Don't fall for the Dubai story

dubai future skyline

For me, "home" is basically wherever my parents have made their home. Last year, when they moved back from Singapore to the old country, my method of getting home changed too. If you want to get to my country of origin, there are direct flights available- but they involve flying on airlines that are, frankly, horrible.

If, like me, you prefer to meet your loved ones looking and feeling (and smelling) like something other than the stuff that you flushed down the toilet the morning you left, then you're far better off paying some extra money to fly Emirates or Etihad and take a pit-stop in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, or Qatar.

I've flown through Dubai four times now, and each time I've seen the airport, I've come away convinced that there is something deeply wrong with the supposed miracle story behind Dubai's explosive growth over the last thirty years.

Now, to be clear, I've never actually visited the city of Dubai itself. I've only gone through the airport. The astute reader would undoubtedly argue that it is ridiculous to judge a city by its airport.

Certainly one can find evidence to support this assertion. After all, if you stopped by Singapore's Changi Airport, you'd probably come away convinced that the city itself is a marvel of innovation, architecture, and human capital, and is a shopper's paradise.

And if you pass through Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion, you'd be convinced that Israel is a God-blessed land of miracles created through the sweat, toil, and sacrifice of a courageous and decent people.

And if you went through New York's JFK, you'd probably think that NYC itself is overcrowded, absurdly expensive, with horrible infrastructure, and full of rude angry blacks, Latinos, and Indians.

And if you went through Newark Liberty, you'd probably be left with the impression that the city of Newark, if not the entire state of New Jersey, is the armpit of America. (Personally, I rather like certain parts of Jersey- I live in the state- but I think that calling Newark an "armpit" is being far too kind.)

And if you go through London's Heathrow airport, you'll probably come away thinking that England's once-great and mighty civilisation is in terminal decline.

... OK, so maybe you can judge a city by its airport.

Which brings me to Dubai.

If you spend any amount of time in Dubai's airport, you're probably going to find yourself thinking that it's a bit... weird. It's huge, it's artificial, and it's in some ways thoroughly bizarre.

One of the first things you'll notice is that it, like the city it connects to the world, stands in direct opposition to its natural environment. Dubai is between the desert and the sea; as such, it doesn't actually have much by way of fresh water.

Yet, in the middle of its biggest terminal is a fifty-foot waterfall. And that's merely the most obvious and most egregious example of the chronic waste and over-the-top extravagance of a third-world city desperately trying to project a first-world image.

I cannot even imagine how much it costs to maintain just that one aspect of Dubai's opulent facade. The city itself reminds me very much of Las Vegas- you get that same sense of wanton excess and bizarre dislocation from reality.

The major difference, of course, is that, being an Islamic nation, Dubai is a little bit more straight-laced than Vegas when it comes to women.

Las Vegas Bikini Contest
This sort of thing, for instance, isn't quite so common
Beyond the wanton waste and excess that you see everywhere, even within the airport, there are two other rather odd characteristics of Dubai that make themselves abundantly clear to even the casual traveler.

First, unlike every other city that I've ever been to or through, you will very rarely find natives working any of the shops, stalls, and facilities.

It's a very strange feeling to walk into a supposedly Arab nation and find that everyone, from the toilet cleaners to the security staff to the restaurant waiters to the duty-free and pharmacy counter clerks, is a foreigner. The city is owned and run by Arabs, to be sure, but the actual work is done by Indians, Filipinos, Malaysians, and even Turks.

This is surprising for the casual visitor, but if you know something about Arab culture, you'll quickly realise that this is actually pretty normal. There is a reason why oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia have chronic unemployment problems- the "insh'Allah" mentality that pervades these cultures, combined with vast oil wealth, leads to some decidedly screwy incentive structures for native populations.

Now, to be clear, Dubai is a bit unusual compared to its neighbours- it is not an oil-rich petro-state. It has, in fact, based its entire economy on trade, finance, and debt. And on the surface at least, it has done a tremendous job of creating a modern economy. Its unemployment rate is among the lowest in the world, even for native Emiratis.

