Rest Easy, Dubai. The Writer from The New Yorker Really Wanted To Go Shopping.

I love a thoughtful, well-written article that presents an original point-of-view and makes me think.

Andrew Marantz is a writer for The New Yorker who stopped in Dubai on a 12-hour layover on his way from New York to Sri Lanka with his wife a few years ago. Recently, he wrote an article about his time in Dubai titled “Dubai, the World’s Vegas.” He describes visits to two malls, Ski Dubai, and the top of Burj Khalifa. The essay is supplemented with photographs by a photographer named Ben Thomas.

Yikes. After all these years, was Dubai still being compared to Las Vegas? It was a cultural time warp of an essay. It reminded me almost immediately of another widely circulated article on Dubai from many years ago. Originality, it appeared, was not Mr. Marantz’s objective.

I pulled up A.A. Gill’s now infamous piece for Vanity Fair Magazine from 2011 called “Dubai on Empty.” The similarity between the two articles is uncanny. In his opening lines, Gill references a legendary fable as a lens for understanding Dubai. “The only way to make sense of Dubai is to never forget that it isn’t real. It’s a fable, a fairy tale, like The Arabian Nights.” Marantz also makes a reference to fiction. Specifically, the fictitious life of Walter Mitty. “We passed the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, which boasts “the world’s largest collection of sand tiger sharks!,” and a multiplex, where we considered seeing “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” before deciding that our current experience was already Mitty-esque enough.”

When Gill describes Dubai’s skyline as “the cover of a dystopian science-fiction novella,” Marantz proceeds to reprise the sentiment, adding, “The skyline, if that’s the right word for it, was garishly, unapologetically artificial. The city almost appeared to be a non-place in the literal sense, not just the anthropological sense—more like an architect’s rendering than an actual built environment.”

No article in Dubai is complete without mentioning the construction workers who have built this city. Gill describes the workers as Asian drones, who have “… the tough, downtrodden look of Communist posters from the 30s—they are both the slaves of capital and the heroes of labor.” Marantz concurs, albeit with less flair. He says, “We knew that, for many of the non-Emirati laborers who are largely invisible to the casual tourist, Dubai is worse than a non-place, closer to a dystopia.”

The collective use of identical words and ideas extends beyond publications like The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. While observations about constructions workers are legitimate, accurate, and require urgent attention and immediate rectification by authorities, it is the reduction of a dynamic and rapidly changing city to a tyrannical wonderland that peddles a “harsh form of commerce” that is so pervasive it is now officially cheesy.

Photograph of man with camels in the dessert.
Stereotypical photographs of desert dunes and camels accompanied the writer’s article for The New Yorker Magazine. Photo credit: Ben Thomas

And a cover for ulterior motives. Emirati columnist Sultan Al Qassemi wrote a thoughtful reply which he broadcast to his half-a-million strong following on Twitter. He points out, “It’s not the city’s fault that this person chose to visit two malls and a skyscraper in his multi-hour layover.” Right on. That he chose to do so is a reflection of who he is. What I got was a glimpse of a man who really, really wanted to go shopping with his wife. I have no reason to believe he is particularly cultured, or remotely interested in anything like art, history, or even Arabic food.

As a sophomore at Mount Holyoke College many years ago, I learned that Orientalism, or representations of the ‘other’ in stereotypical ways, teaches us more about the cultures that produce it than about ourselves. It is the freezing of this frame, and the multiplication of it, that underpins the success of orientalist discourse and thought. It’s objective is to validate. In this case, it was a deliberate attempt to withhold validation of what Dubai has achieved in such a short period of time. Dubai is no where near perfect, of course. That is hardly relevant. How else do you explain that most of these articles are written by people who have never stepped foot in the country, or are passing through, like Marantz?

Marantz did not bother to experience anything outside the malls because he didn’t want to. While he was successful in recycling stereotypes about Dubai, he inadvertently also reinforced a stereotype about Americans: uncomfortable venturing outside their own comfort zone and confronting the unfamiliar.

Deborah Williams, a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi, wrote an opinion piece for The National called Dubai, New York and lazy cultural stereotypes in response to his article. I would go one step further and argue it’s the continued use of cultural stereotypes that produces lazy journalism. Which makes Marantz a writer of questionable ability. His article is practically a succinct version of Gill’s, structured around the same ideas in a shockingly similar way.

So rest easy, Dubai. It’s not about you. Next time you come across an article like this – by now, you should know there will be plenty more – consider the context of the writer. Start by asking yourself what it says about them, rather than focusing on what it says about you.

No Culture in Dubai? Why UNESCO Might Think Otherwise

Dubai has a reputation for being a fake city. A city known for the tallest building, the fastest cars, endless construction, oil riches, and fast living. A concrete jungle devoid of culture and flush with cash. Expats are quick to tell you nothing is authentic here, that the real world exists outside the country.

