The Middle East @ Work

A nice place to visit but . . .

Meaw Mar 10, 2008

Dubai is one of the most successful cities on the planet: brave, ambitious experimental, safe, tolerant, peace-loving and prosperous. I hated it. Or to be more precise I loved the idea of this city but hated the reality of it….

Dubai is undoubtedly impressive. A small country on the edge of a desert, with an indigenous population of only 70,000 people and with only very modest reserves of oil, the city/statelet has achieved a great deal. With intelligence and energy and mass immigration it has turned itself into an economic dynamo. Dubai has become a major business and financial center, a tourist attraction and home to some of the most valuable real estate in the Middle East.

I should add that Dubai is a miracle of multiracial harmony. People from more than one 150 countries live and work there with no apparent friction. So how can you dislike a place like Dubai? Where do I begin? …

First of all, it is a terrible place to walk around. There are very few genuinely atmospheric neighborhoods. There is some iconic architecture like the hotel shaped like a sail — the Burj Al Arab — and the palm-shaped artificial islands. But most of the city is just crammed with skyscrapers and shopping malls, interspersed with horrendously busy highways.

Also rather charmless and unnerving is the way the city is laid out — in sectors. People are corralled according to their activities: Media City, Knowledge Village, Culture Village, Internet City and so on.

Secondly, you get little sense of a real country with a national spirit and identity. This must be largely due to the fact the native-born Dubaiyans make up only 3 percent of the population. The rest are foreigners who lead largely parallel lives; this is certainly no melting pot. OK, there is apparently no friction between different ethnic groups or any serious clash of cultures but that seems to be chiefly because the different communities hardly meet or mix.

Dubai feels more like a place to do business than a country — a Marketplace!

Thirdly, as a radio reporter I found this a frustrating city in which to work. There is a huge reluctance to talk — or at least to say anything other than what a wonderful place it is. The lack of candor and openness can be laughable. I attended a corporate governance training session promoting greater openness and transparency and the organizers refused to allow it to be recorded. They said it was “confidential.”

The roots of this reticence probably lie in politics.

Dubai is not a democracy, there is no guaranteed freedom of speech and people are particularly loathe to say anything critical about the ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashed al-Maktoum, and his government.

When the “D” word (democracy) came up in conversation, several young, educated Dubaiyans told me: “We don’t need it because our rulers are so wise!

All in all, I’m glad I went to Dubai. It was interesting to see a place where globalization, market forces and shopping have reached some kind of peak. But it is not a place I feel any urge whatsoever to revisit.

— Stephen Beard

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.