3 Jan 2010

Burj Dubai: What's wrong with towering ambition?

This is a historic day for mankind, a new era in the story of skyscrapers begins with the completion of Burj Dubai expected to be around 818 meters tall. It is almost a kilometer long of flats, offices, hotels and commercial space breaking every single record and in the process pushing construction technology to new realms. Rather than celebrate this achievement, most critics have treated this as an opportunity to kick Dubai while it suffers from a serious financial crisis, spewing all kinds of venom against its ambition and desire to push the boundaries. It is no surprise that these poisonous attacks are coated in the language of environmental concerns and social justice, we have become accustomed by now to this type of low-aspiration and reactionary critique masquerading as progressive thought. But those sour grapes should remember that history is not written instantly no matter how hard they wish Dubai to fail monumentally. If anyone had written New York off in the 30s and predicted that the depression meant its end, they would have been completely wrong. The city prospered again, and so will Dubai.

A proto-typical attack on Dubai came from Ben Macintyre in the Times, predicting that 'towering ambition always comes before a fall'. Bollocks to you Mr Macintyre, this kind of pseudo-biblical nonsense has no basis in reality, it is only the result of wishful thinking and animosity towards progress and ambition. Let me hasten to add that Macintyre is not alone in attacking Dubai, almost every single commentary on Burj Dubai is laden with tales of doom and gloom and warnings of imminent collapse and historic failure. Quite why western commentators get such a kick out of Dubai's predicted fall is beyond me, it's as if every single one of those wise sages and peddlers of the apocalypse have their brains hooked up to a giant Matrix-like machine that thrives on tales of disaster and sucks the soul and ambition out of them. It might also be writing their articles for them for all we know, there is very little difference in style and content in this flood of schadenfreude.

Part of this venom being dished out by Schadenfreude Central is of course pure good old Arab-bashing. How dare these camel-riding desert dwellers have the temerity to attempt to modernize their society and build ambitiously? The signs are always there, masquerading as concern for immigrant workers and the environment. A few months ago, Johann Hari wrote about the Dark Side of Dubai in the Independent. Yes, Dubai unites left and right in the UK against it, both the Times and the Independent drool at the opportunity for some Arab-bashing, guilt-free . Hari, the enlightened progressive, summed up Dubai's history: 'They were largely illiterate nomads who spent their lives driving camels through the desert – yet now they had a vast pot of gold. What should they do with it?' Obviously in his mind, they should have remained as they were, and probably handed the money to the west to spend it wisely. The rulers of Dubai of course had other plans, Dubai today is a thriving metropolis that is buzzing with people from all over the world and it's their energy that drives the place.

This image horrifies western commentators. Mass immigration as a recipe for economic success? Shock, horror, imagine what would happen to Europe if this was allowed to happen here? More Africans and Asians coming in with their strange cultures and ways of life and threatening the old order! Dubai induces anxiety in the contemporary western mind because it seems to be a place with no history and no culture. This is certainly not true, but Dubai insists on looking towards the future and keeping its history and culture in museums. A few decades ago, Europe was doing the same, but nobody there has any appetite left for modernity anymore, and they insist that others shouldn't fulfill their appetites either.

Of course Dubai has its problems, but what society progressing at such a fast speed doesn't? And why would we assume that Dubai is devoid of social dynamics that would allow it to solve these problems and become better? Talk to any of the immigrant worker in Dubai, and I have spoken to many, and they will tell you that despite all the hardships they endure, Dubai is still their only way to make a living. Most of the workers who come from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have nothing to do if they go back to their countries and would rather take their chances in Dubai or elsewhere in the Gulf. This is of course unfair, but to claim that they are slave laborers is a myth perpetuated by cynical western commentators. The only way out of poverty for them is for their countries to develop aggressively in order to provide the job opportunities that they deserve. Western countries don't seem to be supporting such a path of development, effectively asking poorer countries to be content with their lot. At least in Dubai they can get a living, and there are signs that all Gulf states are taking the issue of labor rights very seriously.

When it comes to Dubai, most people chose to see it through its outlandish signs rather than for what it really is. They dwell on the artificial islands and the enclosed ski slopes, and reduce the city to its most visible spectacles. This is like saying that Paris is the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral or that London is Kew Gardens and the London Eye. But Dubai is a city with 1.5 million residents and should not be reduced to a few landmarks. Dubai's inhabitants wouldn't trade it for any other place, and there is a sense of pride that brings everyone who lives there together. Admittedly, it's not for everyone, but so is Manhatten. Who are we to make moral judgements about people who live in Dubai if they are content with their lives? Such moral sense of affront stems from an old fashioned conservatism and narrow-mindedness, using progressive language to mask deeply-held biases.

Back to Burj Dubai itself, it's a truly stunning building to contemplate, emerging out of the sea of tall buildings around and dwarfing buildings that are in themselves skyscrapers . You have to be really lacking in imagination not to be impressed by it, and I expect the experience from the inside will be more impressive. People who fail to be impressed by it are usually the same type of people who complain that mankind should have never visited the Moon. Dull, banal minds that thrive on their own lack of imagination and keeping their horizons firmly restricted to the ground. The rule book on designing skyscrapers had to be thrown out with almost every aspect of tower construction and design being reinvented, from structure to lifts and air-conditioning. It's a really remarkable accomplishment, and had we been living in a different time this would be celebrated for the human achievement that it is. Instead, we have to get used to the whining and moaning from bitter western commentators and Arab 'intellectuals' who've absorbed the lessons of low-ambition that are fashionable now in the west and are busy regurgitating banal 'observations' about why Burj Dubai is a pointless edifice. I for one will celebrate this great building, and I can't wait to visit the next time I'm in Dubai.

Dubai may not be perfect, but it's certainly buzzing with energy and ambition, characteristics that cities like London and Paris could do with today instead of fiddling around with lame schemes dreamt up by witless bureaucrats with no imagination or spine. Like all great cities, Dubai will bounce back from its problems to surprise us again and again. As I look at the slender profile of Burj Dubai rising elegantly to the sky, I pity those who lack the imagination and to feel excited about it. As Oscar Wilde said 'we're all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.' There's no shame in that.

1 comment:

  1. Well put Karl...

    I agree, and admit that even I had some doubts of the Burj when initially seeing images of it but, undeniably, once one is actually confronted with its presence 'for real', ones heart inevitably does skip a beat - it is amongst the most elegant phallicities around... There is certainly something 'there-there' about it (I remember having the same kind of a reaction to the Petronas Towers a few years back)...

    Now if only the more 'grounded' public realm surrounding it will follow suit and we'll have something truly unique and catalytic happening here in the ME...

    BTW - I'm in the process of moving from Kuwait to Oman in a few weeks...



Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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