Could these ideas be misplaced? The UAE is in it’s infancy as a nation, but the area is not. In fact, the Arabian peninsula is home to a number of relics of the ancient world.

Which is why The National Council of Tourism and Antiquities has been busy compiling an inventory list of heritage sites for UNESCO. Included on the list is Ed-Dur, a large archeological site in the Emirate of Umm Al Quwain that predates the arrival of Islam.

Also listed is my childhood haunt and personal favourite, Khor Dubai, or Dubai Creek, and the commercial markets in it’s immediate vicinity. Dubai Creek is a natural seawater inlet of the Arabian Gulf in the heart of old Dubai. It has played a major role in the economic development of the region throughout history, and is a flourishing port of trade where the city of Dubai emerged.

Old wooden dhows, or ships, docking at Dubai Creek
Old wooden dhows, or ships, dock at Dubai Creek to offload goods
Trips to the Creek are incomplete without a jaunt through Dubai’s “City of Gold,” a historic gold market located right along the waterway. My first visit to the Gold Souk was at the age of four. While my brother and I happily ate ice cream, my grandmother, an expert haggler, carefully inspected chains of braided gold pulled from spotless glass cases. While certainly not as old as Ed-Dur, the souk has been around since the 1930’s. Many of it’s merchants have been selling gold for generations.

Emiratis make up a measly 6% of Dubai’s population. Despite tumultuous change, they celebrate deep ties to this part of the world and have a vibrant, fluid culture influenced by traders from Iran, India, and Pakistan, who still dock at the Creek. You must be willing to make the effort, once in a while, to leave the malls and look for it.

Guns n’ Roses in Dubai: A Lifetime Later, They’re Still On Top

When the announcement came in early 2016 that original band members Axl Rose, Slash, and Duff McKagan would reunite for a world tour, Guns N’ Roses fans everywhere let out a collective gasp. Could they really be playing together after more than two decades?

The bitter split of Guns N’ Roses in 1994 – due to personal differences fuelled by drug and alcohol abuse – made attempts at reunification impossible. For twenty years Rose and Slash were not on speaking terms, and Rose missed the group’s 2012 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. A recluse by nature, Rose withdrew from public life soon after the band broke up while Slash went on to find commercial success with new group Velvet Revolver. For fans, it was an overwhelming sense of loss for one of the greatest bands of all time.

Rose eventually resurfaced with a new line-up of GnR. In 2010 they performed at Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. I was curious, so when they returned in 2013 I quickly bought tickets. True, there was no Slash. But Rose sounded great and had put together a talented group of musicians who hammered out all the hits as well as songs from Chinese Democracy. They started on time and delivered a smooth set. No riots, tantrums or controversy, hallmarks of classic GnR.

But it did not have the mesmerising performance quality that was on full display earlier this month. On March 3, the original GnR played Dubai’s Autism Rocks Arena as part of 2017’s Not In This Lifetime world tour. The chemistry between Rose and Slash is undeniable, and while they are older, more mature and sober, there is no question we were witnessing a singular musical performance. GnR gave the giddy audience a triumphant three-hour show packed with songs from Appetite For Destruction, GNR Lies, Use Your Illusion I & II, Chinese Democracy and The Spaghetti Incident. It was hard enough to process the scene. There they were, sharing the stage and unleashing Sweet Child of Mine. LIVE. It was harder still to believe they had gotten even better. This was especially true of Slash, whose multiple guitar solos were sublime.

Dubai’s Autism Rocks Arena can hold a maximum of 21,000 people. But this was GnR, and GnR 23 years later drew a capacity-busting crowd of 30,000. Hundreds of die-hard fans flew in from Pakistan, where the band has a cult following. I was surrounded by groups of teenaged boys who weren’t even born when GnR’s first album came out. Concert organisers were overwhelmed and arrangements unravelled quickly at the end. Many were stranded after the show and walked kilometres to find a cab.

For the most anticipated reunion in rock, I had to pinch myself it was happening in Dubai. It was further evidence of just how far the city had come. This would have been unthinkable in the early 90’s when GnR were at their peak; the infrastructure simply did not exist. So thank you, Dubai, for letting so many enjoy a truly incredible moment in rock history!

3 Things That Happen When You Live in a Smart City

Futuristic Hollywood blockbusters, like Star Wars, Minority Report, and the Back to the Future movie franchise, love flying cars. In popular culture, visions of what the future holds always feature transportation above our heads traveling at warp speed. On screen, we are still on planet Earth. But it’s a 100 years in the future and everyone travels galactic lengths in minutes. It’s breathtaking cinematography, and rather far-fetched.

