Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Dubai- Big Money, No Soul - Oil, High Priced Shopping + a Premium on Women

The Emirates Past
The year 1958--
Dubai- A sleepy pearl diving and gold trading outpost.
Abu Dhabi- 46,000 residents, four doctors, and five schools. The rich people lived in mud houses; poorer families built with reeds.
That’s the year oil was discovered in this former British protectorate.

United Arab Emirates- Present Day 
The seven formerly disparate emirates have joined forces to a create the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a nation size of the state of Maine, each emirate with its with own land and mineral rights, specifically regarding oil.

Abu Dhabi-
The capital of the UAE, it sits atop a vast amount of oil. How much? 10% of the world’s known supply (and nearly 90% of the nation’s reserves.) It’s the richest city on earth, in fact, there’s not even a close second. In 2007, the emirate's 420,000 citizens, had $1 trillion invested abroad, and were estimated to be worth $17 million apiece, the price of oil having only increased since. 
To think myself lucky to have been born an American.

Also graced with oil, though its reserves are estimated to be exhausted in twenty years. The emirate’s forward thinking rulers have used the initial capital betrothed to them by the dinosaurs, likely in a deal made with the devil, to turn their city into the business capital of the Middle East. Everything from the gold trade, to money laundering, to shipping, and the region’s dominant airline have expanded their base of wealth.
Dubai's giant, architecturally intriguing skyscrapers, often spaced at great distances to one another, seem as incongruous amidst the desert landscape as the green palms that line their exteriors. Dubai reminds me of Las Vegas, a city sprung up in the middle of nowhere, artificially built from massive infusions of money. 
Dubai skyscraper- nothing near it
Walking around on this blistering summer day during Ramadan, you’re as likely to spot a female as win the lottery. Almost everyone on the streets is of Indian descent, the work force imported to serve the ruling class, the wealthy Emiratis, who comprise less than 20% of the emirate’s population.

Dubai’s like a game of Monopoly, money the only goal. While the Emiratis are born into Park Place and Boardwalk, and its ultra-luxury seven star hotels, the unskilled labor force of Pakistani, Indians, and Filipinos scramble to pay the rent on Baltic Ave., and are grateful for the opportunity to do so. Even in low level positions, workers earn four times the amount in Dubai as they would in their homelands. Of course, living here comes with much higher expenses, and many cram together into apartments on Baltic and Mediterranean to save on rent.

The work force, aside of the prostitutes here from Eastern Europe and Africa,  is almost entirely comprised of men. In fact, in what is nearly an unbelievable but true statistic, 74% of Dubai's overall population is male. Women, thus, are in great demand, and prostitution, while technically illegal in this conservative Kingdom, is rarely, if ever, prosecuted simply because the men would revolt. The emirs enjoy their lives.

The Mall of Dubai
Dubai is by far the cleanest Middle Eastern city I have seen, and its public transportation system cheap, modern, and punctual. And thank God for public transport, otherwise I’d have to splurge on a 40 minute cab, passing through largely un-tillable land to reach the Dubai Mall, one of the few places there’s anything at all to do during the day.
The Dubai Mall is a magnificent and gigantic building, the interior spotlessly clean, amazingly decorated, and the displays of goods so beautifully and artistically arranged, the Japanese who so highly value presentation, are left to a distant silver medal.
It shouldn’t then surprise you that the stores in the Dubai Mall have prices ranging everywhere from truly exorbitant, to beyond ludicrous. $100 for a kilogram of chocolate, $4,500 for a bust of Dubai’s Sheik, and $15,000 for an odd looking lamp.
You can’t purchase any food until sundown, Ramadan strictly followed. Everyone but me has stayed inside to beat the heat, I seem to be the only customer in this billion dollar shopping center, but I’m not a good consumer, I don’t even find the chocolate tempting.

Inside a ritzy Chocolate store, check out what "normal price" means

Customers and Oil Money

So who does spend money here? The uber-rich, generally Saudis and locals connected in some way with the royal family.
About three weeks ago I am told the traffic into one of the stores started to dry up as the price of oil sank. “We are heavily dependent on the Sheiks and royalty of the Arab World,” the storekeeper tells me. I wonder whether it being Ramadan has also contributed to the lack of business.
“No,” comes the response, “Even at night we have fewer customers than before.”
When the sun sets, the mall begins to fill, people crowding into the food court to receive their first meal since sunrise, then meandering over to the state of the art cineplex to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster .
Outside, I finally see some actual Emiratis dressed in their traditional floor length, and for them, nearly ubiquitous white tunics.

Stone cold white tunics in the desert (Dubai Mall)

Everyone awaits the fountain show, the idea and technology originating unsurprisingly in Las Vegas, at the Bellagio.
The Dubai Fountains-- cool show

As I return to my hotel on Baltic Ave., and hear the buzz of the South Asians swarming around me, male honey bee drones with no queen in sight, I can't shake the feeling that Dubai seems more like a mirage in the desert, the bees attracted here solely by the flower known to science as "cash."
Everything about the city just seems unnatural and out of balance, from the ludicrously priced goods, to the overly masculine energy that pervades the city from such an unholy imbalance of men to women.
I'm not saying when the oil runs out, Dubai will disappear back into the sand, the buildings are too well constructed.
Until then I wish the Emiratis luck in setting out their flowers and harvesting their honey. It certainly is a sweet life. Maybe one day they'll have enough money to buy their city back its soul.

1 comment:

  1. Received this email from fellow traveler 'roaraway'--
    "I came across your blog with the article, I was doing some research on a coming trip to Thailand and stumbled onto the Dubai section and found tour link.

    After ready your blog, I think las vegas comparison is an apt observation. Most people would hate to except it.

    We use to go to Dubai in the early 1990's with my family the two major 5 style hotels where the intercontinental and hyatt regency in the croniche. Shopping use to be really good and cheap. But with the new found fame they want to convert the las vegas into monaco, thats what they have done with abu dhabi

    Dubai is on the foots steps of approx 2 bn people, india, pakistan, iran, russia, africa. Not all 2 bn travel but many amongst them have alot of money they spend to escape into the lifestyle they dont find at home. They come visit for 2-3 days, its close by so its convinent and hell their airlines are so bad that they fly emirates which takes them to dubai. We use to stop all the time in dubai cause emirates gave us 2 day free stay if you booked business class from dubai to say london.

    Thought id give my own input on how the city has evolved over the years.

    Alot of people also told me dubai is a transit for them, they earn the moeny tax free save and go back. Many europeans do this because they can have a mercedes in months where as back home in Germany for example it would take them years to live the same lifestyel. So yes moeny brings them in like you said.

    The old dubai i remember was modern fun, now its modern but its more about the clothes the car and going to expensive restaurants, dont know how many appreciate the food."


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