International Obsession with Dubai Ignores Larger Trends in the GCC

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As global awareness of Dubai’s notorious “dark side” come to the fore through in-depth reports focused on the post-crisis, most particularly Johann Hari of the Independent’s recent article, attention on other countries in the Gulf has been detracted.  When things in Dubai were going well for foreign investors and Western expats, Dubai seemed like the next world city—a veritable desert pearl, that from grains of sand built up a glossy, escapist urbanity. 

With the economic downturn however, the mucky underworkings of this dream became dramatically exposed, turning the city into the ultimate macabre mirage, somewhat reminiscent of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island.  While the problems highlighted in Dubai’s model of urban development may not be so embellished and internationalized in the other GCC countries, they cannot afford to go under the radar vis-à-vis their more famous cousin. 

The main points of contention in the Dubai Model as delineated by the foreign press community focus on environmental sustainability, city design of scale and migrant labor rights.  Coupled with the recent exposure of torture tapes implicating Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the United Arab Emirates is facing its first real PR crisis, or as its government media spokespersons have labeled it, the “growing pains” of an emerging international economy. 

This is indeed adequate, as when countries want to enter the ballpark as major global players, they have to grow up, step up to the plate and commit to the bundle of new responsibilities that come with this new territory, burdens that cannot be selectively chosen.  However, this is indeed the same conundrum of many GCC countries rapidly globalizing but failing on many human rights and democracy indicators.  As their economies grow and their presence emerges in the spotlight—they seem to have become too big for their own space—tripping over their limbs in readjustment to their new circumstances.  To use another Disney metaphor, an incredibly growing Alice enclosed in a house suddenly too small.  Their domestic patterns of conducting business no longer fit with their international image.

Critics of the emerging Dubai-bashing genre argue that the Western media has chosen to examine Dubai’s underbelly only once it suited them for a good story.  When the business environment in Dubai for expats was doing well, they described the city through rose-colored glasses.  Furthermore, according to the backlashers of the Dubai backlash, no city is without its sordid details and “dark side”—including many European and American urban areas.

Are these defenders of Dubai correct in their pointed criticism of the international media’s sensationalist journalism exploitation of Dubai’s cheap oil and labor exploitations? No, I believe they are not.  In the end, this is not the end of the growing pangs, only the beginning of adjustments.  As Dubai further develops, UAE leaders will find that it will become increasingly difficult for Dubai to have its cake and eat it too—ignoring the rules of the international game that do not suit its interest while embracing the benefits of globalization that do.

While sometimes these countries can hide behind the curtain of religious and cultural differences (particularly with the gender question, freedom of other religions to practice freely, and greater democracy), there is no such deus ex machina escape chute for issues of environmental sustainability and labor rights for example.

However, the exorbitant and myopic media coverage on Dubai has translated to the eclipsing of the other GCC countries by this United Arab Emirates’ destination.  Is this city an accurate representation of the other Gulf countries?   Do Dubai’s woes serve as a symbol of the larger region’s adjustment problems into the global community?  I have asked this question to myself many times and am curious to know readers’ opinions. 


1 Response on "International Obsession with Dubai Ignores Larger Trends in the GCC"

  1. Spot on article! The myopic coverage of Dubai that you've described is something that has frustrated me as well. When times were good there was no objective or analytical reporting on politics or economy and I think I saw some of the worst financial journalism that I've ever seen during the 'boom years' in Dubai... and now there seems to be a bit of a 'bandwagon' sydrome going on now with this Hari article. Why do journos refuse to apply their usual reporting standards when they're in Dubai... anyhow, rant over.

    I think that to an extent Dubai is a prism through which we can view wider issues in the Gulf - oil dependence, rapid economic growth, adjusting to int. human rights norms... however, i agree with you that this overwhelming focus on Dubai is unhelpful because that way we miss a lot of subtleties. One country that is really interesting to look at in terms of social/economic/political trends in the Gulf is actually Bahrain, but it rarely gets discussed in the int. media. With their oil reserves running out their government is really looking hard at ways in which they can diversify their economy and pursue more sustainable growth... They also just passed a law abolishing the kafala system which could be good news for migrant workers.. Fascinating example of a nation trying to cope with the triumphs, struggles and dilemmas of rapid modernisation