x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Cut-and-paste critics give Dubai an unwarranted pasting

A brief survey of press coverage about Dubai shows a reliance on clichés, recycled anecdotes and western stereotyping, with little evidence of original research.

On the surface there is an easy explanation as to why the request by Dubai World for a repayment moratorium became such a major story in the British media. After all, several UK banks were creditors, even if many business commentators observed that the sums involved were small compared to losses elsewhere in the financial world during the turmoil of the past year. Other writers also expressed concern that once again the British taxpayer would have to foot the bill for the banks' difficulties, even if they could not agree on the size of the liabilities.

Yet none of this entirely explains the scale and depth of the criticism hurled at the emirate by the British media. Seasoned foreign correspondents were dispatched to pronounce on the shortcomings of Dubai, sometimes barely 24 hours after they checked into their five-star hotels. Other writers based their Middle Eastern credentials on recycled memories of press trips that in some cases were already several years old.

In all cases, the comment was of the kind you would not normally find on the business pages. But it was typical of the style and tone that has become familiar when Dubai hits the news. It is clear that Dubai has been a target, particularly in the British media, for some time. Over the past year, this narrative has drawn on a number of headline-grabbing events. Michelle Palmer and Vince Acors's tryst on the beach became a symbol of behaviour, both perceived and real, of the well-heeled expatriate community, and tourists.

Other storylines focused on exorbitantly luxurious hotels, mistreated construction workers on ambitious developments, and more recently, a general sense that cracks are showing. Even if these reports do not completely colour the impression of Dubai in Britain, by their very familiarity, they set the tone for the majority of readers. In the case of Dubai, this results in the idea that the emirate is chiefly a combination of western money and western cultural norms, via a process of joining a selected number of dots.

Thus we read mostly about ambitious construction projects and all-you-can-eat-and-drink brunches - with the occasional intervention of an authoritative legal system - and very little about Dubai outside this western conception, which is given little context other than host to a globalised, immigrant population. A significant section of the response to Dubai's financial troubles has been formulaic, drawing on cliché informed by a narrative sustained at quite a remove from Dubai itself.

The most bombastic contributions - and those which grabbed the biggest headlines - came not from the western correspondents resident in Dubai to cover the region, but from a small number of journalists who have visited briefly in the past, and some who have not. Almost every British newspaper has run a "dark side of Dubai"-style exposé in the past year. These pieces have a number of common characteristics. Essentially, they are all a broad condemnation comprising a number of salient points: the working conditions of imported labour, environmental concerns, the treatment of various Britons who have fallen foul of UAE law for what are perceived to be minor crimes, and the alleged general wastefulness of its inhabitants, particularly in the context of the global economic downturn.

So, on the one hand there are tales of down-on-their-luck expatriates deep in debt, of cars being abandoned at the airport because repayments have become too much to handle, while on the other hand there are those who are perceived to be having their cake and eating it at the expense of others. In all these, a picture is painted from a narrow stock of imagery. Dubai is frequently described as a monument to various things, most commonly rendered as a "monument to vanity / greed / hubris" or any combination thereof. One writer described Dubai, somewhat opaquely, as a monument to "the cartoonish simplicity of male desire".

There is also a more literate tack taken by some writers, which harks more to the old conception of the Middle East in the western classical imagination than it draws on current, informative terminology. Ozymandias, as Ramses II, the third pharaoh of the 19th dynasty of ancient Egypt, is known in the Greek sources, was the title of a Percy Bysshe Shelley sonnet of the Romantic period ruminating on the decline of empire, and was referenced a number of times in the recent coverage.

As such, the poem of Ozymandias is not an obvious analogy for debt restructuring, while others less versed in the classics suggest a "last days of Rome" feel to Dubai. To bring this "imminent decline" theme fully up-to-date, the headline "The Party's Over" has been seen a few times this year. However, the most common imagery of all to describe the problems faced by the emirate as conceived by many journalists is informed by the region's geophysical constituency.

There are countless examples of analogies and metaphors involving sand and the desert: "built on shifting sands", "head in the sand", "desert storm", "just deserts" and "mirages". Enter the phrase "Dubai+sand+castle" in Google, and the search returns an astonishing 120,000 examples, most from articles about the emirate's financial problems. Some of the immediate coverage featured headlines that played on the fear angle, predicting "financial Armageddon", and warning "dismiss this new crisis at your peril".

One broadsheet article was able to fit in the "West", "fears" and "terrorist threat" all in the headline and first sentence of an article. Writing after the weekend, that initial excitability had downgraded the assessment to "crisis of confidence". In fact, the sense of fear that drove some of the coverage was overtly contradictory: one newspaper noted in a headline on November 28 that "Banks rebound as Dubai fears subside", yet the same day, the same newspaper's Irish edition headlined "Dubai fears increase".

Some journalists cut-and-pasted from previous items they had written; one article in April 2006 described labourers who worked "12-hour shifts in the blistering 45°C heat, risking injury and death, to build this gleaming, marble-clad, tax-free city of dreams". This idea reappeared in similar language three and a half years later (November 27, 2009): "12-hour shift in blistering 45°C heat, risking their lives to build this glistening city of dreams".

The issue is not whether the writer had a point, but whether she had thought about it in the past three and a half years. Other writers took Dubai to task, having barely mentioned the emirate before in their journalistic careers. One, whose usual métier involves "writing mainly, but not exclusively, on family matters and women's issues", produced 1,000 words on why "if Dubai was a person it would be Katie Price".

The more usual comparisons involving Dubai made by journalists were to Las Vegas, perhaps Hong Kong, occasionally to the dimensions of Kent to give a clue to its size - but very rarely to something quite so subjective as a person. This epitomises Dubai's commonly expressed celebrity angle: you will often read that David Beckham, Brad Pitt and a host of Premiership footballers own a property in the Jumeirah Palm, which, the article adds, is struggling to be completed. (Another article plagiarised a Wikipedia entry which inaccurately referred to 30 five-star hotels on the development.)

The words used to describe celebrities who are linked with the city in any section of the media is "more money than sense", and so in the same vein, some of the most frequently heard adjectives to describe Dubai are "brash", "glitzy" and "glamour". The combination of these factors often results in a tone of Schadenfreude, with some adopting the sentiment that Dubai was "an accident waiting to happen", in the words of one writer.

One example of this is the travel editor of The Sun, who opined (November 27): "It was a bubble waiting to burst. For all the glitz and glamour, something about Dubai made me feel distinctly uncomfortable." But such omniscience is not quite accurate - when she visited Dubai three years earlier, she wrote that "it's not difficult to see why Dubai is such a hit with the Brits - You're sure to score a hit with this holiday winner!" 

To be fair, not all coverage fits these descriptions, and there is no question that Dubai is a legitimate target of interest and criticism. However, the most convincing journalism features fresh research with a demonstrable proximity to the subject matter, and it is a straightforward observation to say that Dubai does not always attract this. Guy Gabriel is an adviser to the London-based Arab Media Watch