First Person

Freedom and the Great Man of Dubai

The first time I came to Dubai—on one of my brief stopovers between the Anglophone mother-country and its remotest offshoot—I went to the beach. After a jetlag-induced slumber on the sunbed I woke to see: a couple getting off a pair of camels after a trek; a woman falling off an inflatable obstacle course into the water; a man teetering uncertainly on the twin water-jets fired vehemently downwards by his jet-pack; and, off in the middle-distance, at least three jet-skis. There’s a lot going on here.

That, of course, won’t be news to anyone who’s been here, even on a stopover; to anyone who’s watched an episode of the BBC’s Inside Dubai; or to anyone who’s been exposed to the city-state’s propaganda. Much of which, of course, is accurate. The city really is home to a dizzying array of boutiques and beaches. It really is full of fresh real estate, just waiting to be scooped up—if you’ve got the money, obviously. It really is the site of a vertigo-inducing number of skyscrapers, including the tallest building in the world, the 828-metre Burj Khalifa.

In Dubai, even the entrance to the sky is in a shopping mall. I pay my tickets—swallowing heavily as I convert the price in dirhams into dollars—and cram into another air-conditioned box with a gaggle of tourists. At the top I’m offered tea. I lift it carefully from its saucer, looking down at the tops of some of the world’s next-tallest buildings, all hundreds of metres below. They stick out like the ridge along a lizard’s spine, a lizard stuck between the glaring desert and the desiccated sea.

The desert and the sea: for most sensible human cultures, for most of history, both have symbolised—indeed, even constituted—a limit, a border, a constraint on their wildest imaginings and their most daring of endeavours. For Dubai, instead, they seem like an opportunity. The desert is a sterile surface waiting to be built on, a blank space to plonk building projects down on in a real-life game of Sim City. The sea is another empty plot calling out for development. It has water in it, but that can be got round: the bottom of the sea can be dredged; you can build enormous breakwaters; you can build whole suburbs on artificial peninsulas shaped—why not?—like palms. 

At least, you can build a peninsula shaped like a palm—an idea attributed to Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum, the city’s autocratic ruler. Hence the Palm Jumeirah, which can now be seen in its full majesty on Google Earth, spreading out its fronds like a cabaret performer. The Palm Deira, on the other hand, which was supposed to be seven times as large as the Palm Jumeirah, reaches no further than a few lumpy islands close to the shore. As for the Palm Jebel Ali, though it has spread out its spidery legs in the sun, development has long been held up. It looks unlikely that it will ever be topped, as was originally planned, by islands shaped to spell out (in a dazzling display of classical calligraphy):

Take wisdom only from the wise,
Not everyone who rides a horse is a jockey.

It takes a man of great vision to write on water,
Great men rise to great challenges.

Who is the author of these marvellous verses? I don’t hear you ask. Who could have come up with a statement so banal, so faux-profound, as “Not everyone who rides a horse is a jockey”? Were these the winning lines in a school poetry competition, or an excerpt from a worthy yet underwhelming canonical text? None of the above. The clue is in the line about the “great man”. For the would-be writer on the waters, the great visionary, is none other than Sheikh Mohammed.

Sheikh Mohammed, as any visitor to Dubai knows, is something of an author. Every news­agent and bookshop seems to have a section devoted to his books, which have titles like Flashes of Thought: Lessons in Life and Leadership from the Man Behind Dubai, My Vision: Challenges in the Race for Excellence and 40 Poems from the Desert. Success he has certainly enjoyed: Al Maktoum owns the third-largest yacht in the world (the Dubai, of course), is one of the largest landowners in the UK (not to mention the UAE) and is a major figure in the world of thoroughbred horse racing, where his steeds have for the most part successfully negotiated drug testing.

