06 January, 2010

Defending Dubai

"Being human is itself difficult, and therefore all kinds of settlements (except dream cities) have problems." - Jane Jacobs

Dubai is not an easy place to live, nor is it an easy place to defend. But at this time, it warrants such. "The Soulless City", the "city without a soul," gets a big, bad rep because of a small number of people. The country, the United Arab Emirates, and those who are here—who live here—are marred verbally and in spirit due to the excesses of the exceptionally rich. The Burj Khalifa—the tallest building in the world. The Burj al Arab—one of only three seven-star hotels in the world. The Dubai Mall—the largest shopping mall in the world. A ski slope in the Mall of the Emirates. The second largest carbon footprint in the world.

Excess. Soulless. These are the words people think of when they think of Dubai, and since November a third word is conjured up about our pretty little city. Debt. That word has also induced many-a-smug smile from those abroad as they look down upon the golden child of the Middle East. It is the way adolescent girls feel when the prom queen gets a zit - right on the tip of her nose. Funny that the rest of the world—excluding the emerging economies—which has been mired in the sinking sand of the global recession for over one year, finds the similar misery of its global counterpart a laughing matter, when a downturn this deep is laughable to no one. Except, of course, those who predicted it. And those of us who predicted the end of the plastic party did so based not on the past but because of human behavior. So it should have been no surprise that Dubai too would experience what every other city and nation has that prospered due to high-risk investments, real estate speculation, and an increasingly intertwined financial system. Humans live here too.

And this is why Dubai cannot fail.

Since the fateful week in November when the American media announced and embellished our dirty little secret, outsiders have been waiting for the other shoe to drop. I must admit, I was one of them. But I have been waiting for over a year. I first held my breath in September 2009 when the United States recession went global. But traffic continued and nobody left. Then January rolled around and traffic was noticeably lighter, but abandoned we were not. In February The New York Times published the ill-fated article highlighting our ghost towns and the number of dirty, dirty cars abandoned at the airport. We talked and whispered and waited. The worst that happened was a chilling effect, for the Dubai media faced a hideous fine if they told us anymore about what we already knew. But, the city kept moving and we kept our students—for awhile anyway. Once student withdrawals began for the end of the year, we held our breath—thinking this was finally it. The parents will leave for the summer with their kids and they won't return. The worst is now. But it wasn't. We got a message stating that the number of withdrawals was not actually more than usual. We expected it to be—but it wasn't. Yes, people left. But there was no mass exodus. There was no carnal transformation into salt and none of the buildings turned into sand. Summer happened and Ramadan happened and there was no massive influx of new residents as there was last year, but the drama ends there. This is a good thing because humans live here too.

And these humans are the reason Dubai cannot fail. It is not because of the Burj al Arab or the Burj Khalifa. It is not because of the ski slope or the shopping festival. It is not because of Atlantis, the Palm, or the World. It is because of the humans who live here and work here that our city must not only survive, but thrive, and it does and it will.

While it is infinitely more fun to wile away the hours fantasizing that everyone in Dubai has been to Tiger Woods' golf course, the tennis finals, and Atlantis for a few frivolous nights, that is simply not the case. Yes, this is the 21st century playground of the rich. But just as in any city anywhere, the classes are not singular and the city could not function with only one. There are numbers and numbers of bodies (and minds) here without whom the city may fail to function. The secrets about Dubai may be far more tantalizing, but the truth a little less so. The truth about Dubai is that people are here to work. There are more working people in Dubai than not, and aside from the locals (approximately 10-20 per cent of the population as of 2009) most people are here working. It is true that some wives do not work and some children do not work, but for the most part, the rest of us residents are here to work. From the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid to the top, the majority of the people in Dubai work and we would like to keep it that way - so would the governments in the Gulf.

The American Dream has gone global. The American Dream exists now in Dubai. The idea, as coined by James Truslow in his 1931 book, of "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement" has been exported, just as America has been exporting its products and culture for years. It is time the rest of the world accept that instead of begrudging it. After all, it is an idea and it is an idea that becomes more feasible with the flattening of the world - changing the shape of the globe just as Columbus did over 500 years ago. As a woman whose ancestors dealt with the upheaval of the landing of the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria, and whose ancestors have been dealing with it ever since, the idea that I left the New World to achieve the dream of the same name when I could not claim it there, speaks volumes to the need for Dubai and every place like it. I am not alone.

I will be the first to admit that Dubai is far from perfect. If one has any sense of social justice, here, she must pretend she does not. We know that this place we call home, if only for awhile, is not for us to come to forever. The smell of injustice hangs in the air with the sewage. We know there is a pecking order entrenched in the labor system. We know that "guest worker" sounds a lot like indentured servitude if you say it too slowly. We know that if you are reading this, you probably have no idea what crowded means, unless you remember from your past life. We also know that the Gulf is deep and wide and has plenty of secrets.

We also know that the Gulf workers have bigger houses back home, than their cohort who stayed. We also know that there are young ladies being educated in the Philippines for the price their mothers pay for missing them. We also know that freedom is relative and so is the meaning of rich. We are here to work, not to judge.

Dubai is the major trade center of the Middle East. That is not going to change any time soon. For that reason, it will not fail. But there is something more important here than goods and services and investments. Human beings live here too. It is for this reason that Dubai cannot fail.