Over a bit of post thanksgiving turkey and serious mixed drinks, the topic of Dubai came up.
Dubai is a lot like the bar in the first star wars film crossed with an American Shopping mall:
Everyone there is a little special and everyone there is looking to trade, barter or hussle something. The location makes it a natural stop over and cross roads for Asia, India, Pakistan, China, Europe and the Gulf.
Dubai started out as a simple trading port, then was a hardship post administered by the British, the discovery of oil in the region changed everything as it always does.
Dubai as an Emirate is dwarfed by its larger neighbors and outclassed in the geological oil lottery by Qatar and Abu Dhabi, it boldly brought in some outside consultants and made itself into a logistics hub with the Jebel Ali Duty Free Port and a massive world class airport.
The location, top notch administration and history as a trading port combined with a tradition of English Common Law co-incided to get things humming. The first gulf war saw Dubai really function as a logistics port and set it alight. From then on the investment projects became ever more outlandish and strikingly ever more successful.
Dubai seemed to offer the only desert in the world where the rule of thumb was the more exotic the idea seed planted, the more likely it would take off. The cast of characters in Dubai includes deposed prime-ministers, exiled govts, creative marketers, questionable "traders", thuggish indian gangsters, uzbeki gangsters, Eastern European engineers wiring the place up and the world's best architects pursuing ever greater follies for the financiers. Of course all the consulates are loaded with spies, technicians and assorted types. Dubai is filled with some wonderfully interesting people, probably like New York at the turn of the century.
From its early days trading pearls to trading gold and goods Dubai has been a bit of a husslers paradise. The officials are efficient enough and corruption was mostly in check. Booze flows freely and prostitutes discretely ply their trade flying in from all over the world.
Dubai is a four layer socio-economic cake:
On the top of the Cake is the respected ruler, his family and hangers on. In true fashion staying close to the king is vital for power. Camel Racing with child Jockeyes is a big past time.
The next layer on the cake is being a "national" or native. Dubai has about three hundred thousand nationals. out of a population of 2.3 million. Nationals stick to themselves mostly. Female nationals are off limits. Male nationals like to bet at the camel races, drive souped up cars, smoke sheesha and peddle influence. Any firm wishing to do business in Dubai has to have a local partner who own a majority of the Dubai operation. The best partners are those with connections or at least those who provide the least hindrance in the operation of things.
For example the local Starbucks, Friday's, Pizza hut etc. are all on offer and present the same comodified stale experience available to the bored mall goer in the US. Indeed one of The nationals biggest issues is health. In 2003 the average citizen walked something like 2,000 paces a day. Heart disease and diabetes are serious issues. The walk from the house, to the car to the mall and back is not a uniquely Western ritualized Experience.
Dissent is of course squelched, in Dubai, the internet is on offer but behind a giant firewall. It blocks mostly pornography and political websites. The local media and newspapers have managed to take the puff piece advertorial to new levels of pap. The international political news on offer is biased or bland.
Local political coverage involves the reporting of various emirate officials sending each other telegrams for their birthdays and being cloyingly lovey dovey. Dubai, like many closed societies doesn't do honesty as it interferes with politeness and unchallenged political power.
Politeness is held up as a virtue and thus the mention of anything corrupt or truly interesting is considered impolite and rude. The local television on offer has little sex, but more than makes up for in pointless violence. Syrian television seems to set the benchmark for pointless violence and anger all wrapped up in trite nationalism.
The next layer in the socio-economic cake is the western expat, typically from western Europe or the US with a balding head and bad sunburn during the first 6 months. These figures are mostly older white men living with their expat wives holding down sr. management and consulting roles in various local firms. All the major consulting, advertising, accounting etc. firms send their slowest or most exotic for a turn in the sun.
The men make money and the desperately bored housewives make mischief. With a maid or nanny available for a few hundred dollars a month and zero taxation, domestic bliss quickly leads to boredom and the typical expat games of slap and tickle with the local tennis club pro and a stiff gin and tonic.
Expat Children have the opportunity for good schooling and are typically well taken care of until puberty at which point it is best to place them in an academic setting outside of the country where questioning authority is a rite of passage and not a potential pre-cursor to expulsion or prison.
The next layer of the socio-economic cake is slightly slavic or cold war flavoured. Typical Eastern European or former Soviet satellite states provide their citizens who have top notch engineering and technical backgrounds all provided efficiently and with endearingly accented English.
The final layer of citizenry are the tireless worker bees, typically from Kerala in India or parts of Pakistan. These are men who live in camps and help manifest the architects dreams and engineers plans. Dubai has one of the most skewed sex ratios on the planet due to its expat workforce. The worker bees are typically sending home a few hundred dollars to their thankful families on the sub-continent. They live in dormitory settings, sometimes paid months late and do not have access to their passports. Imagine something from a Victorian sweatshop served with curry on the side and an extra helping of 140 degree heat.
These are of course crude generalizations. There are enough fabulously wealthy Indian traders, Uzbeki and Iranian merchants, American hustlers, Polish traders and Irish expats slinging Guinness to break any hard rule on occupation, nationality or sentiment. It is the star-wars bar serving venti mocachiatos to arms dealers and real estate moguls, where can you be or buy anything in an American mall air-conditioned setting.
The rules are enforced relative to your standing on the socio-economic cake and most things tend to work well, but some icky things get swept under the carpet. All the components of the well oiled police state are in place, ministry of information, no dissent etc.
Dubai as a country/company is a bit like Madonna going in for a new vogue every few years and amazingly pulling ever larger rabbits out of its performing hats. From logistics to tourism, to real estate to ironically a financial center. Dubai was positioning itself as a financial center, the Switzerland of the region, but unfortunately lost a few good outsiders brought in.
The recent problems with Dubai will probably highlight many economic and political issues that were overlooked while the malls were full and the cranes were busy. Dubai does have a debtors prison. Pity they can't take the Kuwait option and just pay off everyone's debt.