United Arab Emirates Unemployment Rate

Yet there is a decidedly dark side to this, which Johann Hari explored in a classic article from nearly 6 years ago:
Dubai only had a dribble of oil compared to neighbouring Abu Dhabi – so Sheikh Maktoum decided to use the revenues to build something that would last. Israel used to boast it made the desert bloom; Sheikh Maktoum resolved to make the desert boom. He would build a city to be a centre of tourism and financial services, sucking up cash and talent from across the globe. He invited the world to come tax-free – and they came in their millions, swamping the local population, who now make up just 5 per cent of Dubai. A city seemed to fall from the sky in just three decades, whole and complete and swelling. They fast-forwarded from the 18th century to the 21st in a single generation. 
If you take the Big Bus Tour of Dubai – the passport to a pre-processed experience of every major city on earth – you are fed the propaganda-vision of how this happened. "Dubai's motto is 'Open doors, open minds'," the tour guide tells you in clipped tones, before depositing you at the souks to buy camel tea-cosies. "Here you are free. To purchase fabrics," he adds. As you pass each new monumental building, he tells you: "The World Trade Centre was built by His Highness..." 
But this is a lie. The sheikh did not build this city. It was built by slaves. They are building it now.
Mr. Hari's article chronicles the long list of issues buried beneath the city's massive success- chronic waste, environmental damage, an economy built on something approaching slave labour, and the largely untold and unknown realities of Islamic law that Westerners have never bothered trying to understand.

The second odd characteristic that becomes immediately obvious is just how bloody expensive the place is.

Let's put this into perspective. When I flew out to the old country a few weeks ago, I ordered breakfast at an Irish pub in an American airport. I ordered the Irish breakfast with a cup of strong coffee. The total bill came to $18. For that, I got:
  • Two scrambled eggs
  • Two large grilled tomatoes
  • A large helping of sauteed button mushrooms
  • Two pieces of sourdough toast with butter
  • Three different kinds of sausage
  • Two large rashers of bacon
  • A heaping helping of potato wedges
  • An Americano with milk
Since I'm all about meat, meat, and more meat, this was in many ways my ideal breakfast. It just doesn't get much better than that.

This is characteristic of life in America- when it comes to food, you'll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the developed world that comes anywhere close in terms of value for money. You'd have to go to Southeast Asia, to Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia, to enjoy the same kind of quality at the same price range or lower.

If you go to Dubai, though, and try to order anything there, you'll immediately find that the markup over American prices is at least 50%.

Case in point: a 16oz blended fruit/vegetable juice comes to AED 24 (Arab Emirati Dirhams). The AED/USD exchange rate is about 3.6-to-1.

That means that a simple juice costs damn near $7.

Again, a sense of perspective is in order. You can get better quality juice smoothies in New York City- which is a very expensive place to live, and therefore to eat- for $4.

Part of the huge cost differential is due to the fact that Dubai has no real arable farmland and therefore has to import practically everything.

The other part, of course, is that in airports you can charge whatever the hell you want for anything and people will pay it- that's the annoying (from a consumer's perspective) reality of traveling.

I have no idea what prices are like within Dubai itself. My educated guess, however, is that they're about as bad- in other words, you'll pay 50% to 80% more for everything, even relative to very expensive cities like New York or Boston.

The absolute worst thing about Dubai, though, has nothing to do with the airport.

Rather, it has everything to do with the way that young women prostitute themselves out for a chance to fly on all-expenses-paid junkets to this supposed paradise in the Middle East.

She probably didn't go just for the hummus
My Reaxxion colleague and editor Matt Forney documented this extensively a few months back. And his conclusions about why these young, pretty Western women do this mirrors my own conclusions about why young people my age are so keen to go live and work in Dubai.

They want to live that lifestyle because it looks amazing on the surface- just like Dubai itself. But they completely ignore the ghastly realities behind the mirage. They're not willing to look past the slick marketing and impressive steel-and-glass skyscrapers to see the ecological, financial, and human time-bomb ticking beneath the sands.

If you're going to Dubai for a visit, then that's all well and good. Just don't fall for the hype. As I've been discovering, once you look a little harder at what's under the hood, you probably won't like what you see.

What the hell, I might as well say it- visit Israel instead!


  1. " the city of Newark, if not the entire state of New Jersey, is the armpit of America. (Personally, I rather like certain parts of Jersey- I live in the state- but I think that calling Newark an "armpit" is being far too kind.)"

    If you need a place out of the armpit, there is a small cottage in Ocean County, NJ I had to give up after going bankrupt taking care of my mother: it is going for 139K down from 149K, but it is not getting much interest; you could probably negotiate the price downward; after all, the current owners obtained it from the bankruptcy trustee for 90K (can you read between the lines?): 69K less than the tax assessment value and 15K below the lot value.
    It is only a block from the best swimming lake and about a mile from another lake in which you can fish.


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