Dubai on Empty

Dubai is the parable of what money makes when it has no purpose but its own multiplication and grandeur. When the culture that holds it is too frail to contain it. Dubai is a place that doesn’t just know the price of everything and the value of nothing but makes everything worthless. The answer to everything in Dubai is money. In the darkness of the hot night, the motorways roar with Ferraris and Porsches and Lamborghinis; the fat boys are befuddled and stupefied by sports cars they race around on nowhere roads, going nowhere. Taxi drivers of their ambitionless, all-consuming entitlement. Shortchanged by being given everything. Cursed with money.

What is it about Dubai that warrants extensive pieces in magazines? In 2009, I read Johann Hari’s fantastic piece “The Dark Side of Dubai.” In 2010, I read no less than three articles on Dubai. And today, I finished reading A.A. Gill’s piece “Dubai on Empty” in Vanity Fair. I can’t say I’ve learned a lot new information from the piece, but I enjoyed it for the writing. The quote above best summarizes the piece. A few other passages of note below.

Love the descriptions and strong metaphors here:

A derelict skyscraper looks exactly the same as one that’s teeming with commerce. They huddle around the current tallest building in the world—a monument to small-nation penis envy. This pylon erected with the Viagra of credit is now a big, naked exclamation of Dubai’s fiscal embarrassment. It was going to be called Burj Dubai, but as Dubai was unable to make their payments, they were forced to go to their Gulf neighbor, head towel in hand, to get a loan. So now it’s called Burj Khalifa, after Abu Dhabi’s ruler, who coughed up $10 billion to its over-extended neighbor.

Making a strong case that Dubai isn’t a real city (there are no squares, no plazas, no center), and that it’s unwalkable:

My driver gets lost more than once. He’s lived here all his life. He says he always gets lost. The roads keep changing. It’s a confusion of orange traffic cones and interlocking barriers; access roads peter out into long drops to rubble and dust. Nothing actually goes anywhere. The wide lanes loop around endlessly, and then there’s no place to go. No plaza or square, no center. Nowhere to hang out, nowhere to walk. Why would you walk? In this heat?

On the rapid transformation of the city:

No one dreamed of this. Twenty years ago, none of this was here. No Narnia. No seven-star hotels [Editor's note: The Burj-Al-Arab is the only seven-star hotel in the world]. No tallest prick buildings. Just a home of pastoralist tented families herding goats, racing camels, shooting one another. And a handful of greasy, armed empire mechanics in khaki shorts, drilling for oil. In just one life span, Dubai has gone from sitting on a rug to swiveling on a fake Eames chair 100 stories up. And not a single local has had to lift a finger to make it happen. That’s not quite fair—of course they’ve lifted a finger; to call the waiter, berate the busboy. The money seeped out of the ground and they spent it. Pretty much all of it. You look at this place and you realize not a single thing is indigenous, not one of this culture’s goods and chattels originated here.

A reminder of how the workers in the city are mistreated (I reiterate that reading “The Dark Side of Dubai” will give you a better perspective on this topic):

Yet, the workers, who make up roughly 71 percent of the population, have precious few rights here. They can’t become citizens, though some are the third generation of their family to be born here. They can be deported at any time. They have no redress. Many of the Asian laborers are owed back pay they aren’t likely to get.

Another passage with vivid, bold descriptions. The words jump out of the page:

The track sits in a wasteland surrounded by the exhausted squirm of motorways. I walk around it and look not at the galloping horses and their bright jockeys but back up at the stands. Here in one long panorama is the Dantean vision of modern Dubai—the Arabs huddled in a glass dome, looking like creatures from a Star Trek episode in their sepulchral winding-sheet dishdashas. Next to them are the stands for Westerners, mostly British, loud and drunk, dressed in their tarty party gear. The girls, raucous and provocative, have fat thighs that wobble in tiny frocks. Cantilevered bosoms lurch. The boys, spiky and gelled, glassy-eyed and leering…

My consensus? Read the entire piece for the writing, which I like to highlight from time to time on this blog.

Readings: End of the Web, Apologizing, Dubai, Happiness

I’ve been away from this blog for nearly a month, but here’s what caught my attention recently:

1) “The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet” [Wired] – the most sensationalist piece of writing I’ve read in a long while. Many have labeled this piece on the demise of the web as trolling by the lead author (and editor of Wired) Chris Anderson. Read the piece for yourself, but then read Alexis Madrigal’s brilliant retort in The Atlantic; especially notable is this point from Alexis:

[I]t’s impossible not to notice — if you worked at Wired.com like I did — that Anderson’s inevitable technological path happens to run perfectly through the domains (print/tablet) he controls at Wired, and away from the one that he doesn’t.

2) “How to Apologize” [Research Digest Blog] – there are three main types of apologies, as explained:

The three apology types or components are: compensation (e.g. I’m sorry I broke your window, I’ll pay to have it repaired); empathy (e.g. I’m sorry I slept with your best friend, you must feel like you can’t trust either of us ever again); and acknowledgement of violated rules/norms (e.g. I’m sorry I advised the CIA how to torture people, I’ve broken our profession’s pledge to do no harm).

Read the post to find out which apology to use in which situation.

3) “Good-Bye to Dubai” [The New York Review of Books] – this is an excellent summary of the rise and (relative) fall of one of the most prosperous cities in the Middle East (and the world). The piece is actually a nice summary of three books: Dubai: Gilded Cage, Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success, and City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism. A telling paragraph of how things were built in Dubai:

Moreover, the real estate boom was kept going by a Dickensian labor system that was bound at some point to self- destruct. At the height of the boom, tens of thousands of Southeast Asian laborers, banned by Dubai’s labor laws from forming unions, were put to work for eighty hours a week to build the Dubai fantasy and obliged to live in squalid residential camps in the desert. There, according to a report in the Guardian, they were packed “twelve men to a room, forced to wash themselves in filthy brown water and cook in kitchens next to overflowing toilets.” Before the crash, workers had begun to agitate for reforms; one target has been the kafala system, which requires foreign workers to have “sponsors” to obtain a visa and mandates their immediate deportation if they lose their jobs. A Kuwaiti government minister called this system “human slavery.”

4) “But Will It Make You Happy?” [New York Times] – a great case study of a couple who gave up their jobs and a number of materialistic possessions in their quest to become happier. The outcome?

Today, three years after Ms. Strobel and Mr. Smith began downsizing, they live in Portland, Ore., in a spare, 400-square-foot studio with a nice-sized kitchen. Mr. Smith is completing a doctorate in physiology; Ms. Strobel happily works from home as a Web designer and freelance writer. She owns four plates, three pairs of shoes and two pots. With Mr. Smith in his final weeks of school, Ms. Strobel’s income of about $24,000 a year covers their bills. They are still car-free but have bikes. One other thing they no longer have: $30,000 of debt.

If you’re interested about the topic of happiness, I highly recommend checking out Gretchen Rubin’s excellent blog The Happiness Project. She also came out with a book of the same name late last year.