May 29th, 2012
If Osama Bin Laden and Lady Gaga had a child, they would name it Dubai. What a place. Strict orthodox Islam meets enormous wealth and a desire to be mainstream and modern. The malls were extravagant. Watches were selling for the price of homes, handbags for the price of cars. Women covered from head to toe in black robes with just a slit for their eyes walked through the mall with DKNY and Chanel shopping bags.
Despite some incredible buildings, the city felt half unfinished and half dead, the result of the 2008 financial crisis. Construction had started again though and sweaty workers with pained looks on their faces walk around. These are the faces behind the buildings, the ones who worked for less than $5 per day and have the government of Dubai swimming in human rights violations. The oil money around here hasn’t quite trickled down to them and their families yet.
The people of Dubai don’t smile much. They don’t seem very happy and don’t usually want to chat, the exception being the ones at the bottom, hotel maids, busboys, and shop workers are quick with a hello and smile.
The Dubai dream is respect. They don’t care if they are liked, but they need to be respected. This dream is identified by their business-like demeanor but also by their caste system. The local Emirati men are identified with a black string around their headrobe. This is code for “I have a bunch of money and should be treated like a king.” You don’t see an Emirati standing on the metro train, people know who they are and defer to them. Saudi men wear a similar outfit but with a checked white and red headdress. This is code for “I have a bunch of money too but am not a local and am therefore second only to the Emiratis.”
Their desire for respect is seen in their buildings too. They spend a ridiculous amount of money for projects that have little practical use other than a claim to fame. The majority of floors of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, are empty. The apartment section of the Burj Khalifa is 10% occupied. Underneath the Burj is the largest fountain in the world. It shoots up water to a choreographed music production.
I only spent 20 hours in Dubai but I couldn’t have been more happy to head on to Uganda. The city was all glitz and business, no charm and personality.
I think Dubai is respected. They fulfilled their dream. But they still don’t seem very happy. And if they are happy, they should smile more.