I saw this photo first in The Times and loved it - the contrast is palpable.

Expanding on my last post which talked peripherally about the Emirates, but slightly more focused, I wanted to clarify a few thoughts right here.

There are some misconceptions about the Gulf flying around in the Western world, driven largely by some clever branding and tactful diplomacy. But to be honest, the Gulf’s “renaissance” is precisely as sustainable as fossil fuel. Nowhere represents the explosive (read: oil-driven) economic growth of the Gulf better than the United Arab Emirates, with its flagship (though not capital!) city Dubai as the prime example. I’ve never been there, but I have heard wonder stories, eye-witness accounts, and have of course read things.

When you stop and think about the Gulf, it sounds more and more like a scenario for a bad reality television show: take these strict, nomadic Bedouin who have never known luxury, and shower them with mineral wealth worth a fortune on the international market – who will come out on top? Saudi Arabia certainly hasn’t (though that probably has more to do with the US and Britain getting in there early), but I’d say that Qatar and the UAE have definitely managed to get the best of their money – or have they?

Dubai has certainly eclipsed any other Arab metropolis (and many other world cities) as a “place to be,” a boomtown, a new Las Vegas. It’s not surprising that for those who even know that Beirut is more than a college drinking game, comparisons have ensued. Now, as a Lebanese-American, listening to ignorant Americans chattering about how Dubai was taking over Beirut’s role as the “Paris of the Middle East” can get a bit frustrating. There are a lot of reasons that this is untrue, and here are just a few:

  • Lebanon is quite a liberal society for the Arab World
  • Business laws here do not involve jailing or the death penalty
  • Despite being a liberal society, there are still things like morals that keep prostitution and labor abuse at somewhat more tolerable levels.
  • People here actually have souls.
  • They also have to work for a living, and therefore appreciate the value of things.
  • There is no oil flowing here to get you out of a jam. So whatever exists in Lebanon, for better or for worse, is here because of Lebanese labor or brainpower – not mineral deposits (though that might change in the future).

Of course, Lebanon is far from perfect. But this should give you an idea of what I mean. More on this can follow, given enough interest.

Anyway, the debate over the value of “The Dubai Experiment,” as I think of it, has been ongoing. I had the pleasure of reading a few articles on the subject posted by Hafsa (who may or may not be OK with me linking to her): one article attacking the steel and chrystal city, the other trying (and failing) to defend it. Both are written in a Pakistani regional newspaper, but nonetheless are valuable reads. I also spoke with a wonderful English gentleman while in Iraq, who’s family has been living there for some time, who claimed that he really needed to get his family out of there.

The reality is that Dubai is a city about contrasts: either the extraordinary wealth and height of the city’s upper classes, or the squalor of South Asian laborers. There is little in-between. So when Americans fall in love with Dubai, they should know that its a relationship that will break their heart. Unless, of course, they like that sort of thing…