Commentary Magazine


Posts For: November 27, 2009

The Middle East Needs Dubai

There is a large element of Schadenfreude in the media coverage of Dubai’s financial mess. The Gulf emirate has suspended payment on the debt of its flagship holding company, Dubai World, causing financial jitters around the world and raising suspicions that its balance sheet is a lot worse than it has been letting on. For years Dubai has been on a spending binge, which includes building the world’s tallest building, an indoor ski slope, and a series of artificial islands in “an artificial archipelago that would reconfigure the Persian Gulf coast into a thicket of trees, a map of the world, a whirling galaxy, a scythe and a sun that looks like a spider.”

It is easy to look down one’s nose at the excesses of this global parvenu, which is trying to become the Hong Kong or Singapore of the Middle East, thereby usurping Beirut’s traditional position as the place where Arabs unwind. When I visited Dubai a couple of years ago with a group of foreign-policy analysts, we were all amazed by the frenetic pace of construction. A sizable proportion of the world’s building cranes had been arrayed in this city-state and they were putting up too many skyscrapers to count. It was pretty obvious that the good times wouldn’t last forever, and they haven’t. The result of a building boom, we all know, is a glut of new structures, a lack of tenants, and a crash. That’s what has happened in the U.S. with residential homes in the past few years and now it appears to be happening with commercial real estate in Dubai.

So much, so familiar. But still for all of Dubai’s excesses it is a wonder that it has gotten this far. It deserves not ill-disguised glee at its misfortunes but a degree of respect for its willingness to flout traditional Arab taboos. It is, for example, a place where Emiratis in white robes rub shoulders with Russian hookers in mini-skirts — a place where it’s perfectly possible to get a nice cocktail (and not a “mocktail,” as in Kuwait) in a public bar, and to do so in the middle of Ramadan if you’re feeling parched at that point. No doubt some of Dubai’s competitors, the likes of Doha and Kuwait City and its sister emirate Abu Dhabi, are licking their chops at the prospect of benefitting from Dubai’s downturn but they will be hard put to it to match its dynamism because they remain much more in thrall to traditional Arab/Muslim pieties: a combination of religious and tribal traditions that have made the Middle East a laggard in many dimensions of development. Dubai has been a leader in the Arab world with respect to embracing modernity — which has repercussions both good and bad but in general is a force for positive change. We should all hope that it will get on its feet again soon. The Middle East needs Dubai.

There is a large element of Schadenfreude in the media coverage of Dubai’s financial mess. The Gulf emirate has suspended payment on the debt of its flagship holding company, Dubai World, causing financial jitters around the world and raising suspicions that its balance sheet is a lot worse than it has been letting on. For years Dubai has been on a spending binge, which includes building the world’s tallest building, an indoor ski slope, and a series of artificial islands in “an artificial archipelago that would reconfigure the Persian Gulf coast into a thicket of trees, a map of the world, a whirling galaxy, a scythe and a sun that looks like a spider.”

It is easy to look down one’s nose at the excesses of this global parvenu, which is trying to become the Hong Kong or Singapore of the Middle East, thereby usurping Beirut’s traditional position as the place where Arabs unwind. When I visited Dubai a couple of years ago with a group of foreign-policy analysts, we were all amazed by the frenetic pace of construction. A sizable proportion of the world’s building cranes had been arrayed in this city-state and they were putting up too many skyscrapers to count. It was pretty obvious that the good times wouldn’t last forever, and they haven’t. The result of a building boom, we all know, is a glut of new structures, a lack of tenants, and a crash. That’s what has happened in the U.S. with residential homes in the past few years and now it appears to be happening with commercial real estate in Dubai.

So much, so familiar. But still for all of Dubai’s excesses it is a wonder that it has gotten this far. It deserves not ill-disguised glee at its misfortunes but a degree of respect for its willingness to flout traditional Arab taboos. It is, for example, a place where Emiratis in white robes rub shoulders with Russian hookers in mini-skirts — a place where it’s perfectly possible to get a nice cocktail (and not a “mocktail,” as in Kuwait) in a public bar, and to do so in the middle of Ramadan if you’re feeling parched at that point. No doubt some of Dubai’s competitors, the likes of Doha and Kuwait City and its sister emirate Abu Dhabi, are licking their chops at the prospect of benefitting from Dubai’s downturn but they will be hard put to it to match its dynamism because they remain much more in thrall to traditional Arab/Muslim pieties: a combination of religious and tribal traditions that have made the Middle East a laggard in many dimensions of development. Dubai has been a leader in the Arab world with respect to embracing modernity — which has repercussions both good and bad but in general is a force for positive change. We should all hope that it will get on its feet again soon. The Middle East needs Dubai.