Despite all those flashes of thought about leadership and success, Al Maktoum’s reputation has taken something of a knock in recent times (though not so much in Dubai, where criticism of the government is forbidden). In 2021, the UK High Court found that Sheikh Mohammed had used spyware to hack into the phone of Princess Haya of Jordan, his second official wife. Princess Haya had sought asylum in Dubai in 2019, alleging that she had been held against her will. If so, she may not have been the only one: Princess Latifa, one of the Sheikh’s daughters, has tried to escape Dubai several times, only to be forced back to the family palaces under duress (or so she has claimed in a number of videos). Sheikh Mohammed has seemed reluctant to address the issue publicly, though, inevitably, he has continued to write poetry. One poem, with the charming title “You Lived and You Died”, contains the lines “You betrayed the most precious trust, and your game has been revealed. / Your time of lying is over and it doesn’t matter what we were nor what you are.”

If Sheikh Mohammed isn’t quite as squeaky clean as it may appear on first sight, something similar can be said for the city that he rules. Spend any time as a tourist in Dubai, and you’re likely to come across three broad classes of people. The first is the most noticeable to a Western visitor. These are the citizens of the UAE, who make up a mere 12 per cent of the population, the icing on the cake. They are easily recognisable by their traditional dress: a white ankle-length kandura for the men, topped with a white headdress (ghutrah) fastened to the head with a black cord (agal); and, for the women, a full-length black burqa. You can spot the men, sometimes with several women in tow, shopping in any Dubai mall. They glide around like desert swans.

The second class is the one you’ll be part of yourself: foreign expats (that is, wealthy immigrants). Some are short-stayers, here for a week, a month, a year or two; these ones tend to have just boiled themselves to a lobster red in the peninsular sun. Others, not quite as green (or red) have decided they like the Dubai lifestyle; these are the long-stayers. They’ve found it easy to get used to the city’s swimming pools, its seemingly limitless business opportunities, and the agreeable servile class that seems to wait on your every move.

And this is the third class, at once omnipresent and readily overlooked: the immigrants (that is, indigent expats) that make up more than 80 per cent of the country’s population. Some 60 per cent of these people come from the Indian sub-continent. But who needs statistics, when much of this is obvious to any traveller who cares to look? You can talk to your waiter, the man who checks you in at the hotel, your taxi driver. They are from all over India, from Kashmir to Kerala; from Pakistan; from Bangladesh (and occasionally, from Ghana or the Philippines). They are keen to tell you about their cousin in Toronto, or in Auckland. And they live the kind of lives that will suddenly shunt you from the vague feeling of envy inculcated by some of Dubai’s ritzier districts to a confused sense of gratitude and humility. In Dubai, the wealth differences are as precipitous as some of the city’s skyscrapers; and looking up—and down—is no less likely to produce a spot of nausea.

There are of course differences aplenty even within this third class of migrant workers. But, especially from the construction workers who build Dubai’s dazzling, dizzying cityscape, there are stories of twelve-hour shifts, living quarters of eight or more men (these workers are mostly men) to a room, and bosses who routinely confiscate workers’ passports to restrict their movements. (Here they may be taking some inspiration from Sheikh Mohammed’s handling of his domestic affairs.)

The man who drives me from the airport this time is another Mohammed, though his life could hardly be more different from the Sheikh’s. He tells me he works all day every day of the week, sometimes deep into the night, to send money home to his family in Karachi. “When was the last time you saw them?” I ask. “Five years ago,” he says. “Oh, because of Covid?” I ask. “No,” he says. He seems slightly surprised at the question, but it’s hard to detect any unhappiness about his situation. He says it in the matter-of-fact way you might tell someone that you usually get home from work around six.

And, of course, there are those who would argue that these migrant workers came to Dubai of their own accord. Strange as it may seem to us lobster-hued expats, Dubai might look just as much a land of opportunity to a Bangladeshi labourer as it does to a property developer from the UK. Poverty is the default condition of mankind; wealth has to be created, and if it’s being created in Dubai, including for some of the world’s poorest, isn’t that something to celebrate rather than complain about?

