If there is one thing I know (and it probably is the one thing I know), it is cities. I made my living knowing about cities for over four decades as a consultant, professor, writer and international tour guide. I think that cities are he most complex and interesting human invention. I love to read about them, write about them, visit them, and live in them. I do cities.
So when Dubai went into meltdown this past week I was not surprised. “Dumbai” is my name for the place, which is the sort of city that is made for the Rolex watch and Prada bag set, people who value things by label and the price tag, people who think that life is about accumulation and whose greatest ambition is to have (or believe) that other people are envious of their wealth. People like the Salahis.
All cities must have some economic raison d’etre. Sometimes called the “economic base,” it means that cities, to be founded and prosper, must have a way of “making a living.” Pittsburgh made steel, Detroit turned it into cars (notice the past tense); Hollywood makes movies, Cupertino computers, and Las Vegas is a glittery whorehouse and caters to people who like to try to beat the odds or see acts by washed-up entertainers and gay guys eaten by white tigers.* The way cities make their living can change over time: San Diego went from making airplanes, to making missiles, and now has nearly 200 firms doing genetic research and recombinant DNA, which is one of the few economic activities with much promise left in America. (It was either that or an economy based on selling Carrie Prejean sex tapes.)
So an urban economic base might be as hard as steel or soft as a human cell, but it has to be something that the city specializes in and creates a surplus, so it can sell its product or service to the outside world and bring in some cash. Still with me? Then, that cash gets circulated through the local economy by something called “the multiplier” and everybody gets in on the economic action and the city grows and prospers. The principles are the same for Catal Huyuk, a city that is located on the Anatolian plain of Turkey and made cutting implements from the obsidian it mined from a nearby volcano back in 6800 B.C. and sold it where they could, to today’s modern metropolises—“no tickee, no laundry.”
Dumbai has performed some salutary service to humanity. Cities are constructions and there are people who have to do the dirty and dangerous work of putting brick upon brick and performing the high-wire act of piecing together erections for corporations and political egos. So there have been a lot of Filippino, Indonesian, Chinese, Indian and other third world workers who were able to send checks home from constructing some of the most outlandish architecture and projects to lure the greedy and gullible.
Dubai is one of the United Arab Emirates that was founded in 1971 when the British left the area. It’s a “constitutional monarchy” which either means that its royal ruler has regular bowel movements or, since he (Mohammad bin Rashid Maktoum) is also the Prime Minister of the UAE and a member of the Supreme Council and that Hamdan bin Rashid Maktoum runs just about everything in the city, that we are talking private sandbox for royal rich guys; once they have finished their work the “little people” are back to their huts and hovels.
Dubai’s original wealth came from—you guessed it—that greasy black stuff under the sand. But now most of it is gone and the idea is to construct some sort of a playground to suck money out of the gullible rich around the globe as well as provide a place to hide their riches from snooping eyes. Its main revenues these days are from tourism, property development, and financial services. Basically, this is (although he would have me whacked for saying so) a Bugsy Segal idea. Dubai wants to make itself into a “global city” by feeding off others and not really producing anything itself. For example, it likes to hire (and I am sure they like to be hired) foreign architects with label reputations to design funky buildings that look like flags blowing in the desert winds (the “Burj al Arab), or others, the Dubai Towers, that look like a nest of suppositories melting in the desert heat, another, the Dynamic Tower, where the apartments rotate around a central core—sand, sea, sand, sea, sand, sea, etc. For acrophobes there are the The Palm Islands (Jumeriah) that are made up from three man-made islands built from over 1 billion cubic meters of sand and stone dredged from the creek and the surrounding seabed. The complex is planned to resemble a giant palm tree when seen from above—from which you can’t see it if you live there, and houses that are super luxury spas, high-end holiday accommodation, dive sites, theatres and a massive variety of popular tourist attractions (yeah, sure, La Museé des Sand Castles pour Suckers). Well, that’s the plan, anyway. They really should include a heliport so you can get some altitude which is the only vantage from which the damn thing resembles a palm. Even a caveman can discern that this nonsense is a transportation and potential environmental nightmare. In a hilarious application of fractal theory, the promo material claims that the Palm Islands will increase Dubai’s shoreline by a total of 520 km.
But mostly it is height that seems to fascinate the development crazed Dubai monarchy/government. They are planning the highest building in the world—as though architecture was some great international pissing contest for egoists with too much money and an inverse amount of taste. The Burj Dubai, by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, is 2,664 feet, or 160 stories. Name brand international architects are cleaning up on the label-conscious local suckers who must have water themes parks, and indoor ski slopes and any other dumb, flashy symbol of wealth and excess.
Perhaps Dubai will earn a place in the history of cities alongside Las Vegas because what it appears to be selling is glitzy recreation, a place to hide that bonus money from the tax man, an expensive chance to boast that you live in a flat that goes around in circles, and that Vegas “assurance” that “what happens here stays here.”
But lately, there are signs that these castles built on sand and sea have run afoul of the international economic meltdown. Often, in economic downturns it is the toys and baubles that must be sacrificed by the rich. Like many such schemes that rely on attracting foreign money (90 percent of the people in Dubai are foreigners) to buy into the massive construction projects, Dubai is something of a huge silicate Ponzi. Perhaps an apt reference for Dubai are the silver towns that popped up in the American southwest during the silver boom, all bars and brothels, except that Dubai was feeding off the global economic bubble, not silver. Now it is reported (and there are state restrictions and fines on reporting out bad economic news) that there are tens of thousands of guest construction workers departing, worker permits cancelled and abandoned cars and empty streets. Many poorer nations will lose out as well because the vaunted faucet of capitalistic “trickle-down” has been turned tight. The Palm Islands are reportedly sinking and expensive flats reported have roaches coming out of the faucets.
Dubai suffering state companies could be bailed out by its Emirate brothers, but that hasn’t happened yet; the laws of survival in the desert might be a little more “Darwinian” than they are between Wall Street and Washington (but don’t tell Lehman Brothers that). Our cities are ultimately an expression of those who build them. Sic transit Gloria mundi.
©2009, James A. Clapp, (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 12.7.2009)
*You can see that I have given Lost Wages a bit of thought. Cf. DCJ Archives No. 11. 2: Welcome to Bugsyland 8.4.2004