I've been writing an article about Dubai - its boom, its bust, and my experiences there - for a publication a friend of mine is editing (sorry it's taken so long to get it to you, Stephen). As I did some online research for the article, I was struck by the number of increasingly unfavorable news stories that have been written about Dubai in the western press over the past several months.
To be sure, things are pretty rough over there right now. The place was extremely over-leveraged, which made it especially vulnerable to the global financial crisis. The Emirate's debt is equal more than 100% of its GDP, roughly half of its planned or under-construction projects - representing over half a trillion dollars worth of value - have either been canceled or indefinitely shelved, and it has looked to its oil-rich neighbor, Abu Dhabi, for economic assistance. The nosedive being suffered by Dubai's wildly-inflated real estate sector - real estate prices have fallen 41% in the first thee months of 2009 alone - is leaving a trail of financial ruin in its wake. Companies are laying people off en masse, and the city-state's expatriate workforce is returning home; I've seen estimates that anywhere from 8 to 15 percent of Dubai's overall population could depart over the course of 2009.
To be sure, all of this is newsworthy. But it really seems that, as this economic crisis has unfolded, coverage of Dubai in the Anglo-American press has become increasingly unfavorable.
At first, it wasn't so bad. In early October of last year, Observer columnist Carole Cadwalladr became curious about the saga of the British "Beach Sex Couple" that scandalized Dubai last summer and wrote an article investigating "the dark side" of Dubai. The article focused on some unpleasant beneath-the-surface truths about Dubai - its lack of transparency, accountability or due process, for example, or the cultural tensions between the minority natives and the majority expats - but it didn't seem to be particularly negative.
Once the financial crisis hit, newsweeklies such as Time, Newsweek and The Economist and mainstream media outlets such as CBS News took notice of the bursting bubble and its potential impacts on what had been until that point the world's fastest-growing city. Again, there was nothing particularly malicious in these reports.
But as things got worse, the press piled on.
The Times led the way, first with the story of raw sewage washing up on Dubai's popular Jumeirah Beach: truck drivers carrying tankers of wastewater from developments not yet connected to the city's sanitary sewer system to the city's lone overburdened sewage treatment plant were tired of waiting in line for hours, if not days, to offload their "cargo," and had begun pouring untreated sewage into the city's storm drainage system which emptied into the Gulf. A disgusting problem, for sure, but not exactly a new one: stories about the practice had been in local newspapers several months before The Times picked it up. The Times also ran a short, poorly-written "analysis" claiming that the city's future was "no more solid than the shifting sands of the surrounding desert." And a third Times article about the exodus of expatriates from Dubai told stories about the number of abandoned cars left at Dubai's airport and used the word "flee" to describe the situation. In spite of the best efforts of Dubai bloggers to push back, this "flee" meme was picked up by other western newspapers. "Laid-off Foreigners Flee as Dubai Spirals Down," read a headline in the New York Times. "Expatriates flee as work dries up and visas are rescinded," The Guardian reported. "Dubai sets its own rules as foreigners flee hard times," trumpeted a New Zealand Herald headline for a March AP article about the city-state's troubles.
Then the columnists and bloggers came along got their licks in. In a Guardian column, Australian academic and author Germaine Greer declared Dubai to be "a city with neither charm nor character" - a judgment that she was apparently able to make after experiencing the city from a four-hour ride on the upper deck of the Dubai Big Bus Tour. Australian architecture columnist Elizabeth Farrelly went even further, admitting that, even though she had never actually been there she had always "wanted to write on Dubai as a ruin" and described the place as "the folly of our time, the ultimate money-bubble mirage." Several weeks later, another Guardian Columnist, Simon Jenkins, described Dubai as as "the last word in iconic overkill, a festival of egotism with humanity denied" and opined that the city's destiny was that of an impoverished, crumbling wasteland where "gangs will seize the gated estates and random anarchy will rule the soulless boulevards." And a website by the name of "Smashing Telly" carried a clip of a Deutsche Welle broadcast about Dubai's real estate bust and declared Dubai to be "the world’s worst business idea" and "a place for the shallow and fickle."
Dubai's defenders responded in the pages of the Guardian as well as the Financial Times. But the negative hits just kept on coming. In March, the AP ran an article about behavior guidelines the government was considering implementing in the wake of the Beach Sex scandal. The article listed in gleeful detail the behaviors that could result in fines or jail time, including dancing, holding hands, hugging, cursing or wearing miniskirts in public, and suggested that "the restrictions could deal another blow to Dubai's carefully manicured image as an easygoing oasis." In early April, the BBC investigative program Panorama ran a program entitled "Slumdogs and Millionaires" which highlighted the substandard working conditions for Dubai's laborers, while another Guardian article focused on the plight of these laborers once they are laid off and forced to return home to India. A more recent Christian Science Monitor story said of migrant laborers who get laid off and are forced to return home: "Dubai disappointed them all." Toronto Star architecture columnist Christopher Hume, meanwhile, labeled Dubai as a "ruin-in-waiting" and mused, "if this really is a city and not some sheikh's mad idea of what a metropolis should be, it's a city despite itself."
