x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Diversity and division: Abu Dhabi and the cosmopolitanism of circumstance

The overlap between the first world and the third is what makes Abu Dhabi a tremendously cosmopolitan place, though not in the sense that the word is typically used.

Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National
Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National

Despite a forthcoming fictional visit from the cast of Sex and the City 2, which optimistic analysts have touted as a boon for local tourism, the word "cosmopolitan" has not, as yet, attached itself to Abu Dhabi in the global consciousness. Addressing the question of what Abu Dhabi does suggest to the minds of the rest of the world is beyond the purview of this column, but it seems safe to say that as the Emirates have taken up a newly prominent role on the world stage, a certain caricature of the place has cemented itself, featuring a barren desert populated by sleek glass skyscrapers, malls the size of small cities, and massive highways traversed by the ultra-luxe saloon cars of decadent expats and rich Arabs. From this inauspicious beginning the caricature takes two divergent paths: one evokes a place of limitless glamour and impossible wealth; the other fixates on the country's underclass of migrant labourers, drawn, some under false pretences, to lives of arduous toil under the blazing sun.

That both these extremes exist in Abu Dhabi cannot be denied; what often seems to discomfort outside observers, particularly in the West, is their close proximity: the wealthy residents of London or Paris don't live next door to impoverished unskilled villagers from Bihar, though this distance doesn't make the massive inequality between the two places any less real. The overlap, crudely speaking, between the first world and the third world is precisely what makes Abu Dhabi a tremendously cosmopolitan place, though not in the sense that the word is typically used today, as a term of approbation that suggests sophistication and hauteur. This is a cosmopolitanism of circumstance rather than attitude, a "conservative cosmopolitanism" that befits a rapidly growing country surrounded by instability and underdevelopment. And yet it seems odd that one of the best aspects of the city - the astonishing diversity of its residents - should be depicted elsewhere as one of its worst.

There are problems, of course. While Abu Dhabi is, by definition, a cosmopolitan city, one still searches in vain for venues or circumstances that place the two poles of the city at each others' side - without one doing the driving and the other paying the fare. Womad, the traveling world-music festival that touches down on the Corniche next weekend, is a rare such occasion. The festival, which debuted here last year, is an event not to be missed, and not just because it offers some entertainment for those of us disinclined towards the dated sounds of Bon Jovi, Vanilla Ice and Elton John.

Advocates of multiculturalism or affirmative action in the United States often call for the appointment of institutions - the Supreme Court, the Congress - that "look like America". Womad is a festival that looks like Abu Dhabi, and not only because it features acts that come from what the West calls "the rest of the world". For a few weekend nights on the Corniche, our notional cosmopolitanism becomes something lofty and ideal: a troupe of qawwali singers takes the stage to the delight of a crowd of Pakistani taxi drivers and manual labourers, among whom are sprinkled Emirati men and women in national dress and westerners out for a good time on the beach, and the diversity that sometimes divides the city, despite the best intentions of many of its residents, suddenly fits into one vibrant social frame. In a place so firmly pointed towards the future, in which innumerable hopes and ambitions - and unquantifiable dirhams - are vested, Womad provides an intimation, if only a fleeting one, of how bright it could be.