Rebuilding Babel

Dubai, December 2007

I wonder if Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, ever built model cities out of Lego when he was a child.

Lego is a great medium for acting out fantasies. Given a wide enough bedroom floor and a large enough supply of bricks - and I bet Sheikh Mohammed's family could have afforded millions - you can design pretend cities with whatever utopian architecture you can dream of. Bestriding your city like a god, you can concentrate on the grandest building projects without worrying about tedious details like infrastructure or the environment. It doesn't matter if your Lego city has no agriculture and no water supply, other than inedible plastic flowers and undrinkable blue tiles, because the little people are made of plastic and will never go hungry and thirsty. It doesn't matter if your Lego city lacks adequate housing for its population, or adequate roads and railways to move them around (other than the stretch of track you built because it looked cool), because the little people will stand wherever you put them and will never complain. They are certainly not in a position to vote you out of your bedroom if you prove to be a lousy designer.

But why would the young Sheikh Mohammed have bothered with Lego, when he knew that one day he would have a real city to play with?

It would have taken an army of hyperactive children to build a Legoland on the scale of twenty-first century Dubai. (Fortunately, since Dubai is made of concrete rather than Lego, its designers have been able to do the job by exploiting imported Asian labourers rather than children.) A city of over a million people, which has increased its population by fifty times in as many years, the little emirate has come a long way from its beginnings two centuries ago as tiny village beside a small inlet of the Persian Gulf.

Back then, the place was so insignificant that when the Al Maktoum family turned up in 1833 and declared themselves its rulers nobody bothered to try and stop them. The only resources Dubai had, apart from pearl-producing oysters and few date palms, were a modest amount of yet-to-be-discovered oil and a well-located harbour. Oil money lubricated the city's growth, but it was the latter resource that really powered Dubai's transformation into a major city. Ever since the late nineteenth century, Dubai's rulers have encouraged foreign merchants to do business in the emirate, luring traders away from neighbouring ports with offers of lower taxes and greater commercial freedom. Today the city boasts vast industrial Free Trade Zones, an international airport that serves a regional hub and the base for one of the world's best airlines (which was why I ended up on a stopover there), a thriving financial sector, and a growing status as a tourist destination. Not to mention a construction industry that has seen cranes rise like lampposts and nearly every street corner dug up by roadworks, while dusty cement factories spread for miles across the outskirts of the city.

In the South Pacific, I know of villagers who have struggled for years to find the money for a few bags of cement in order to build themselves a small chapel. In Dubai, concrete is poured like water. The emirate's rulers have no intention of going back to their tents in the desert after the oil runs out.

Ski Dubai
Snow in the desert at Ski Dubai

For wealthy sheikhs, and their foreign business partners, Dubai is a spectacular playground. It includes the world's grandest hotel, luxury waterfront developments, glitzy conference centres, glamorous shopping malls, a vast acreage of polished marble, and (in an impressive feat of air-conditioning) the Arabian desert's only ski centre. Its buildings stand taller and shinier than in almost any other city on earth.

But there is something distinctly uncomfortable about being one of the little people in somebody else's Lego fantasy.

"What did you do during your stopover in Dubai?" people asked me when I got home.

Well, I wandered around shopping malls admiring things I couldn't afford to buy, and wandered around the city admiring hotels I couldn't afford to stay in and developments I couldn't afford to invest in. I sat on the armchairs in Starbucks (not a place I'm fond of back in Britain, but a great refuge in stressful foreign cities) and flicked through guidebooks trying to find attractions that were affordable and could be reached by public transport. I can recommend the Dubai Museum, and the city's historic areas are worth a look in spite of their faked-up appearance, but there wasn't much else.

In between, I spent a large proportion of the time sitting on overcrowded and infrequent buses trying to get from one part of the city to another. Sometimes I would get out at a bus stop that seemed like a short walk from where I wanted to be, only to find that it was in fact a two mile trek through grey industrial suburbs where gangs of Indian workers laboured in the desert heat while lorries thundered past. I picked my way on foot between lanes of murderous traffic, and negotiated junctions circumsected by barriers and roadworks. On one occasion I was actually forced to take a taxi in order to cross a highway. (When I used to build Lego towns I never thought to include road crossings either.)

In none of the hundred or so cities I've visited have I spent so much time on buses, walked so many miles, breathed so much dust and carbon monoxide - and seen so little of interest - as I did in Dubai.

Above all, the emirate is a tragic waste of an opportunity. If all of its grand constructions had been built together in one place, and connected by a transport system as futuristic as the buildings it served, Dubai would be a wonder of the world: far and away the most impressive city on Earth. Instead, the buildings have been scattered like loose boulders over a hundred square miles of desert. The effect of this obscene sprawl has been to reduce a potential Futurama to something closer to an oversized Milton Keynes. Except that Milton Keynes is pleasant and green.

Burj Al Arab, Dubai
The sun sets on the world's grandest hotel

Even the tallest of all Dubai's buildings is unimpressive when viewed over such sprawling distances. This is the Burj Dubai, a tapering tower which will eventually stand around half a mile high, a symbol of the emirate's prowess and the most obvious Freudian expression yet of what Sheikh Mohammed is trying to achieve with his city. The building is still under construction, and its exact projected height is a secret (Dubai is not the only up-and-coming city playing the "mine is bigger than yours" game), but it has already outstripped Toronto's CN Tower as the world's tallest structure - the first time since the days of the Pyramids that a Middle Eastern construction has held the record.

The Burj Dubai bears a resemblance to artists' renderings of the Tower of Babel, the Biblical folly built by humans in an arrogant attempt to climb to heaven. The people of Babel got off lightly: God put a stop to their work by the simple measure of confounding their language. That wouldn't work in Dubai. With immigrants from over 90 countries, whose lingua franca seems to be broken English of the most awkward kind, the emirate's language is already thoroughly confounded, yet still the buildings rise. Whatever God, or fate, eventually does to put a stop to Dubai is going to have to be a lot nastier.

In fact, the inhabitants of this oil-fuelled little emirate may already have sealed their fate. Those who find Dubai a hideous excess can take grim comfort in one fact: few parts of it are an appreciable height above sea level. And when the water begins to lap around the base of the skyscrapers, no city will more richly deserve its fate.



See also...

Travels in Egypt

© Andrew Gray, 2007