But last month came the crowning achievement of journalistic Dubai-bashing: a particularly blistering screed about Dubai penned by Johann Hari of The Independent. "This is a city built from nothing in just a few wild decades on credit and ecocide, suppression and slavery," Hari sneered, as he told lurid stories about, among other things, a destitute Canadian expat living in a Range Rover, a Bangladeshi construction worker who works 14 hours a day for $135 a month and lives in a squalid labor camp "riven with the smell of sewage and sweat," an Ethiopian domestic servant who escaped to a hostel after being beaten by the family for which she worked, and an American hotel worker who was threatened with expulsion because she complained about Jumeirah Beach's aforementioned raw sewage problem. Hari depicts Dubai as a city that, due to the economic crisis, is full of empty malls and empty hotels, a place that "feels like a motorway punctuated by shopping centres" and which, due to its reliance on gas-guzzling cars and expensive-to-produce desalinized water, has an average per-resident carbon footprint "more than double that of an American."
Hari's article elicited a strong response from Dubai bloggers. Seabee argued that the article's "objective was simply to find the worst possible angle and seek out the worst possible examples," while samuraisam noted that the article's title - "The Dark Side of Dubai" - was anything but original. Another blogger wrote an open letter to Johann Hari in response, and Chris Saul typed a hilarious parody of the article.
But Hari's article as well as those that preceded it - and this was by no means an exhaustive list - demonstrate a clear pattern of Dubai-bashing on the part of the international media; indeed, it seems to have become an art form. Why is this? Although Dubai's economic downturn is a newsworthy story, is it really that different than all the other places on this planet that are currently feeling the pinch of tight credit, declining trade and higher unemployment? Why have so many articles been written about Dubai's problems, in particular? And why are some of them so mean-spirited?
There are a number of possible reasons: some writers have clearly never liked the place to begin with, deeming it inauthentic, audacious, grotesque or unsustainable, while others might simply have an underlying antipathy for the region, its native inhabitants and/or their dominant religion. But I think the main reason for the recent spate of articles negatively portraying Dubai is as obvious as it is simple: the story of Dubai's boom and bust - its rise and fall - is a journalistic gold mine. It's a story that people have loved since classical Greece, wherein somebody grows rich or powerful, develops an overweening sense of pride and arrogance that causes him or her to become reckless or foolish, and thus takes actions that cause him or her to crash back down to earth, defeated, humiliated and subject to unending ridicule. In Dubai's case, the "somebody" is an entire city, one that aspired to grandeur by building ski slopes in the desert or artificial islands shaped like palm trees, but grew too quickly and became too obsessed with superlatives - the tallest building, the largest shopping mall, the most luxurious hotel - and is now suffering a devastating downfall as the credit on which its aspirations were built has shriveled up. The media isn't kicking Dubai while it's down due solely to a sense of schadenfreude on their own part; they're doing because they know it's a story other people want to read about and snicker at, too.
And let's be clear: some of the hits Dubai is currently taking are warranted. There was most certainly a great deal of hubris driving Dubai's conspicuous, ostentatious and frenzied development. Some of the projects being planned - from hotels with refrigerated beaches to buildings that rotate to a theme park city with more hotel rooms than Las Vegas and Orlando combined - were so over-the-top as to be ridiculous. Speculators drove up the price of real property in Dubai such that many people who worked there couldn't afford to live there and had to endue long commutes in from places like Sharjah or Ajman instead. The city's infrastructure could not keep up with its growth, leading to problems such as suffocating traffic congestion and, yes, sewage on beaches.
It's not like it was difficult to see this crash coming, either. Dubai's construction mania - one whose intensity simply had to be witnessed to be believed - gave me a sense of unease when I first went there over three years ago, and a couple of years ago I wondered if its hyper-intensive development model was sustainable. It wasn't.
The frenetic pace of Dubai's construction boom required an ever-growing pool of cheap labor, and this in turn created problems such as those relating to the treatment of laborers. The stories about the squalid living and unbearable working conditions of these laborers are not new, nor are they isolated incidents but part of an established pattern. If negative press bring these problems to light and puts pressure on authorities to address the situation, then it serves a useful purpose.
Dubai, in fact, has a host of problems that need to be addressed, many of them unrelated to the building boom. Todd Litman, director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, wrote a Planetizen op-ed last December about some of these ecological, structural and organizational issues. I generally agree with him, if only because I've had some similar work-related experiences as him.
But there comes a point at which the negativity stops being legitimate and starts becoming gratuitous. This is especially true when writers embellish their articles or get their facts wrong. For example: Greer, in her zeal to portray Dubai as a completely phony city, claimed in her article that "the only dhows on Dubai Creek these days take tourists on one-hour pleasure cruises" - a statement that is completely false (although it could become true at some point; The Guardian, to its credit, later redacted this statement from Greer's article).
