As its mad dash to become the premier tourist and business magnet comes to a screeching halt, Dubai is emerging as a concentrated, exaggerated microcosm of the financial and cultural tensions among nations across the globe right now. As the mood has swung heavily from “do buy” to “don’t buy,” the glitzy Gulf emirate is facing a steep downturn in fortunes and an upturn in woes. But its troubles aren’t all about money. A couple of pretty severe missteps have tarnished its otherwise eager attempts to bridge the gap between the traditional Islamic culture of the Gulf and the freewheeling, secular cultures of the global mainstream—raising international ire.
There’s more than a little global schadenfreude in the air regarding how the economic crisis is hitting Dubai. An acquaintance of mine described it as “the poster child for the demise of opulence,” via Twitter. “Easy come, easy go,” Tweeted another, dismissing Dubai as a handy two-syllable symbol for pre-2008 “extravagance and indulgence.”
After all, it was less than two years ago that wealthy tourists luxuriated in the seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel as the New York Times reported on migrant laborers toiling nearby in “a Dickensian world of cramped labor camps, low pay and increasing desperation.” These men were working without unions or fair practices as they built the ground beneath a city scrambling to greater and greater heights of wealth and opulence.
While neighbors Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia got rich peddling petroleum, Dubai reaped the rewards of credit-fueled spenders lapping up extravagant purchases and lavish entertainment. But the influx of expatriates drawn in by Dubai’s jaw-dropping expansion spree has now turned into an outflow. While early 2009 saw more than four times as many foreigners as locals in Dubai, the population is projected to fall by 8 percent this year, owing to lost jobs and stalled projects. Where real estate prices raced upward during Dubai’s boom years—when ostentatious shows of wealth were accepted and even celebrated—property values are predicted to dive as much as 60 percent in 2009. On an exclusive manmade palm-shaped island, the Palm Jumeirah luxury apartments can already be had for half what they were once priced.
If all of that weren’t painful enough, an altogether different kind of reputation bungling emerged recently, from a seemingly promising and decidedly non-bling place—Dubai’s first annual International Festival of Literature. Priding itself as the "first true literary festival in the Middle East," the event hoped to encompass a range of world-renowned writers but ran into cross-cultural problems when it banned a forthcoming novel by British journalist and author Geraldine Bedell for its references to homosexuality. Esteemed Canadian author Margaret Atwood was compelled to pull out of the festival and announced on her Web site that, “as an International Vice President of PEN—an organization concerned with the censorship of writers—I cannot be part of the Festival this year.”
Festival organizer Isobel Abulhoul seemed to plead for acknowledgement of the steps forward the event is taking, saying they are “helping to bridge the gap between East and West. … I would hope that anyone informed and interested in the differing cultures around the world would both understand and respect the path we tread in setting up the first festival of this nature in the Middle East.”
Another disastrous attempt at censorship hit the international sports news tickers last week when the U.A.E. denied a visa for Israeli tennis player Shahar Pe’er, preventing her from competing in the Women’s Dubai Tennis Championships and resulting in a record fine to the organizers, who had said they were concerned that citizens still angry about the Israel-Gaza situation would have been antagonized by an Israeli in the competition. The Wall Street Journal revoked its sponsorship upon the decision and Andy Roddick announced he was dropping out of the men’s tournament there.
But Abdel Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of Al-Quds Al-Arabi, a U.K.-based Arabic-language newspaper, also appeals for patience: “We should encourage (Dubai] to be ambitious because they are opening up, and they are really trying to modernize their society. … It takes time."
As the world has become embarrassed by its own behavior, Dubai has clearly become a scapegoat of sorts. Not that it’s to blame, but it’s a convenient place to project disdain.
But the emirate is much more than testament to an era of inflated egos and cheap credit. And it risks becoming a sad, failed monument to a new vision of the Middle East—moderate and modern, ambitious and open-minded, bridging East and West, Islam and the rest of the world. It probably aimed too high and too fast; it has certainly tried to take short cuts on the long road to success and status mapped out by big little players such as Singapore.
Economically Dubai is in much the same predicament as the rest of the world, except that it has private wealth and some oil-rich family members. As most countries do, it will have to overcome the consequences of mistakes made. However, it would be a shame if Dubai’s aspirations come to nothing. The world needs more willingness to open up and reach out among cultures.
Late last week, in an apparent turnaround, the U.A.E. announced it would grant a visa to Israeli tennis player Andy Ram for this week’s men’s tournament in Dubai. It’s fodder for debate whether the nation saw the error of its ways, or simply couldn’t afford another slap on the wrist that would jeopardize its economy further.
In this era of great need for acknowledging mistakes and moving forward with solutions, Dubai has in its grasp the potential to emerge as a leader and symbol for change.
Marian Salzman is the Chief Marketing Officer at Porter Novelli, a global PR company. She is one of the industry’s best-known trend spotters and branding experts. You can find her popular blog at www.pnintelligentdialogue.com