January 4: Sparkling City in the Sand

Our visit to Dubai is quickly coming to an end. We’re now back aboard the MV World Odyssey and will sail for India tomorrow night. I’d like to reflect a little first on our experience in this place of paradox.

Dubai and the other Emirates were created from whole cloth in a thoroughly modern way. The Emirates are emblematic of extreme disparities in money, power, and social status that plague our world.

The local story is that Dubai was “discovered” in 1787 by a tribe who arrived by sea. Like the “discovery” of the “New World” by Europeans a few centuries earlier, the discovery of Dubai was actually conquest of local Bedouin tribes or at best migration.

The Emirati discoverers made their living by fishing and maritime trade. They were ethnic Arabs who spoke a Hindi- and Persian-influenced dialect, and they were culturally cosmopolitan, deeply connected to the larger world of the Indian Ocean. They quickly established villages, dredged and widened a harbor and inlet (Dubai Creek) and built a thriving settlement along the shore. Other groups of ocean-connected outsiders began dominating the locals up and down the Arabian coast of what we now call the Persian Gulf.

You might think that permanent settlement by foreigners in boats would provoke resistance from Bedouin tribes or at least from their imperial Ottoman overlords. But the Emiratis who settled this land were supported by the imperial British. As in so many other parts of the world in the 18th and 19th Centuries, the Brits pursued a “divide and conquer” strategy that favored some groups over others to provoke strife in lands they wanted to colonize. With British support, enclaves of Emirates gained strong footholds along this coastline and eventually established international recognition in the 1830s.

After dominating much of the Arab world for centuries, the Ottoman Empire collapsed in World War 1. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates emerged as states in the international arena. Oil was discovered in Abu Dhabi in the 1950s, but very little was found in Dubai. Instead of oil, Dubai sought to build wealth and power based on commerce. They established a free trade port and tax-free business hub and made huge investments in infrastructure to attract outside business and development money. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was formed in 1971.

In the past 50 years, Dubai has grown into a gigantic city and marketed itself as a global crossroads and center for commerce and tourism. It’s one of the richest countries in the world, with less than 1% of its economy derived from oil and gas revenues. I’m tempted to say it’s like Las Vegas, but it’s bigger and more glitzy. The architecture is much more audacious than any city in the US, with futuristic buildings and avenues and parks. It reeks of wealth and conspicuous consumption.

Dubai houses about ⅓ of the 10 million people who live in the UAE. Only 8% of the people here are citizens. These Emirati are a modern form of hereditary landed aristocracy. They have fantastic political and financial benefits including cradle-to-grave health care, education, and even free real estate. Urban infrastructure — housing, utilities, roads, the metro — is among the best in the world.

The other 92% are “foreigners” or “guest workers.” These are the workers who make the lavish Emirati lifestyle possible. They hail from all over the world. There is no path to naturalized citizenship, even for people born in the UAE. The only way to become a citizen is to be born to an Emirati father.

According to one of our wonderful guides, the rulers of Dubai have three priorities: safety, money, and religion in that order. It’s one of the safest cities in the world. Safety means very strict law enforcement, which protects the Emiratis from unrest or even dissent. Money rules except where it conflicts with security. Islam is important, but only to the extent that it doesn’t threaten money or security.

How can 10 million people live such a consumptive lifestyle without rainfall?


Virtually everything is imported. The water is extracted by desalinating seawater — for drinking yes, and also for everything else! Tourists are imported. Workers are imported. Investors are imported. Even the money is imported!

On our first day here, we had to pick up some teach gear at an Apple Store so we (perhaps foolishly) went to the Mall. The Uber dropped us off in the biggest underground parking garage I’ve ever seen. We stumbled around in a jet-lagged fog for well over an hour before we found our way to ground level and eventually the Apple Store and got an iPad case and replacement AirPod tips. The multilevel mall has every chain store and restaurant you’ve ever heard of and thousands more. The crowds are overwhelming. Every nationality is represented, with people in flip-flops and glamorous dresses and full burkhas. We ate at an “Italian” chain restaurant under a Christmas stocking and sleigh bells while carols played over the muzak.

The following day (as we posted before), we had an incredible visit to the Ras al Khor wildlife reserve in the desert about an hour outside of town. Here’s a link to a nice 2-minute video of our visit produced by our hosts. It’s just remarkable to see the vast sandscape of the endless desert so close to 12-lane freeways, metro stations, and skyscrapers.

Lawrence of Arabia meets The Jetsons.

Tatooine meets Coruscant.

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