When the 2008 financial crisis caught up with Dubai, online British newspaper The Independent published an article called The Dark Side of Dubai. It wasn’t a particularly good piece of writing, but the author was unequivocal. “Once the manic burst of building has stopped and the whirlwind has slowed, the secrets of Dubai are slowly seeping out. This is a city built from nothing in just a few wild decades on credit and ecocide, suppression and slavery. Dubai is a living metaphor for the neo-liberal globalised world that may be crashing – at last – into history.”
In March 2011, a writer named A.A. Gill at Vanity Fair magazine hit even harder. Perhaps because it was Vanity Fair, or because the article was so scathing, so well written, the impact was far greater. Dubai on Empty elicited a response from Najla Al Awadhi, a prominent member of parliament, who encouraged readers to voice their anger at what many considered a one-sided, hate-filled view of their city. Gill had recycled many of the same cliches that have come to be associated with the emirate. “The only way to make sense of Dubai is to never forget that it isn’t real,” he wrote.
Tales of Dubai’s doom and gloom are punctuated with stories of extravagance. While attending a wedding in Boston some years ago, a fellow party goer asked me if it was true people paid 1 million dollars for a license plate in the Emirates. Actually, no. A young Emirati man had just spent USD 14 million at a charity auction for a license plate with the number 1. Combined with viral social media stories about the world’s most expensive cupcake, a USD 11 million christmas tree, and Dubai Police’s expanding fleet of super cars, many assume this is the exclusive enclave of multimillionaires.
Once in a while, the pendulum swings the other way. Elizabeth MacBride of Forbes Magazine penned a compelling piece last year titled Nine Reasons Dubai Could Be The Most Important City of the 21st Century. She explains how “Dubai has invented itself as bigger than any of those narrow identities. It is emerging as a global city, and possibly the emerging markets capital of the world.” She cites a January 2015 Brookings Institute report which puts Dubai as one of the five fastest-growing metropolitan areas.
Yes, there is staggering wealth. There is rapid development and unbridled ambition. There are problems unique to Dubai, and others common to big cities. There are also 8 migrant workers who have built this city. You see them, but you don’t hear much from them. What Dubai is raises a complex question to a fast moving and rapidly changing 21st century city.
But reporting on Dubai does not reflect understanding of this complexity. In fact, it is oversimplified and outdated. As McBride rightly points out, the story of Dubai is the story of immigrants. In many ways, Dubai now resembles New York at the turn of the 20th century. Instead of investigating this constantly shifting and multidimensional narrative, too many continue to reduce it to a caricature of clueless Arab rulers hell bent on tyranny and delirious with oil wealth. Much of this is deliberate, and derogatory.
The current state of international affairs emboldens the Gills of the world to wilfully ignore the diversity of stories in Dubai and offer dangerous stereotypes instead. Regardless of how you feel, Dubai is a world-class city, and it is moving forward. Writers covering it need to examine their own bias and keep up with Dubai, or risk getting left behind.