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Obama Resists Anti-Censorship Efforts

The Wall Street Journal‘s Jerry Seib has a nice column today describing efforts by a group of senators — led, of course, by the Three Amigos: John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman — to provide funding to stymie Iran’s efforts to censor the Internet. As Seib notes, the Victims of Iranian Censorship Act “authorizes the U.S. government to develop proxy Web servers and Web addresses beyond the reach of the Iranian government, and to deploy technologies that would allow Iranians to go to those sites anonymously to stay in touch with one another and the outside world via the Internet.” This bill has already passed the Senate and is now awaiting an appropriation. But here’s the really interesting part of the article. Seib writes:

The idea is uncomfortable for the Obama administration, largely because some advocates of Internet-freedom legislation have in mind helping Chinese dissidents, not Iranian democracy protesters. Wrangling with China’s leaders, on whom the U.S. is depending for help with, among many other things, putting pressure on Iran, is a much trickier proposition.

Come again? The Obama administration doesn’t want to facilitate the free flow of information into China? It would prefer that the Chinese people be subject to censorship by their Communist government? If this were any other administration I would find that amazing. But coming from President Obama — who made no attempts to speak directly with the Chinese people during his recent visit and did everything possible to make nice with the ruling oligarchy — it is eminently believable. It is also deeply misguided. The U.S. has a long-term interest in fostering the growth of a free, liberal, and democratic China. The existing regime, while willing to do business with us (and buy up our debt), is also fostering a dangerous showdown with Taiwan in an attempt to bolster its nationalist credentials — a showdown that could eventually embroil us in war. Moreover, China consistently opposes U.S. interests in such flashpoints as North Korea and Iran, and it is fostering close ties with some of the worst thugs on the planet.

That doesn’t mean we should try to overthrow the existing regime by force. It does mean that, at a minimum, we should help dissidents and do more to facilitate accurate information getting to the people. That the Obama administration apparently views this as a dangerous policy shows a narrow realpolitik orientation that bodes ill for American foreign policy in the years ahead.

The Wall Street Journal‘s Jerry Seib has a nice column today describing efforts by a group of senators — led, of course, by the Three Amigos: John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman — to provide funding to stymie Iran’s efforts to censor the Internet. As Seib notes, the Victims of Iranian Censorship Act “authorizes the U.S. government to develop proxy Web servers and Web addresses beyond the reach of the Iranian government, and to deploy technologies that would allow Iranians to go to those sites anonymously to stay in touch with one another and the outside world via the Internet.” This bill has already passed the Senate and is now awaiting an appropriation. But here’s the really interesting part of the article. Seib writes:

The idea is uncomfortable for the Obama administration, largely because some advocates of Internet-freedom legislation have in mind helping Chinese dissidents, not Iranian democracy protesters. Wrangling with China’s leaders, on whom the U.S. is depending for help with, among many other things, putting pressure on Iran, is a much trickier proposition.

Come again? The Obama administration doesn’t want to facilitate the free flow of information into China? It would prefer that the Chinese people be subject to censorship by their Communist government? If this were any other administration I would find that amazing. But coming from President Obama — who made no attempts to speak directly with the Chinese people during his recent visit and did everything possible to make nice with the ruling oligarchy — it is eminently believable. It is also deeply misguided. The U.S. has a long-term interest in fostering the growth of a free, liberal, and democratic China. The existing regime, while willing to do business with us (and buy up our debt), is also fostering a dangerous showdown with Taiwan in an attempt to bolster its nationalist credentials — a showdown that could eventually embroil us in war. Moreover, China consistently opposes U.S. interests in such flashpoints as North Korea and Iran, and it is fostering close ties with some of the worst thugs on the planet.

That doesn’t mean we should try to overthrow the existing regime by force. It does mean that, at a minimum, we should help dissidents and do more to facilitate accurate information getting to the people. That the Obama administration apparently views this as a dangerous policy shows a narrow realpolitik orientation that bodes ill for American foreign policy in the years ahead.

Read Less




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