History is littered with imagery and symbolism. To encapsulate the raw power of the Soviet Union in 1930s one needs only to look at the city of Magnitogorsk, with it’s brooding smoke towers, streamlined streets and dark factories. It is the perfect embodiment of industry and state authority. Similarly to appreciate the heights to which the British Empire reached in India, at the beginning of the twentieth century. The enormous palaces of New Dehli represent a decadent monument to imperial power and wealth. However these urban metaphores often defy the reality of their period. It is important to understand that much of the economic achievements of the soviet project were illusionary and built upon a mountain of bodies rather than economic progress. Similarly the imperial strucutures of New Dehli where a far cry from the isolated beachheads and rugged hinterlands that made up most of the British Empire. Nevertheless these examples are significant because of what they represent. This begs the question, is there somewhere today, that fully represents the modern world? Somewhere that truly symbolises the essence of the early Twenty- First century? I argue that there is such a place, and that place is Dubai. Since the 2008 financial crisis it could be suggested (and many have) that Dubai represents to worst excesses of capitalism. The slave labor, the uncontrolled market forces and the thinly veiled social divisions. Yet, this article seeks to explain that rather than describing the modern world explicitly Dubai provides an adequate lens through which to view the early Twenty-First century.
Founding the Corporatist Paradise
Arguably Dubai represents the indulgence, violence and horror of our time. It’s shimmering glass towers and sprawling slave labour camps are the perfect magnum opus of corporatist power. If you want a clear picture of how historians will look at the early Twenty-First century than Dubai is the best place to look. Until the 1990 Dubai was little more than a small fishing town, based on the pearl trade. Yet in the space of 20 years, it has grown into a modern metropolis. The story of Dubai provides a fitting narrative for the modern world. Oil, warfare, state power and exploitation, Dubai has it all. Since 1990 many have seen Dubai as a genuine capitalist success story. Independent and modern. Despite suffering a financial crisis, still growing at around 4% per year. Yet under the surface is a dismal reality of slave labour, US imperial expansion and catastrophic amounts of debt. It is an even more grotesque story for those that live there. No notion of rights and where government actively promotes exploitation and slavery. All disguised under glitzy façade of a modern functioning, capitalist economy.
Firstly we must asses the nature of Dubai’s history and how it cannot be called a free-market, but a crapitalist autocracy. It is a widely accepted myth that the building of Dubai is the fruits of Sheikh Rashid II bin Saeed Al Maktoum and his grand vision. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Dubai tried to market itself as a great place to do business. The Jebel Ali free zone was established in 1979. In attempt to attract western business. Even throughout the 1980s a period often described as a neo-liberal renaissance, Dubai remained little more than a small desert town. It was only till the UAE sent funds to support the USA and its allies in during the 1990 gulf war against Iraq that Dubai really started to boom. Arguably this fact shows that although domestic economic policy is important in the development of a nation. What was really significant for Dubai and many other developing countries, is that being supportive of western imperial policy is a pre-requisite to prosperity. Furthermore, as is the case worldwide, what development really means in the Twenty-First century is not the growing of native industry, but making a state open to economic occupation by western transnational corporations. It was only after Sheikh Maktoum III bin Rashid Al Maktoum cemented himself as a western ally that the city expanded rapidly.
“Dubai is booming. Economic activity is everywhere. The city centre is a construction zone with international hotel chains competing for sites. Hyatt, Hilton, Ramada and Sheraton are already represented; Marriot and Holiday Inn are on the way.”
