Living the future in Dubai?
An article about Dubai in the Washington Post by the perceptive Anthony Shadid begins with this quote by a Dubaian government executive:
The only limitations are your own limitations. No one tells you that it cannot be done, that it should not be done. The only pushback has always been let’s do it bigger, let’s do it better, and let’s do it smarter.
Those are ideas strikingly at odds with the passivity and fatalism common to the Middle East, and hint at why the United Arab Emirates is seen as a potential transformative engine for the region.
However, Shadid notes the dark undersides of the place as well, and its resultant dual character:
One is a dystopic, even soulless vision of the future, where notions of civil society, individual rights and identity are subsumed in the logic of capital. The other is a rare triumph of the private sector in an Arab city that provides a model for prosperity and a force for integration, reversing decades of disappointment and defeat.
Specialized free-trade zones sound like libertarian fantasylands, with “no taxes, no customs, no restrictions on transferring funds, little red tape — in short, a capitalist free-for-all.”
Dubai is having an effect on the Middle East already:
Already, signs of Dubai’s impetus are visible around the Gulf. Qatar, in self-conscious competition with Dubai, has launched a spectacular building campaign. Saudi Arabia is planning a free-trade zone on the Red Sea. Bahrain and Kuwait are trying to recapture prestige they lost to Dubai in the 1990s. In recent months, private and quasi-government companies in Dubai have announced investments in Arab countries stretching from Morocco on the Atlantic coast to Jordan in the Middle East.
It is in some ways a fragile model: 85% of the workforce is foreign, and so instability could hollow the place out easily. And Shadid notes that some activists do not care for the rapid pace of change, and argue that it would be slower if the citizenry had more say in the matter.
That lack of freedom may be a brake on success. Limitations on what people can say and know are at odds with the goal of becoming a global economic hub, as such hubs must be open to free flows of knowledge.
Ironically, Dubai’s social freedom’s might also limit its role as a regional model. The spectable of prostitution and alcohol-fueled nightlife could turn pious Arabs against Dubai’s free-wheeling ways.
Still, it is for now one of the most interesting experiments going on in the Middle East.