Dubai is a place, and a symbol.
As a place, it has no claim on our attention. Voltaire once described French Canada as “quelques arpents de neige.” Dubai, like the rest of the Emirates, like Saudi Arabia, could with more justice be dismissed, as “quelques arpents de sable.” It also happens to be in a place, on the globe, convenient for airplanes travelling from Europe to Asia to set down, and perch, and rest and refuel, during their transcontinental trips. Other than that, Dubai has no significance.
But it became, over the past decade, a symbol of the rich Arab states, that is, those states that have acquired great wealth not from any entrepreneurial flair, or hard work, but rather from the fact of an accident of geology: they are the beneficiaries of the sale of oil (and in some cases natural gas). That oil and gas was discovered by, lifted by, transported by, distributed by, non-Muslims who have done everything, including writing those checks to those who happen to possess those oil and gas reserves. Those owners have received, as a consequence, more than twelve trillion dollars since 1973 alone. Dubai became a symbol. The ruler of Dubai, the people of Dubai, the investors in Dubai, the breathless commentators on the Wonder That Is Dubai, saw it as a symbol of all that was impressive, all that was so wonderful, all that bespoke of a Bright Future For The Gulf.
Others, however – you and I, for example – may choose to see things differently. We may look at those “arpents de sable,” those acres of sand, and see Dubai, or Project Dubai, or Work-Site Dubai, as a symbol of something else. Yes, Dubai does indeed represent what the Arabs think of when they think of civilization. It’s what impresses them, what they think makes them just as advanced as we are, the inhabitants of Rome or Paris or London or New York. They show the world, they think, that with their cloud-capped Burj Tower, they are as great, no greater, than those who put up skyscrapers in the West, or for that matter, in the East. The luxury of their hotels, each trying to be more absurdly expensive than the next, catering to every idiotic whim and whimsy, are part of that “civilization of luxury” that the rich Arabs, with their retrofitted and specially-made private 747s, and their planeloads of food flown in daily from Hediard and Fauchon, and their planeloads (or in the case of the Arabs waiting off the coast in their yachts, boatloads) of Western paid ladies to service their every need, think of as “civilization” itself.
They come to the West, which they regard not as a source or model of culture – how could the Western world, the world of Infidels, have anything of intellectual or spiritual value to offer them, Muslims, the “best of peoples”? What the West has to offer are luxury goods, and luxury hotels, and call girls, and gambling of every kind (even if the gambling violates Islam) and wheeling-dealing with the particularly unappetizing kind of Western investment advisers, and estate agents, and lawyers, who flock to such a clientele, and cater to their o’erweening ways, and never display a hint of the contempt that some of them surely must feel.
They live on their yachts, off Marbella – and have boatloads of Western women rowed out to them or they live in Marbella, or on the Riviera, in grand villas. And what goes on behind the high walls of those villas cannot be – or rather can be – imagined. They take over whole floors or wings of hotels. In Monte Carlo, in the summer, visiting Saudis bring with them their own gold fittings for all the bathrooms and have them put in, so that they can enjoy having their water come to them out of gold faucets and spouts – apparently, it’s much better that way.
But what the rich Arabs do not do, nor the poor ones, for that matter, is take any interest in things other than what makes the very rich all over the world kin, or at least concolorous. The luxury goods, the expensive hotels and restaurants, the very best bespoke clothes made with the very best materials – all this makes the rich Saudis, Kuwaitis, Emiratis, tutti quanti, feel that they are part of the Western rich, that they are not different from the Western rich, that they are even better than the Western rich, because they do not have to make an effort to be in the same seeming league as the Western rich. But the Western rich are not to be confused with the West, and for the most part — there are always remarkable exceptions – they do not represent what is best about the West. Rather, they are made possible by the current fashion in economic theory that, one assumes, will soon pass (for the enemies of the very rich are not the poor, but the rich, and while society can – and should – have the rich, the very rich are a different matter).
The very rich Arabs, who travel back and forth from their own miserable, if very rich, lands, to Europe and North America, take no interest in the culture of the West. In the West, Arabs and other Muslims almost never take an interest in the civilization of the people among whom they have, in some cases, come to live, and whose lands they use as a combination fun-fair and brothel. They do not visit the historic sites of Infidels. They do not visit the Louvre, the Prado, the Alte Pinakothek, the National Gallery, the Rijksmuseum. Oh, there are some semi-enlightened Gulf Arabs who think it would be a good idea to rent a little branch of the Louvre (but imagine the headache of trying to choose art work that would meet with the approval of Islam – mostly abstract paintings, or landscapes, will have to do – and certainly no sculpture or depictions of living creatures).
And a few, too, think that the way they can best “educate” their young is to buy or rent a branch of a Western (usually American) university. But they think of what they need to learn from the West as science, or rather, not even science but mere technology, as everyone from Mahathir Mohamad (former head of Malaysia, and former head, as well, of the O.I.C.) to the Muslim Indian propagandist Zahir Naik (“Dr.” Zahir Naik) has stated. Naik said that “what we Muslims can take from the West is science, technology” – meaning above all, he made clear, and as is well understood, weapons technology. It is not the structure of DNA, nor little RNA, nor the genome project, nor fractals, nor a Unified Field Theory, nor String Theory, nor anything else that may be waxing hot or running cold in Western universities and research institutes, that interest Muslims. They want to know how to become just as powerful, military, as the Infidel West. That’s what they have in mind, when they talk about “science” at all.
