December 14, 2011   2 notes

Nihil Urbis

Long overdue, but the final piece stemming from my freelance gig in Pakistan and Dubai.
This post may be in danger of covering ground that has been trodden more eloquently already, notably by George Saunders in his 2005 essay, The New Mecca, or more recently by AA Gill, Dubai on Empty. The two pieces both describe the place admirably, two journalists writing evocative profiles of a city, looking at them from either side of the 2008 property crash.
The worlds tallest building is in Dubai, the Burj Khalifah. Unlike so much of the place, it is beautiful, a dizzying, delicate stepped stalagmite stretching up into the night. It’s a breathtaking piece of architecture, symbolising a city built because it could be. It is a place devoid of culture, where everything seems pumped up, inflated, engorged, but like an intensively farmed beef tomato, oddly bland.
The locals have an interesting take on the crash. The ex-pats there, who stayed on after the easiest of the easiest money disappeared, see it as a natural dead-heading, a necessary purge of the worst of the excess. This necessary purge has left the place half-empty. Optimistic building plans became wildly out of kilter with housing needs- apartment blocks stand collapsing from the inside out. The rush to build has left uninhabited units of poor build quality lying inside immaculately manicured complexes. The worst of the mercenaries have left, and their barracks lie empty.
One expat commented that Dubai was the logical conclusion of the freemarket, Hayek’s wet dream, but despite its hyper-capitalist facades- a body language that seems derived from a New York City left too long in the potting shed, overfed on miracle grow, the place is not capitalist, but consumerist. The whole thing is a quietly administered, sinister dictatorship. Lubricated by money, there is a strange, tacit egalitarian status quo. If you are walking around, looking like you may have some money in your pocket, there is an assumption that you have the table stakes to play, that you are rich, fitting onto Dubai’s spectrum of rich -> super rich -> Emirati. The south-east Asian underclass who make this dream possible, those who sell themselves into bonded labour, are flown into Dubai and live in the dormitories on the outskirts of town do not register. If you try and walk, you are looked at an oddity. And ‘try’ is the operative term, ‘walk’ isn’t possibile. The al-Maktoums hand out money to the native-born Emirati’s, who have no want of anything. Sheik Mohammed is the CEO of Dubai- the government decides the zones for industries. Internet city was followed by media city. There is Knowledge Centre, Dubai International Financial Centre. Business is carefully cultivated, and the number of companies owned or financed by the state as corporation is vast. This is no free-for-all. It is an inversion of soviet Russia, everyone is equal, equally rich.
And this gilt-edged control seeps out, beyond the economic. Wander round on foot, (as mentioned above, no-one walks) and a private security guard- international, softly spoken, and all the more threatening for their politeness, will ask if they can help, though what they are offering is not help, what they want to do is stop you from doing anything that isn’t following the pre-planned paths of behaviour. In a land where shopping is the number one pastime, real choice is not something that is to be encouraged.
Included in that is the choice to walk anywhere, or to congregate- there are no spaces for serendipity, for non-conformity, for meandering or wandering or stumbling upon. In a control-capitalist city, the civic has been forgotten. Whole quarter mile precincts are owned by one company, and when they end, sand and road. No pavement. This is a privatised polis, designed for shoppers and workers, not citizens. The effect is eerie, and disconcerting, especially for anyone who’s point of reference is any city that was initially imagined before the car.
But driving round Dubai, the visuals are striking. It is a strangely appealing dystopia, a visual cross between Tron and Blade Runner. Seven-lane highways wind their way under and over each other, and artificial islands whizz by in the side windows. Roads are lined with skyscrapers, dotted with blue and green lights. The place looks how Kuedo sounds.

Its almost tempting to join the resistance. And for many who want to lead what in London, Paris, Berlin, New York, Barcelona might be called a normal life, whatever the hell normal is join the resistance when they join Dubai. Aside from the attraction of the tax-free wages, the year-round good weather and the luxury apartments at London Victorian broom cupboard prices, there is a perverse appeal to the social networks they form that keeps them there, the fans of techno band together, the oenophiles hold covert meetings and salsa holds its weekly underground rally in a empty apartment. To live a life that isn’t simply hyper-real, to have a drink in something other than a ten-pound-a-gin-and-tonic-hotel-bar, suspended over a backdrop from Star Trek, means taking a deviant path. And there is an appeal to glamorising the everyday by making it clandestine. Even if it does mean you live in the city that never walks.
  1. failtoplan posted this