Perhaps. It surely wouldn’t slow this life-enhancing growth too much to impose some higher minimum standards for working conditions; and it surely wouldn’t lead to too much of an anti-immigration backlash if these migrants were given some hope of one day achieving full citizenship (something which at the moment seems to most of them virtually impossible). But, as I lie on the beach looking out at the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab (once the most interesting building in Dubai) it isn’t the deal that the Pakistani migrants have gone for that’s most on my mind.

It’s the deal that we’ve gone for. We, the boiled-red expats, the migrant frolickers. You may not find it surprising that the Dutch girls I started chatting to on the beach didn’t seem interested in talking politics, but there’s a blissful, and perhaps wilful, ignorance that underlies (and underwrites) the expat existence here. It’s summed up by the affluent British lady on Inside Dubai, who, when asked what she thought about the city-state’s government, stated, simply and honestly, that she’d rather not talk about that because she liked living here and wanted to go on doing so.

It wasn’t that long ago (though it seems like aeons) that Western policy elites seemed fairly sure about what to do about rising autocracies like China. Call them “strategic partners” rather than “strategic threats” (as George W. Bush had preferred); invite them to dinner with the Queen (as David Cameron invited Xi Jinping); send out smiley, flesh-pressing trade delegations (see Western governments, passim). As the autocratic hold-outs got richer, they’d also get more open, more liberal, more democratic.

Well, it didn’t happen. The Chinese upper middle classes, at least, seemed quite happy to defer freedom indefinitely as long as their economic conditions improved. Sure, a few Western journalists would occasionally criticise the Chinese for sacrificing their liberty on the altar of material prosperity, but who cared about (or even noticed) them?

Besides, it wasn’t only in China that people turned out not to be as bothered about democracy as we might have expected. That was the case in the West too. A few Western intellectuals started to write books with titles like The China Model, extolling the merits of China’s (supposed) meritocracy as an alternative model for the West. After 2016, when millions of voters in the UK and US voted the “wrong” way, a good number of Western thinkers suddenly became more sympathetic to the idea that democracy might have something wrong with it. And over the past couple of years, Western governments have clambered to copy communist China’s blueprint for how to deal with a pandemic, imposing unprecedented restrictions on their populations in the process. In short, China didn’t become more like the West; it’s the West, instead, that has become more like China.

On Western university campuses, it’s long come to seem uncouth to talk about freedom and democracy without at least some tinge of sophisticated irony. And to suggest that Brits and Australians should think twice about all those property deals in Dubai, say, just feels old-fashioned and irrelevant. As Russian tanks and artillery continue to pummel Ukraine’s cities, though, there may now finally be an opportunity in the West to remind ourselves of why freedom matters—and why keeping on good terms with tyrants because we like their gas (or oil) may never have been the best idea. For the time being, as lockdowns ease and the kinds of freedoms the West has long taken for granted are restored, there are a lot of Westerners on Dubai’s beaches who seem wonderfully relaxed.

James Ackhurst lives in Wellington, New Zealand, where he teaches Ancient Greek. Some of his poetry has appeared recently in Quadrant, and his story “Faith” was in the March issue.


2 thoughts on “Freedom and the Great Man of Dubai

  • Paul W says:

    Western politicians went rogue beginning in the 1970s. They no longer even make the pretense of caring what the voters think.
    I blame the two-party system, which is a duopoly and not democratic. Direct representation also leaves the losers without any representation – see WA only having 2 seats in parliament despite getting 300K votes compared to Labor’s 800K.
    Our democracy is in decline because our parties are in decline; they are in decline because the electoral system is fundamentally broken.

  • brandee says:

    At least the Sheikh is not going to embrace destructive multiculturalism for his state. Tourists and workers are welcome temporarily and his culture remains guarded, like its females are guarded, to adhere closely to that of the original warlord’s pattern.

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