Let’s return to the hot sands of Dubai. Remember the Burj Tower, that was talked about so breathlessly. It was to have been a Great Achievement in the History of Mankind. Then Dubai’s economy collapsed, and with it a view of Dubai, and then, when the topless tower was finally unveiled, in a land now littered with idle cranes and half-completed buildings, it did not make much of an impression. A story, here and there, but only for a day, and then it was on to the next thing. And that was the great tower, the great emblem, of Dubai as a World Economic Power.
But suppose there had been no economic collapse. Suppose the Tower did not have to be named, as it did have to be named, after the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, who lent the money that got Abu Dhabi out of its last crisis, but may not be lending more for the next one. What did that Dubai tower mean? What does it tell us about the state of the Arabs and Muslims, in building a grand new civilization based on the fabulous sums they have taken in?
Consider who built the tower. The architect was German – or was he Austrian? The main contractor was, as so often in the Arab oil states, South Korean. The ordinary workmen were ill treated, essentially working under the conditions of slaves. Their wretched treatment, the miserable sums they receive from rapacious and cruel employers, who so often withhold sums or find ways to cheat those at that level, who cannot fight back and are hopelessly dependent, has been written about before. See, for example, the article by Johann Hari in “The Independent.” The squalidness of the vulgar luxury, of which the Dubai authorities (and no doubt other Gulf Arabs) are so inordinately proud, is comical, an offense against good taste every which way one looks. That hasn’t kept the kind of press that covers the Arab states from descending upon Dubai at intervals. These people are a little like the bought-and-paid-for movie reviewer who, after his latest junket, gives a glowing review to some obvious Hollywood trash. They ooh and ahh over Dubai’s great achievements, which achievements consist entirely in the ability to take money and to put it into skyscrapers, which are supposed to then earn great respect.
Dubai represents what the oil-rich Arabs think of as Civilizational Achievement. It shows what the Arabs are capable of, given all the money in the world. It shows us what they think is a fitting object of their money. And it is fascinating, because we seldom see the fabulous palaces of the Saudi rich, and only occasionally is someone invited, say, to someone’s home to enjoy some sheikh’s playroom, which among other things might be equipped with a lifesize 747 cockpit, on which one can train as a pilot, or at least simulate what a pilot does. Oh, everyone in the Gulf Arab states has his toys. Dubai stands not only for Dubai, but for the other Gulf Arab states. And it stands for Saudi Arabia itself, where the Al-Saud have tried, and failed, to create self-sustaining agriculture, and now talk about, and plan for, Economic Cities that will supposedly allow Saudi Arabia to develop what, after decades of fabulous oil wealth, it has completely failed to develop: a modern economy, based on something other than oil. Now the Saudis want to create just one university, where they might, they think, offer a real education. They have made that university the richest university in the world, and offer scholarships to lure Western students. But the effort will fail, for the spirit of free inquiry, not to mention the ability for male and female students to mingle freely without armed guards around (already many warnings have been issued about this mingling-of-the-sexes policy), is not there, and the faculty members from the West are not top-of-the-line, but the kind of people who come for the money. It’s the best the Saudis (or the other Arabs) can do, as they are always trying to lure Westerners to teach, always hoping that somehow they can acquire something a little more lasting for their oil-based nations.
Dubai doesn’t even try. It is full of gold shops, and succursales of every Western store specializing in luxury goods. Shopping is all you can do — shopping of every kind, and there is not even a pretense that something else might be important. It’s possibly the most boring place on earth. The Burj Tower, the touts claim, is “90% full.” Don’t believe a word of it. But if you care to believe a word of it, if you care to believe that it is 90% full, or even 100% full, so what? Why should we be impressed? There is more culture, more of interest, in a tiny town in Umbria, than in all of Dubai, all of the Gulf Arab states, all of the Arabian Peninsula. They have no idea what the Western world is, and they don’t care. They don’t care about art, science, literature (save for what Adonis, the Syrian poet, describes as the uninterrupted propagandistic trash that constitutes “Arab literature” today). They have their Burj Tower, with its mosque on the topmost floor – the Furthest Mosque, al-masjid al-aksa, if ever there was one. They have luxury hotels. They have their valet parking, and their car dealerships, and their jewelry shops, and their gold, gold, gold.
There are, apparently, people, primitivized people, who are deeply impressed by such things. They go to visit, or to shop, on Rodeo Drive. But Rodeo Drive, thank god, is not all there is in the United States, or in the Western world. But in Dubai, that is all there is. Dubai is simply Rodeo Drive, on stilts. That’s the Arab Renaissance, that’s the Arab Awakening. Money, and the spending of money, and nothing else.
For Dubai is Muslim, and Muslims have nothing to learn from the West of an intellectual or spiritual nature. All they need to take from the West is military technology. And all they need to do, to prove just how great they are, is to build higher skyscrapers, and more luxurious hotel suites, and they will have passed and surpassed us, as the Communists, in a different context, always said they would. Let them pass, and surpass us, in their skyscrapers and their luxury hotels.
We have other resources, the kind they would never recognize, or ever understand.