Or is it? Last week the Roads and Transportation Authority of Dubai announced the launch of the world’s first driverless flying car, Ehang 184. It can hold one passenger and has preset routes selected from a touchscreen, and pilots itself. These Chinese-engineered flying cars are a mere 4 months away and will start transporting Dubai residents in July 2017.

Prototype of Ehang-184, the driverless flying car. Photo credit: The National
But that’s not all. Hyperloop One, the brainchild of Silicon Valley titan and inventor Elon Musk, has been busy building and testing the world’s first Hyperloop transport link between Dubai and the capital city of Abu Dhabi. The levitating pods will travel at airline speeds to reduce travel time from 1.5 hours to as little as 12 minutes. Hyperloop One is expected to begin operations in 2020, the same year Dubai hosts the World Expo.

Tesla launch at The Dubai Mall, Feb 2017
Prospective buyers check out Tesla’s electric vehicles on display at The Dubai Mall, Feb 2017
In the meantime, residents are up and running with the Dubai Now smart phone app. With a few swipes, I am able to pay my cellphone, Internet and utility bills, hail a cab, recharge my Dubai Metro card, track upcoming flight information and pay traffic fines, search for pharmacies, hospitals, and schools. It is, without a doubt, the most convenient mobile app I have used for day-to-day living.

It’s an exciting time to be alive. Cities like Dubai, Singapore, and Barcelona are racing to realise ambitious plans to integrate information and communications technology in their infrastructure and services and become smart cities.

What is a smart city? According to The Pew Charitables Trusts, a smart city uses digital technology to improve community life. The general goal is to “collect immediate data on everything from traffic patterns to home water use, analyze it, and use that information to make the city work better.” It’s all happening now, and it’s going to transform the way we live and interact with government in the 21st century.

The goal is sustainability, efficiency, and in the case of Dubai, happiness – of expats, locals and visitors alike. It is the future, and Dubai has entered the race to become the world’s first fully operational smart city.

What The Inside of a Dubai Restaurant Can Tell You About Globalization 

In the last five years, my husband and I have created and operated two restaurants in Dubai. The first was a small pizzeria that focused on take-out and deliveries. The second was an Italian restaurant inside The Dubai Mall, one of the largest shopping malls in the world.

(It sounds strange to open a restaurant inside a mall, but malls in the U.A.E. are unlike malls in North America. Because of extreme temperatures, indoor spaces like malls are designed to be your one-stop-shop to beat the heat. The Dubai Mall has a hospital, a cinema, an ice rink, 1400 retail outlets, an underwater zoo, a gold market, a shoe district, two hotels, a waterfall fountain and more than 200 restaurants. It is also a major tourist destination. A year ago it received more visitors than the Great Wall of China.)

Our Dubai Mall location was large and upscale. It employed 50 people from all over the world: Nepal, Australia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt, India, Philippines, South Africa, Kenya, Cameroon, Russia, Morocco and the United States. There were Christians, Muslims and Hindus, and within these faith traditions, adherents of different sects. Everyone had left family members behind in their home country.

What makes people leave their children to live in a foreign country for months, sometimes years on end? For members of my team the reasons were clear: to seek better employment opportunities so they could support their families and provide a better future for their children. It’s one thing to read about globalisation. To see it up front makes the cliched explanations crystal clear. For lower level and blue collar workers especially, the burden of supporting a family usually fell on one person. The reality is salaries at home are too low, and job opportunities too few.

Dubai is a big draw because it is safe, politically stable, and has a growing economy. It employs large numbers of expatriates, or foreign workers, in the core areas of it’s economy: aviation, tourism and hospitality, logistics, transportation, and marketing. Due in part to the relatively small size of its local population, Dubai must import workers to fill the jobs it needs to power its growth. Dubai’s expats make up a massive 94% of the population. This is abnormally high. According to Expat Focus, the U.A.E. ranks amongst the top 5 countries in the world with the highest percentage of expat workers. In comparison, the island nation of Singapore – another hugely popular expat destination for work and play- has a population of 5.5 million, of which 40% are foreigners.

Without expats, Dubai would not be able to achieve what it has in such a short period of time. Now, the UAE government has approved a new visa system designed to attract “geniuses,” or individuals with exceptional ability, across sectors. Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, tweeted, “The UAE is a country of vast opportunity; we aim to provide a tolerant environment that can nurture potential and support outstanding talent.”

Given the recent flurry of initiatives in the realm of science and technology, measures like this highlight the UAE’s current focus on innovation. More importantly, they underscore a commitment to an exchange of ideas and dissemination of knowledge that are foundations of Dubai’s long-term vision and strategy.

This blog post was updated on March 15, 2017

Love It or Hate It, You Cannot Ignore Dubai

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.

A man bicycles on the bridge over the new Dubai Water Canal, a man-made waterway comprising of luxury housing, 450 restaurants, 4 hotels and a shopping center
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.