What price prosperity?

2009-01-23 00:00

Recently, I had the good fortune to visit Dubai for a second time, after a decade. The city state was hardly recognisable, al-though the conspicuous landmarks of the Burj al Arab and Jumeirah Beach hotels still characterise the sea front and I was able to recognise a few places that I had visited before. For the rest, however, the city is a forest of cranes, multi-lane motorways and hundreds of buildings that reach into the sky, including the tallest of them all, the new Burj Dubai. I heard the city being described as OTT — over the top — and this it certainly is. Among the newest of the city’s too-many-to-count malls is the Dubai Mall, which, when completed, will accommodate 1 200 shops to complement its aquarium, discovery centre and Olympic-size ice rink. Among them is an astonishingly large and comprehensive book shop, the Japan-based Kinokuniya, which I’m sure many travellers have already discovered in other parts of the world.

As is to be expected, there are signs which reveal that even this emirate has not escaped the effects of the global economic woes. Some of the cranes appeared to be working less consistently than they might have been and occupation dates for some of the new residential and office complexes have been extended into the year. One of the very large developers has re-trenched staff recently and there are others, in a variety of spheres, whose jobs may yet be on the line.

This is a particularly daunting prospect in a place where unemployment is not tolerated and where people without jobs are quickly repatriated. These signs are not overt, however, and the business of tourism, commerce and real estate proceeds as if the gold pot at the end of the rainbow is not only very large, but is easily accessible. It is a mystery that all these offices, apartments and houses are expected to be occupied in the course of time. How is it possible that so many retailers and restaurateurs in so many shopping centres survive, let alone prove profitable? In mall after mall, many shops — the more expensive ones selling niche brands and jewellery — are often occupied by just a well-dressed shop assistant trying not to look bored. But when a new mall opens, another branch will be established, giving rise to my suspicion that the success of shopping centres — in this country, too — is that national chain stores cannot afford not to be there.

While one can enjoy the spectacle and wonder at the magnitude and extravagance (a Christmas tree at one of the malls was decorated with 40 000 Swarovski crystals, none of which was pinched), it is impossible to make sense of it all. Who pays the equivalent of R16 000 per person for a Christmas lunch? In particular, one wonders about governance. Here is a city that is making economic progress which appears almost unsurpassed in the history of world cities. There is no unemployment and crime is negligible, at least from a superficial point of view and to the extent that one can walk safely in the streets and leave one’s house unlocked.

That there is an underworld in which a miscellany of crimes is to be found cannot be doubted in a city which is so worldly, so international and so focused on tourism, but the face of Dubai is unsullied and, for the most part, the people who live there are content to fall in with the official spirit of zero tolerance towards the sort of social aberrations that are so common in permissive societies. Public drunkenness, even public drinking, in fact, is taboo and only the most foolhardy would drive after drinking. As we read recently, sex on the beach and a rude sign to another motorist are likely to lead to arrest and incarceration.

Dubai is ruled by a single person and his family. That the despotism is benevolent is plain to recognise, despite the concerns of human rights activists who, correctly, criticise the living standards of the poorest expatriate workers who are undoubtedly exploited. They stay, however, because they would be worse off in their own countries and they have jobs and an income, however paltry it may be. Few democracies of any size can claim to have so little unemployment. What is even more fascinating is the fact that the majority of the population (at least 83%, apparently) have no access to Dubai citizenship. They are there as “guests” and, generally, accept this with alacrity. The Emirati enjoy the considerable largesse of the ruler, extended to the citizenry as an as-surance of loyalty. Where no tax is payable, autocracy has its attraction, especially if it is benign and tolerant. It certainly facilitates progress, which is often so obstructed by the processes of democracy.

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