Dubai Dreamscapes & Nightmares

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 10/30/2007 03:48:00 PM
Ah, the wonder that is Dubai. Not only is the emirate reaching for the heavens with towering skyscrapers including one set to be the world's tallest, but it is also attempting to offer any sort of weather condition you want with indoor skiing and man-made beach islands. Pretty much any material thing your heart desires--and your pocketbook will allow--is available in Dubai. But, behind this modern-day tale of an economic boom lie many questions about what exactly is driving it. The Washington Post had a fine politico-architectural commentary [!--read it; I'm not kidding] about the place over the weekend, a brief snippet which I attach here:
But merely listing projects, or marveling at the architectural gigantism, doesn't get at what is unique about the emirates, which are emerging as the world's great post-democratic cities. They are rising at a time when American power seems to be in remission, when democracy has, in many parts of the world, lost its luster as an ideal, or necessary endpoint of social and political development. Material splendor and authoritarian government can, it turns out, go together. And architecturally, despite all the dissonance, the strange juxtapositions of the vulgar and the sleek, the blue-chip buildings next to the shabby high-rise clad in garishly colored glass and surmounted by a pagoda folly, the emirates are essentially an advertisement to an increasingly wowed world: Look at what enlightened, corporate, efficient and non-democratic government can do...

Which hints at a deeper politics underneath the architectural eclecticism. Like the vast investment in shopping malls, the celebration of materialism, the encouragement of unashamedly conspicuous consumption, architectural eclecticism is another way of reassuring people that you have everything you need here. The state has provided. The government doesn't just build mega-projects as investment, but to demonstrate competence, power and problem-solving. The striking thing about the hundreds of concrete support pillars that have sprung up in recent months along Sheik Zayed highway -- which will support a new light rail system -- is how quickly they're going up. The delays, the disputes, the litigation, the whole messy business of "Not in My Back Yard" simply doesn't exist in the country.

"Dubai is the achievement of a certain fantasy or utopia, of a society in which the corporations, private ownership and the state are all collapsed into one another," says Mike Davis, who has written about Dubai in the recently published "Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism." The book, definitely in the left-wing tradition, surveys urban planning, social justice, environmental destruction and other issues in emergent and rapidly developing cities around the world. Whereas people in the Emirates argue that they are blazing a progressive path forward relative to other Arab and regional nations, Davis writes that Dubai is pointing the rest of the world back to "a nightmare of the past: Speer meets Disney on the shores of Araby."

Dubai is even aiming to take on the City of London as a global financial center according to the Telegraph. Goodness knows what would happen if all those petrodollars went to Dubai instead of London--not an unimaginable scenario:

With a regional tide of petrodollars waiting to be deployed around the globe, Dubai's objective is simple: to establish itself as one of the world's leading financial centres.

"We aim to become one of the top three exchange groups in the world in the international capital markets," according to a spokesman for Borse Dubai, the holding company of the Dubai International Financial Exchange (DIFX) and its domestic counterpart, the Dubai Financial Market...

The Middle East's pan-regional boom looks well-set to play into Dubai's hands. Huge sovereign wealth funds amassed by neighbouring states such as Abu Dhabi and Qatar are contributing to the wall of capital which has turned the Gulf into one of the most formidable global centres for outbound mergers and acquisitions activity...

But there are reasons to suspect that Borse Dubai's long-term goal of becoming a top-three exchange group may have a touch of the desert mirage about it — or that, at least, it may take even longer to achieve than the state's ambitious rulers are hoping for.

The evidence of the period since the DIFX's September 2005 launch suggests it will take more than opera singers and snow in the desert to tempt large international companies to Dubai.

So far, only a handful have chosen to list there: in terms of trading volumes and funds raised, Dubai is not yet playing in the same league as London, New York or even Shanghai.

Data from Thomson Financial shows that, last year, IPOs in Dubai raised just $2.3bn, barely one-sixth of the total of London's junior AIM market.

While the amount of capital raised through equity offerings is only one measure of an exchange's success, the figures suggest the DIFX has a long road to travel to compete with more mature capital markets.

Big money and all these palaces in the sky bring up the natural question, "Who puts up these architectural wonders in this playground for the wealthy?" The answer is less heartening: South Asian workers who are largely sealed off from the wonders of Dubai--that's who. It is no exaggeration to say that they are being treated as second-class citizens for they have no path to eventual citizenship in the UAE, as with most Middle East countries. While the government claims that it is attempting to better relations with these workers, such doesn't seem to be the case as a number of them have gone on strike. [Hat tip Daniel Altman.] The caption of a picture of police watching South Asian workers on Altmans's blog is apt: "Soldiers won't build those skyscrapers." From the Associated Press:
Thousands of foreign construction workers, mostly of south Asian origin, went on strike Sunday over harsh working conditions in this booming Gulf city, a day after the government threatened to deport those who had rioted over low and delayed salaries.

Inexpensive foreign labor, drawn from the impoverished underclasses of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, form the vital underpinnings to Dubai's spectacular building boom, which includes not just soaring office towers and sprawling residential compounds but whole artificial islands and winter ski resorts in this desert city.

The workers, however, have complained about long hours, no minimum wage, harsh living conditions and no legal forums in which to air their complaints about management.

Despite the illegality of strikes in the United Arab Emirates, the laborers refused to go to work over the weekend and protested in the labor camp of Dubai's Jebel Ali Industrial Zone and on a construction site in Al Qusais, a residential neighborhood.

They demanded pay increases, improved housing and better transportation services to construction sites. Some workers threw stones at riot police that heavily outnumbered the protesters on Saturday. Ali bin Abdullah al-Kaabi, the Emirates' minister of labor, described the workers' behavior to the state news agency WAM as "uncivilized."

UPDATE 11/2: The Economist adds that the workers are unhappy about the falling value of the dirham, which is of course pegged to the falling US dollar.