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What does Dubai mean to the people that live there? Part 1

"Let them eat cake" - Image: Wallpapers.free-review.net

“Let them eat cake”: Dubai does not hide its identity as a society of the spectacle – Image: Wallpapers.free-review.net

When we begin to think about cities, we are thinking of places that have made an impression on us. But, as impressions of places superimpose themselves one on top of another, ‘cities’ become more than where they are. The armchair urbanist begins an amateur sifting and critical grouping, and drifts further into the abstract until cities are more about ways of making space than places – the why over the where.

In this way, Amsterdam drifts from its seat at the mouth of the Amstel into the category of port-cities-built-by-merchants, and floats into proximity with Hong Kong. We think about these two, and perhaps the Hansa cities and the Japanese treaty ports and early New York and many others, and then it becomes plain that cities are not places but institutions. By ‘institution’ I mean both a certain kind of business and political climate, a certain degree of openness to and connection with the outside world, and, perhaps most importantly, a set of customs, laws and values defended by actual institutions such as guilds, port authorities, copyright law.

When we look at cities like this, we see that the Hansa cities of Hamburg or Lübeck and Hong Kong as much in common with each other as each has with Berlin or Beijing. The Hansa cities, much like Hong Kong, began as marginal villages scraping a living from the sea. What made them different from other villages was a network effect driven by business- and trade-friendly institutions and openness to outsiders. These charter cities were, as many urban theorists have noted, the first free-trade zones.

Dubai’s urban form, ruinous as it is, doesn’t matter because cities are institutions. The great immigrant port cities like New York may have exploited and abused first-generation immigrants, but their children were citizens, and their grandchildren were often exclusively American in culture and language.

All Hong Kong and the great Hansa cities are, are ports. They have no natural resource to export, but they offer a historically rare and always valuable commodity – institutions. By institutions, let us understand the entire legal, political and commercial climate of a country, including the laws and habits and actual organs of state that curate and police these.

Dubai wants you to shop in its malls. Dubai wants you to linger at the large and comfortable airport, where everything but the duty-free dates tends to be flown or shipped in. Dubai is keen on selling you any one of thousands of high-rise apartments clustered around the Marina or radiating out into the sea on palm frond suburbs best viewed from space.

But it doesn’t want you to overstay your welcome. And your ‘welcome’ is extended to you as a property owner or temporary worker. It doesn’t want you to imagine yourself a citizen – free to, even obligated to help improve your own country, to alter it in ways that make it better and fairer and more amenable to you – any more than it wants the Filipinas, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Russians to assert themselves. These people – and you – are guest workers, with no stake whatsoever in Dubai.

Forget about New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Casablanca, Cairo, Jerusalem and how each of them harbor, in a distinct quarter, the historic home of a distinct group – ethnic, religious, cultural or linguistic – and how, in those quarters, that group has over time saved money and bought land for its own schools, parks, museums and places of worship: the sites of cultural transmission. Dubai is short-term rental accommodation for the expatriate four fifths of its population.

In my brief visit to the city, I tried to talk to as many non-Emiratis as possible. I spoke to few Emiratis about Dubai’s urbanism and its philosophy of citizenship. What I heard from a young Indian woman who worked at a printing shop was that her parents had come to Dubai in the 1970s as middle-class workers filling a severe labour shortage – this was before the mass arrival of Westerners.

She was born in Dubai and attended an Indian school – which at least a little belies my supposition that immigrants without a right to stay do not tend to invest in community institutions – but neither she nor her parents are citizens of the United Arab Emirates.

Moreover, they have no real expectation of becoming citizens, except if the woman in question were to marry an Emirati and fulfill several other conditions. She pays taxes, she works, and she will perhaps marry and perhaps one day die in Dubai, probably all without gaining the right to stay beyond the day she ever loses her job or becomes temporarily unable to support herself. Bankruptcy, for one, would be grounds for deportation, Dubai-born or not.

What does Dubai mean, then, to the bulk of the people that live there? Only a small minority – around one in five – are citizens. The rest renew their invitation to stay monthly or annually, and they are unlikely to furnish Dubai’s next generation of talented individuals because they have been reminded so often that Dubai is made by, but not for, them.

Part 2 to follow tomorrow.

Middle East Urbanism week shares insights and perspectives during Brett Petzer’s tour of the Middle East – specifically the Levant and the Arabian Gulf. From Petro Urbanism to the Arab Spring and more.

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Brett Petzer

Contributor for Future Cape Town

I’m a tomorrow-city planner, urban journalist and French-English translator, who is damn keen to hear from you at brettpetzer.com

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