Hari's article, likewise, is full of unnecessary embellishments. He starts his article by claiming that portraits of Sheikh Mohammed are displayed on "every other building," a claim that isn't even remotely true; some buildings do bear his portrait, but they are few and far between. He says that people in Dubai "only walk anywhere if you are suicidal," even though most of Mankhool, Karama, Oud Metha, and the souk areas in Bur Dubai and Deira are perfectly walkable. I know this because I've walked them. He also claims that "all over the city, there are maxed-out expats sleeping secretly in the sand-dunes or the airport or in their cars," even though he provided no evidence that this was really true, other than the conversation he had with that one Canadian women.
Hari's "slavery" rhetoric is overwrought as well. The UAE did not send slave ships to Kerala and Bangladesh to corral a bunch of people and bring them back in chains to Dubai. These laborers chose to come work there. While a lot of them may have been lured by deceitful and unscrupulous recruiters, and while many of them find themselves in deplorable living, working and payment conditions, it's not quite the same as slavery.
An underlying theme in many of these negative articles is that Dubai is somehow a "mirage" based on (supposedly unproductive) industries such as finance, real estate and tourism; that since it has no oil, its economy is somehow illegitimate. The truth is, Dubai was a trading hub before it ever even thought about being a glimmering banking and tourism center. Its trading pedigree can be seen in the Dhow wharfages along Dubai Creek and the massive container terminals at Jebel Ali. More recently, it has become an air hub as well. Dubai boasts of a considerable manufacturing base, whether it be the massive aluminum smelter facilities at Dubal or the numerous factories and warehouses in Al Quoz. It is also trying to diversify into industries such as education, media, communications and health care, which is why developments such as Knowledge Village, Media City, Internet City and Healthcare City exist, respectively. Those who try to portray Dubai as an ephemeral "business venture" based entirely on banks, hotels and speculative development are simply not telling the whole story.
As for Dubai's other cultural, governmental and institutional challenges, it needs to be kept in mind that this is still a developing society. The UAE did not exist as a nation until 1971, and even Hari was able to recognize that the native Emiratis "fast-forwarded from the 18th century to the 21st in a single generation." With that pace of change, there are bound to be some problems, as collective experience is limited and as conflicts between old and new emerge. The society and its institutions are undergoing the same maturation process that every modern civilization must go through, and while the results so far haven't been perfect, it's a long way away from the camels and tents of just 40 or 50 years ago. Dubai's critics would do well to take this into account.
It also must be recognized that the native population - they account for less than 20% of the UAE's population (how would anybody else in the world like to be a minority in their own country?) - has to balance their own traditional values with those of the liberalized western expats and tourists on one side and those of the majority South Asian population on the other. The results, again, aren't perfect, yet somehow they've managed to keep things relatively prosperous, orderly and tolerant, even though they are located in one of the more volatile parts of the world and they are sandwiched between two societies that are far more conservative than they are: Shi'a Iran and Wahhabist Saudi Arabia. Dubai's bashers again, ought to take this into consideration.
Furthermore, there are some fundamental truths about Dubai that no amount of negative reporting is ever going to change. The Emiratis will always receive preferential treatment relative to the expats - it's their country, after all. While more predictability, transparency and accountability in government would be helpful, the fact is that the UAE is an absolute monarchy, which means that the rule of law is essentially whatever the Shiekhs decide it to be. And, while expats and visitors might grouse about annoyances such as internet censorship or the fact that couples aren't allowed to hold hands in public, the fact is that the country is officially Muslim and inherently conservative, which mean that standards of conduct or dress which might be acceptable in other parts of the world are not acceptable there. If anybody - journalist or otherwise - finds these fundamental truths to be intolerable, they shouldn't go to Dubai. They shouldn't even visit.
Finally, it needs to be noted that there is a silver lining to the Dubai's current economic downturn. The lull in the building boom will allow sorely-needed infrastructure to catch up with the city's development, and the population will get to catch its collective breath and find relief from the "construction fatigue" caused by manic development. This also creates an opportunity for Dubai to think about how it really wants to grow, and to consider the ecological ramifications of that growth. Meanwhile, as property prices fall Dubai will become more affordable for the folks who live there; indeed, a "migration" to previously unaffordable developments already appears to be taking hold. All of this will, in turn, improve the city's quality of life and, hopefully, set it on a path for a more sustainable future. Perhaps Dubai's critics don't want to acknowledge this - they want the city to fail - but the Emirate will likely emerge from this crisis, in some ways, better than it was before.
Having said all that, I don't expect the barrage of negative and at times even contemptuous press about Dubai to subside anytime soon. As long as its decline continues, it will remain a story that journalists want to cover and that people want to read. One would at least hope that future articles exhibit a better understanding of facts and contexts than some which have already been written.
As for me: it's been a little over five months since I returned from my last trip to Dubai, and there hasn't been any talk of me returning: there's just not any work for me over there right now. I don't know when, or even if, I'll be making my next trip.
UPDATE: I guess I've hit the big time; this post has been referenced on the UAE Community Blog.