Cheap metaphors, apocalyptic exaggeration and schadenfreude marked the Dubai backlash, writes John Gravois. Until 2009, all a global citizen really needed to know about Dubai, it seemed, was a statistic about construction equipment. According to nobody in particular, 25 per cent of the world's tower cranes resided in the booming emirate. That enchanting detail, paired with mentions of man-made islands, indoor ski slopes and seven-star hotels, appeared in countless dispatches. Or at least some version of it did. The exact percentage was somewhat slippery. Sometimes it was 15 per cent of the world's cranes; sometimes it was 50. Once in a blue moon, someone would run a few calculations and report that the real proportion, while nearly impossible to ascertain, was probably closer to around two per cent. But the 25 per cent figure achieved a kind of mythic status, and was repeated again and again. The most totemic factoid about Dubai's boom was as irrepressible as it was bogus.
Then 2009 came along and, suddenly, all you really needed to know about Dubai was that there were 3,000 abandoned cars at its airport. That detail, which was perhaps just as enchanting in its fairy-tale-macabre kind of way, appeared in countless dispatches about the emirate gone bust. Its run in the international press began in January. Lehman Brothers had collapsed three months before, and the global economic crisis had imposed a winter of dour soul-searching on the Western capitals. Dubai, having come a bit late to the global real-estate bust, offered the cold but diverting comfort of schadenfreude: now here was a grand narrative of comeuppance. (The 3,000-cars statistic was not so much bogus as it was - like many of the world's assets at the time - overleveraged. In a city of over 1 million, an airport-garage worth of vehicles is not exactly a sterling economic indicator.)
In the months that followed, a deluge of articles about Dubai's troubles ran in the major English-language publications. Some were illuminating; many were overwrought. In the same glib spirit with which the city was once held up as a pure spectacle of boom-time prosperity (see: 25 per cent of the world's cranes), Dubai was subjected to a ritual public shaming over the course of 2009. The emirate offered a vessel in which the follies and iniquities of the global economy could be externalised and pushed out to sea. In short, for those of us who live in or near the emirate, it was a strange year. We had to grapple not only with gauging the dimensions of the crisis for ourselves, but also with the bizarre experience of living inside one of the era's cheapest metaphors.
Rather than restrict themselves to assessing the economic damage - an admittedly difficult task in the midst of Dubai's information lockdown - western journalists used the crisis as an opportunity to pillory the emirate for its crass materialism, ecological unsustainability and, especially, its exploitation of cheap foreign labour. Even for those of us who believe that any attention to the situation of labourers in the UAE is to the good, the timing of the year's bumper crop of moral outcries made them ring somewhat hollow. Were Dubai's workers any less worthy of attention before the crash?
One of the most peculiar motifs of the Dubai backlash was the tendency to describe the emirate's manual labourers as somehow both glaringly ubiquitous and completely hidden from view. Perhaps this kind of rhetoric was necessary to sustain the premise of a "secret underbelly" to Dubai's glittering - always glittering - facade. Or perhaps it was a way of dramatising the writers' "discovery" that the city is full of low-wage immigrants.
"Though in Dubai you are surrounded by the poor, who labour on every building site, clean the streets and the houses and wait on the children, they are as invisible as the plumbing," wrote Germaine Greer in February in The Guardian. To arrive at this paradoxical insight, the intrepid Greer endured a layover of not less than four hours in Dubai, during which she braved a Big Bus Tour of the city. Johann Hari made a similar observation in The Independent. "They are hidden in plain view. You see them everywhere, in dirt-caked blue uniforms, being shouted at by their superiors, like a chain gang - but you are trained not to look," he wrote. "It is like a mantra: the Sheikh built the city. The Sheikh built the city." Who subjected Hari to this training? Who taught him this mantra? You guessed it: the master propagandists on the Dubai Big Bus Tour.
Labour here is an extraordinarily troubling issue; low-skilled workers are indeed extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. That is one vexing side of the moral equation. Another is that the Emirates, quite unlike the comparative immigration citadels elsewhere in the developed world, have opened their borders to droves of unskilled workers from some of the poorest countries on earth. It is in the nature of poverty to be faced with awful choices; the uneasy truth - one that speaks directly to the relationship between glittering Dubai and the most forgotten villages in India - is that it remains worth it for workers to come to the Gulf, and they remain unwelcome most anywhere else.
Alas, singlemindedly obsessed with facades and underbellies, the backlash correspondents fell quickly into weird observational pathologies. Writers would lavish numerous punishing column-inches on The World, an unpopulated offshore development that few Dubai residents have ever laid eyes on, while insisting that Dubai's ubiquitous manual labourers are somehow concealed from the public gaze. Meanwhile, the same writers actually did render invisible vast segments of the population: namely, pretty much anyone who is not a rich, boorish westerner, an Emirati, or an immiserated low-wage worker. Entirely missing from most accounts was the Dubai of Indian shopkeepers, Filipino professionals, Lebanese restaurateurs, Iranian artists, Keralite longshoremen, African gold traders, Palestinian bankers and Pakistani estate agents. Between the facade and the so-called underbelly, an entire city went missing.
In the end, what so many of these articles offered was not analysis but catharsis, sometimes of the ugliest variety. In some cases, Dubai was simply written out of the future. "As they did Ozymandias, the dunes will reclaim the soaring folly of Dubai," was the headline on Simon Jenkins' March 20 column in The Guardian. His 1,200-word essay culminates in a kind of prophetic vision whose language is a little more sensuous, a little more enthusiastic than a punishment fantasy should probably be in polite company.
Here is Jenkins on the buildings of Dubai: "Their lifts and services, expensive to maintain, will collapse. Their colossal facades will shed glass. Sand will drift round their trunkless legs. Animals will inhabit their basements. Thousands of residential properties, if occupied at all, will be squatted by a migratory poor, like the hotel towers of the Spanish littoral or Corbusier's blockhouses of Chandigarh in India. Refugees will colonise the camps where Indian workers have lived as they built Dubai. Gangs will seize the gated estates and random anarchy will rule the soulless boulevards."
(Despite his taste for literary allusion, Jenkins may be just the target audience for Spec Ops: The Line, a forthcoming first-person-shooter computer game set in an abandoned, post-apocalyptic Dubai.) By late summer, some writers were doing away with the future tense altogether when discussing the emirate's apocalypse. "Deserts have a way of reclaiming whatever is built upon them," wrote the photographer Lauren Greenfield in Fast Company magazine in September. "With cash scarce and many of Dubai's expats moving away, the cranes (a quarter of the world's supply) have quieted and the streets are all but empty."
If such dispatches are to be believed, Dubaians today are in an impossibly poignant position. Like the Japanese soldiers who remained battle-ready on remote islands for years after the end of the Second World War, the city's residents are going about their lives, driving to work and crowding the city's malls and seaside promenades on the weekends, having failed to read in Fast Company magazine that their city is, in fact, "all but empty". In any event, this particular quote is charming for its reminder of the good old days when people just exaggerated about cranes.
John Gravois is a senior editor at The Review.