Ron Gluckman, Hong Kong of the desert?, 1992
Furthermore, when looking at Dubai it becomes immediately obvious that the state is an omnipresent entity that seeps into all aspects of life in the concrete oasis. Johann Hari described Dubai in his 2009 article The dark side of Dubai. “The wide, smiling face of Sheikh Mohammed – the absolute ruler of Dubai – beams down on his creation. His image is displayed on every other building, sandwiched between the more familiar corporate rictuses of Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders”. As historians begin to assess the Twenty-First century, the grotesque abuse of state power will be a factor that they cannot ignore in trying to understand the modern era. This is true not just of Dubai but of the entire western world. However the most disturbing aspect of Dubai, is that the ethnic Emiratis are rapidly forming an impenetrable class of self serving public officials. The identity of the Emirati elites that dominate Dubai, is inseparable from the idea of public service and respect for the monarchy. In relation to the Arab Spring “The UAE has seen a trickle of dissent amid a regional torrent. Emiratis are largely well cared for by their oil-rich government and seldom question policy” Financial Times, Arrests in UAE show Sensitivity over reform. “UAE residents pay prices well below the cost of production for electricity, water, food and petrol. Government hand-outs for Emiratis extend this generosity, as do an abundance of well paid government salariat. Per capita gross domestic product (GDP) averages about $40,200” Protests Fail to Garner Support.
This displays how the Sheiks who rule Dubai have little incentive to provide for those at the bottom of society. They are much less the champions of the capitalist society that they are often described as. Arguably they demonstrate how political elites form a close group of powerful allies and pander to their interest. On a superficial level the rapid development of the Dubaian skyline was not build through a process of allowing a free industrial society to flourish. Its rapid construction is the result of debt and political repression. Ahmed Kannah, professor of International Relations at the university of the Pacific describes how in the Emirati community, working for the private sector is stigmatised. Allegiance to the state has become an integral part of their national identity. Even Adulla Abdelkhaleq Professor of political science at Emirates University, an influential supporter of the monarchy states that the middle classes “ are the forces of change, but are also in bed with the regime,” says Abdulla. “They benefit from another and reinforce each other. The middle-class is usualy not revolutionary, they are a moderate kind of people” Protests Fail to Garner Support.
Yet despite the powerful presence of the king. Like the entire Twenty-First century world, his creation is built on top of a colossal mountain of debt. In 2000 two new ‘ free zones’ opened. The Dubai Internet City and Dubai Maritime City. Both allowing for the inflow of more foreign corporations and state run businesses. Countries from around the Middle East have come to describe this method of growth as the ‘Dubai’ model. However it is necessary to stress at this stage that altough every city has a dark past. Most of the urban world today has been build from profit and the success of industry. This is one of the key differences between Dubai and the west. Martin Hvidt of Southern Denmark University shows that in contrast to most western cities Dubai’s authoritarian state is in part, the key to it’s success. “From a statist perspective, democratic or participatory forms of governmental leadership might endanger development in its initial phases because it might divert investment and political focus away from key factors in economic development”. Martin Hvidt, The Dubai Model:An outline of key components of thedevelopmentprocess in Dubai, 2007. To conclude, it is an unfortunate fact, that in the Twenty-First century the state holds the key to success.
Enslaved by the state
It is important to understand that many of the institutions that are fundamental to Dubai’s success are not products of the western world. However to fully understand the conclusion historians should draw about the modern era from assessing Dubai. We must study the role that the state plays in perpetuating the misery of those the work there. Unlike Europe and North America the social institutions of Dubai bolster and support the slave labour system. Yet Dubai demonstrates how when the presence of an authoritarian state exists. There can be no free- market. It is often that case that those who decry the free-market often associate it with the untold sorrow that large portions of the worlds population live in. Yet after careful analysis it becomes immediately apparent that it is in fact the government that allows for the virtual slavery of thousands of migrant workers in Dubai. Dubai is anything but a truly free-market. Dubai is often regarded as the epitome of the diversified economy. However in reality, it is a cluster of state run businesses and foreign firms that make the lions share of economic growth. Respect for contracts, the right to collectively bargain, the rule of law and competition are all fundamental prerequisites for a truly free-society. None of these exist in the Hong-Kong of the desert.
