Were Donald Trump to build a city it would be Dubai. Once a sleepy village known for its pearl industry, Dubai has become a regional trade hub and entertainment mecca, a garish boomtown that has sprouted greedily from the desert. Think of it as Las Vegas, only without the class and sophistication.
Remarkably, it was only in 1971 that Dubai, then a dusty backwater, along with six other mini-states, including Abu Dhabi, came together to form the United Arab Emirates following the departure of England, the area’s quasi-colonial protector. The discovery of oil just years earlier set the stage for the federated mini-states’ stunning metamorphosis. To see Dubai today, with its jagged skyline that rivals that of New York or Shanghai, is to behold the triumph of petro-ostentation.
During the height of its building boom, 24 percent of the world’s stock of 125,000 construction cranes was located in Dubai. While the global economic crisis hit the city hard, requiring a bailout from its richer sister city, Abu Dhabi, its impact was ephemeral. The once-idle construction cranes have swung back into action and high-rises are again rising with gob smacking alacrity.
Take a tour of the great cities of the world and you’re sure to be visually serenaded by broad avenues, splendid museums, and lush parks. Not Dubai. Its tour will take you to mammoth malls, five-star hotels, more malls and more hotels. Over here is the Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping center, with more than 1,000 stores, indoor aquarium, and ice rink, and over there is the Burj Al Arab, the self-styled seven-star hotel that’s the tallest of its kind. And don’t miss Wafi, a tasteless, ancient Egyptian-themed retail paradise, or Atlantis, a sprawling 1,539-room hotel with adjoining marine theme park that, like so much in Dubai, is pathetically derivative.
It’s all a mirage of sorts, a vapid fantasia sustained by fossil fuels and the megalomaniacal designs of the city’s emir, Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, whose imperious visage is plastered around Dubai. His Benevolence is a man of scale and ambition. Dubai has the world’s largest building, the Burj Khalifa, which stands 2,723 feet (160 stories) and man-made islands visible from space. It also features an indoor ski resort, PGA-rated golf course and, coming in 2020, Dubailand, a $5 billion theme park that will be double the size of Disney World. Then there’s the Dubai World Cup, a $10 million horse race held at the world’s biggest racetrack, a $3 billion eyesore, a state-of-the-art Formula One race track, and an array of urban trophies, such as the word’s longest automated unmanned metro, and sprawling air and marine ports.
Superlatives are the rule here, though not always. Under the “Culture and Tradition” heading of the Eyewitness Travel guidebook for Dubai is listed “Falconry,” “Rifle-Throwing,” and “The Camel.” Paris it’s not: the city’s charm, whatever it may be, does not speak to the soul. “Dubai is the parable of what money makes when it has no purpose but its own multiplication and grandeur,” writes AA Gill in Vanity Fair.
Of course, given what many retrograde Middle Eastern petro-states do with their oil bounty, Dubai’s homage to hedonism might be seen as refreshingly enlightened, but that’s debatable. Dubai’s image of being a free market utopia guided by a live-and-let live ethos is a façade. The laws of supply and demand, for one, do not apply when an abundance of gas and oil can fill the breach, flooding petrodollars into the local economy. Unoccupied buildings can go up chockablock while other massive investments need not produce a return on investment. How long this can last is an open question.
The treatment of many of Dubai’s non-Gulf Arab natives, fully 80 percent of the city’s population who often toil in conditions of virtual indentured servitude, most glaringly underscores the rot at the core of this gilded place. The armies of mostly South Asian laborers who build Dubai’s malls and hotels typically live in wretched conditions with few rights or recourse. Citizenship isn’t an option for them, even for those who are the third-generation in their family to be born in the Emirates.
Not that all this matters much to the swarms of monied sheiks and curious tourists who flock to glimpse this garish abomination. No surprise, then, that it’s drawn the King of Kitsch, Donald Trump. The Donald is looking to put up a $2.9 billion rocket-shaped hotel on a man-made island off Dubai’s coast. The schlocky place might not happen, as money is tight. But it’ll fit right in if it does.