A new, unique, driven Metropolis confronting the definition of its own identity — and an often complex environment — has risen here in less than 30 years.
Say what you will, criticize the place, stress its superficiality, but a reality opens up before the visitor’s eyes. In less than 30 years, a world city has risen on the shores of the Persian Gulf, a city of avant-gardes, a ‘hub of everything’ with over two million people from around the world, a city of the century in the making, probably like Shanghai, or Mumbai tomorrow. It is unique, oversized. Just look at photos from not so long ago, say the 1980s, of this corner of the desert with hardly any buildings and compare them to today to size up the magnitude of the ‘project’. And remember that not all this is based on petrodollars. Oil does not explain everything. The biggest wells are a bit further north, in the neighbouring, hugely rich emirate of Abu Dhabi,the United Arab Emirates’ financial powerhouse.
The 2008-2010 financial crisis did not bypass the Gulf, especially Dubai. The city-state was choked by colossal debt (private and public, which more or less amounts to the same thing) and the collapse of the real estate market. Things looked pretty grim. Projects were put on hold, towers unfinished and luxury cars abandoned in the airport parking lot by expatriates who literally fled the country. Dubai’s Al Maktoum ruling family had to call on the generosity of the Al Nahyanes, the masters of Abu Dhabi, which must have been quite difficult for them to do. The bargaining was reportedly rough and tough. Magazine covers announced that ‘the dream is over’. Four years later, the outlookis much brighter, although it cannot really be said that ‘Dubai is back’. The city has returned to its basics: trade, tourism, services, transportentertainment and leisure. It has started to reorganise its debt, now estimated at nearly $120 billion. The real estate market is looking up, new quarters rise in a matter of months and planes and hotels are full.
Sceptics often say everything here is a ‘mirage’, the city is ‘fake’, the economy rests on sand and falling oil prices will cause another crisis. Real estate developers, hotel and restaurant guests and partygoers often come from oil-producing countries that have lost 50% of their revenue in a few months. The backlash for Dubai could be severe. The real estate sector is just getting over the 2008 crisis. There is still too much supply. Another crash is looming.
But the city looks confident. Dubai has become a ‘necessary’ city, in the words of French researcher and political scientist Marc Lavergne [‘Dubaï, utile ou futile ?’, Hérodote 133, 2009]. It is ‘necessary’ for an arc stretching from the Persian Gulf to Dakar, Chennai Teheran and Central Asia, almost reaching China. It is ‘necessary’ for massive, almost unrestricted trade. It has become the world’s third-leading re-export centre in a few years. It has allowed all sorts of State and private players, all sorts of fortunes from Iran, Russia, Turkey, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and fortunes that fled their countries during the Arab Spring, to stay connected to the global system, financial circuits, services, exchanges and dialogue. It is a necessary city that allows all sorts of more or less legal organisations to have access to this global platform. The city-state’s leaders are not naïve. They are subtly balancing its residents’ need for discretion with the requirements of transparency, often set down by the West.
Dubai is not just about speculation and/or grey areas. The city is based on a real business plan called the ‘hub of everything’ approach. All that does not come from a ‘rootless’ world, according to Marc Lavergne’s expression. Dubai is not without genius. It combines ancestral Bedouin traditions with the know-how of Arab and Iranian businessmen and has adopted the English-speaking world’s codes of efficiency. It has the nomadic cultures’ resilience, endurance and sense of opportunity. It has the desert, the sea, drive and a taste for risk. It rejects dogmas and frozen situations. Dubai is a city of movement, a city of adventurers who think big.
Dubai’s population has soared from 250,000 in 1980 to over two million today. Between 10 and 15% are native born and the rest come from abroad, a ratio is almost unique in the world (although frequent in the ‘small’ Gulf countries). Wealthier, more diversified newcomers from South Africa and Eastern Europe have joined the early waves of Indian and Pakistani immigration. French, American and English Muslims view the city as a sort of ‘New York’ of their community. The immigration issue is not just important, it is existential. ‘Locals’ make up a tiny fraction of the population and the system is built to preserve their rights and advantages. The Emirati population is so small that foreigners occupy many key positions in the police, army and State, resulting in a surprising virtuous and vicious circle: the emirate needs immigrants for labour, but fears that their number will completely swamp national identity. There is no path to citizenship, not even for second or third-generation descendants of immigrants. Businessmen living here since the 1980s — mostly Indians and Pakistanis who have made a fortune and created thousands of jobs — can have their visas revoked, at least in theory.
The question of democracy does not come up. Things are clear. Power is held by the ruler, Sheikh Mohamed Ibn Rached al Maktoum, a clever, driven man who relies on a small group of advisors and powerful families. Young, local technocrats who graduated from the world’s top business schools are taking over the system’s reins, gradually replacing ‘white advisors’, who now have much less influence on strategic decisions. The system is flexible. The practice of diwan opens the ruler’s living room up to those who desire it. Dubai’s government is a mix between a hereditary authoritarian monarchy, the board of directors of a multinational corporation and the municipal council of a very big city. Nobody challenges the centrality of power: Emirati citizens enjoy many social benefits and temporary residents are afraid of losing their visas and work permits. But things are changing. A new generation of ‘citizens’ and ‘city dwellers’ is emerging. The city is respectful but far from silent. Many bloggers take the ‘board of directors’ or the ‘municipal council’ to task on urban planning issues, abuses, projects and ecology.
The key lies in the durability of the ‘Dubai project’. This smart, ambitious city faces a complex, often hostile environment. The Emirates are at war with ISIS and fighting various branches of the Muslim Brotherhood. They back General Sissi’s Egypt. Iran is an indispensable partner, but tensions with the Shiite world are real and Lebanese families have been recently expelled. Planes from the federation participate in Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen’s civil war. This very active foreign policy, which is mostly decided on the federal level in Abu Dhabi, makes some people in Dubai uneasy. ‘Danger is part of our geography,’ said one city-dweller. ‘Like all the world’s greatest cities, we’re at risk, but we have to keep our open, almost neutral status.’ Danger is not the only issue. Destiny is also at stake in Dubai’s ambition and identity. Society is resolutely turned towards movement and the future while questioning its real nature. How can it be a Persian Gulf city and a world city at the same time? How can it change to become a powerhouse of the 21st-century global economy? How can a ‘collective’ society join forces to carry out such a project? How can city-dwelling citizens who feel involved be invented? The adventure is still being written. As our Emirati friend sums it up, ‘It’s all a matter of timing, leadership and governance.’