The Emirati elite stress that these migrants, often of South Asian origin came here of their own free will and can leave at any time. However upon arrival in the UAE, migrants have their passports confiscated, making it virtually impossible to leave the country. Furthermore their earnings are often much less that what was promised or in some cases non-existent. Far from being a meritocracy Dubai’s migrants are often paid according to race and nationality. “The merchant state’s knowledge of them- their country of origin, their health, their capacity for work, the extent of their geographical mobility within the boundaries of the state. Is thorough and sufficient to the task of control” Dubai in a jagged world . Essentially any respect for free-market principles is decidedly missing in Dubai. However, in relation to the desert city’s historical significance it is not unique, “None of this is to say that Dubai or the UAE are peculiar in their exploitation of migrant workers or in the use of nationality, ethnicity and even race to categorize and manipulate the workers. One sees exactly the same arbitrary discrimination and selective imposition of “legibility” on various groups in the supposedly advanced countries of Europe and North America” Dubai in a jagged world. Supposedly slavery and human trafficking are illegal under Islamic law, however those that are exploiting these virtual slaves, are almost always the members of the government. Almost all companies that operate in Dubai are government owned or have close links with the king. As well as construction workers that often die on the job or commit suicide in the sprawling slums of Sonapur, domestic slavery and prostitution is rife in Dubai and actively promoted by the state. “Domestic workers are routinely abused by their employers. From beatings to rape” Nicholas Cooper, City of Gold,City of Slaves: Slavery and indentured servitude in Dubai, 2013. However far from being able to flee such a situation, as would be possible in a free-society. “When women act in response to their abuse they are charged by the government with crimes themselves; effectively women in Dubai face an environment in which they are punished for speaking out in abusive situations.” City of Gold,City of Slaves: Slavery and indentured servitude in Dubai.
Far from being a problem of unregulated capitalism. Dubai’s shameful human right record is the responsibility of its ruling class. “Dubai remains a dangerous place to even report rape. After reporting rape, some women have been arrested for “illegal sex acts,” and women who have been sexually assaulted face the possibility of being punished themselves” City of Gold,City of Slaves: Slavery and indentured servitude in Dubai. Ultimately it is apparent that the depravity and exploitation that exists in Dubai lies in that the state is complicit in these crimes. This is the case around the world. Historians would do well to take this into account. Furthermore it is worth mentioning that when the ruling elite of Dubai are challenged. They often say that without their presence, the country would descend into the hands of bloodthirsty Jihadists. The similarities between the rulers of Dubai,and the rulers of the western world is astonishing.
To conclude, it appears that just like Magnitagorsk or the palaces of New Dehli. Dubai is the perfect representation of its time. Built from nothing to a sprawlig metropolis in just over a generation. Dubai truly shows the awesome power of the forces that are shaping our world. The cataclysmic debt, the pervaive fist of government authority, exploitation of the people by a bloted ruling elite, tall glass buldings occupied only by wealthy CEOs and state officials and the threat (however real) of terror from an invisible yet persistent enemy. It does not explicitly demonstrate the rest of western civilisation, yet as a historical reference point Dubai has it’s use. Not free in any sense of the word, as we are led to belive. There will be those that will argue that it is one of many examples of the devestating effects of capitalism. But they will be wrong, the overarching presence of the monarchy will ultimatley prove that Dubai was anything but a unhampered free- market.A similar conclusion should be drawn about the rest of the western world. Yey most of the western world has no slave labur camps and we are mostly free to do as we wish. Be that as it may, Dubai’s historical significance as a lens through wich to view the modern world ensures its place in history. Dubai is truly a corporatist paradise.
For a similar ‘microcosm’ arrproach to history. Microcosm: Portrait of a central EuropeanCity, by Norman Davies & Roger Moorhouse takes the example of Wroclaw in Poland as a means to asses European history.
If anyone has a more general interest in western civilisation and the role historical forces have play in creating he twenty first century Niall Ferguson’s Civilisation is a great place to start. As is Unfinished Empire by John Darwin. Also The Untold History of the United Staes by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick provides a merciless critique of the conext of U.S imperialism.
Critical views about Dubai can be hard to find. As most commentators are transfixed with the economic transformation of the desert city. However Dubai, The City as Corporation by Ahmed Kannah gives a compelling critical analysis of the nature of Emirati society and culture.
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