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Taste and see

19 Dec 2014 By Edward Hadas

Visitors to Dubai often rightly say it is extraordinary. Few countries have grown quite so rapidly in population and wealth. The array of peoples from around the world, the development of several industries, the scale and scope of the ambition – it is awesome. But there is another way to look at the emirate, as a microcosm of the modern world economy and a laboratory demonstration of the dynamics of migration and inequality.

The global wealth gap shines out in Dubai’s bright sunshine. In this city-state, the 90 percent of the population who come from abroad live much as they would have at home. All migrants from rich countries and the members of the elite from poorer ones live in familiar comfort. On the other side of the divide, the masses from Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines live in familiar poverty – often without their families, with many people sharing a single room and their lives bound to their employers.

Of course, neither rich nor poor people would come if Dubai did not offer them an improvement over life in their homeland. But the improvements are from quite different starting points. On a scale of comfort and opportunity, if migration brings a move from, say, 100 to 120 for the rich it takes the poor from 10 to 12. The two worlds on view in Dubai are disconcerting.

The economic microcosm is not limited to the distribution of wealth. Dubai captures the extremes of modern civilisation. While Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Dubai’s dynamic dynastic ruler, writes poetry filled with spiritual aspirations, his city-state is more like the epitome of modern materialism.

There is much to be said for materialism. It can get things done and make things big and bold. Dubai’s impressive buildings are matched by ambitious urban planning. Schools and healthcare are next on the agenda. Commercially successful Dubai stands out for its political peace in the midst of a region suffering from violence, whether inspired by ethnicity, religion or historic injustices. Tight controls on migration relegate these sources of identity, purpose and conflict to private life.

This privatised modern culture, though, comes at a price. Dubai is a society whose members are almost all foreign and transient. This high turnover of population can be seen as an obstacle to shared higher values. The absence of that binding glue might not matter so much now. But if the money ever runs short, it will worsen the impact. A transient population is a defining characteristic of other global cities like London and New York, but Dubai, which has such a small native population and so little history, takes this instability to an extreme. The lack of a solid base of people and values could leave the city vulnerable if things start to go wrong.

There is another way that Dubai is a global microcosm: government. That assertion may sound crazy, since an absolute inherited monarchy is a relic from the past, just about the opposite of liberal democracy. Also, members of the ruling family are personally involved in business life in a way unimaginable in other modern economies. However, Dubai’s all-encompassing autocracy can be seen as the ultimate expression of some modern-day ideals of rule. The emirate’s administration is extensive, intrusive and technocratic. It is also dynamic, unlike most Western democracies. It is big government working well.

The Sheikh sits in the midst of this activity. The ruler and his government have firm control of every aspect of public life. Their bureaucracy is not exactly as Plato imagined in his description of the philosopher king, but it aims at the ideal as it is articulated by sociologists. Think of the way American and European civil servants can fit in easily with an administration that tries to be professional and to promote the common good over personal gain. Dubai’s residents seem happy with their all-powerful rulers.

Dubai is well worth a visit, and not just for the indoor skiing and the waterfalls that move in time with pop songs. It is the place to go to see modern civilisation from top to bottom.


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