend. Perhaps the essence of what Dubai is can best be summed up in the title of a photograph I came across in a gallery in the Bastakiya quarter called 'Converging Territories', in which the faces and garments of a group of young women were inscribed with the Holy Quran.
In the same way, Dubai lies at the convergence of two territories: 'piety' and 'materialism'. One would be mistaken to think that the latter is extrinsic to Islam; indeed part of me wondered if Maxime Rodinson had Dubai in the back of her mind when she wrote her now classic work, Islam and Capitalism. Wandering through the City Centre mall in Deira, I had multiple visions of this convergence: the young Emirati with the Dolce and Gabbana tank top and red-and-white headscarf, the Gap store with "Ramadan Kareem!" emblazoned on the frosted glass, the reoccuring Egpytian motif in the malls and hotels (ala Las Vegas) and the coincidence of two temporal events: the Maghrib prayer at a masjid along the creek with rows of Pakistani men eating dates and rice served from a communal pot...and the absolutely electric buzz of people as I walked through the gold souq of Deira later that night, staring at the sparkling rows of bangles, rings, and necklaces.
Dubai is young...the oldest building in the area, the al-Fahidi fort (which houses the Dubai Museum) is from 1800, and a sustained settlement did not emerge until around 1833. The roots of Dubai's phenomenonal growth can be traced to the late 1800s, when Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher al-Maktoum gave tax exemptions to foreign traders. Following that, two contracts with the British government helped to accelerate Dubai's importance as a trading center: one gave the British permission to land planes, the second, the permission to search for oil. The latter proved an inspired choice; since then Dubai has made itself hyper-friendly to multinational investment, to the point that certain zones in the city are a 100% tax-free for companies doing business and they can repatriate all the profits. Yet at some point, peak oil will hit (or maybe it already has) and Dubai will have to rely on the image it is now increasingly trying to shape: a tourist playground.
And of course, with any playground, you have to have people to clean it up; and here is what shapes the international character of Dubai: the hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and the Phillipines. From the looks of it knowing Hindi or Urdu would be potentially more useful than knowing Arabic in Dubai. Hassan, a taxi driver from Pakistan, told me he didn't like Dubai because, "there is no health care...very dangerous to get sick." John from the Phillipines was working at a service station, living in one room with his wife and two kids, sharing an apartment with seven other families because the rent was so high. Still, he said, life was better here than back home. These kind of stories were everywhere during my stay stories of sheer human survival in the shadow of so much opulence; these low-wage workers drive the engine of global growth.
I stayed at the youth hostel, where I had an initially idyllic picture of sitting around late at night telling stories and jamming music with the other residents. However, most people staying in the hostel seemed to be looking for work; one young investment banker from England had just arrived to take advantage of Dubai's "emerging markets." Another young women from New Zealand had been parked at the hostel two weeks, scanning the want ads. Everyone was asleep before 10:00pm. The other 'tourist' was Hisham from Cairo; we had a great time walking around Ibn Battuta mall and Mall of the Emirates, eating Iftar buffets and people-watching until late in the evening, then taking a 2-hour long bus ride back to our hostel.
My sleep schedule has been seriously altered by the jet-lag and fasting. The first day here, I arrived at 12am and got up early in the morning at 7:30am. I rushed out to see the sights...which was a bad idea, since nothing opens until at least 10am, and the early morning Dubai heat is withering, especially when you're fasting. Water never tasted so good that evening! I learned my lesson: sleep late, or minimize morning activity, then go out at night.


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