Commentary Magazine


Topic: Persian Gulf coast

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.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.