November 28th, 2009


Rise and fall of the city of Dubai

Read today's papers and you'll find that there's another major financial crisis brewing, as banks like HSBC and the home of my own overdraft, RBS (now 84% owned by the British taxpayer) find themselves dangerously exposed to debt defaults, mostly in the construction industry, in the bling-bling dictatorship, Dubai.

Like everything else in Dubai (its highest building -- not, incidentally, the skyscraper sporting the huge portrait of the enclave's resident dictator, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum --is 40% taller than the next nearest rival), the debt crisis is one of elephantine proportions: $14 billion of syndicated loans to Dubai World are said to be looking very iffy indeed, and the total debt is estimated by some at about $90 billion, and others as far beyond that.

It would be tempting just to shrug this off, if it weren't for the fact that the Dubai hype reached even my post-materialist ears. Members of my family have been to Dubai, my bank lends my overdraft interest to the state's construction firms, my book editors are visiting with a view to writing books about the speculative bubble and the fascinating way in which it's burst.

"Was anywhere heading for a fall so obviously as Dubai?" asks Simon Jenkins in The Guardian. "Yet why did no one ever scream? Why did everyone just marvel?" The answer is partly that negative comment was actually a crime in Dubai; Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum told critics to "shut up" and media was closely controlled to exclude anything which might damage investments or stop the influx of rich foreigners and investors.

It's also undoubtedly true that a rising tide, even if it doesn't quite float all boats, brooks no opposition. Dubai's population of 1.37 million (2006) is comprised of a small conservative Muslim indigenous population, and 85% expatriates, most of whom are low-paid construction and service workers from India and the Philippines. The bling state rides -- I suppose we should say "rode" -- on the back of unorganised, unregulated labour.

The people close to me -- editors, writers I know here in Berlin -- were interested in Dubai not just as a speculative bubble and a sort of Brechtian fable (The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny played out in a 21st century which seems to have forgotten the 1920s), but because they're close to architect Rem Koolhaas, who was preparing to unleash his own sort of bubble on the city. Truly the architecture it deserved, you might say, but will now never get.

Here's a fairly superficial and, I'd say, immoral TV documentary by Piers Morgan about Dubai:

Watching that, my first reaction is "You'd have to pay me a lot of money to get me to live in a place like that!" It looks like everything I hate and avoid in the cities I know: endless anaemic shopping malls with ludicrously inflated prices, vapid celebrities and self-made, flabby entrepreneurs, absolutely zero culture you'd want to spend any time with (unless you're really into Kylie shows punctuated with "the world's largest fireworks display"), Sunday Times Rich List types with parasitic hangers-on, people with dyed blonde hair who talk about money and drink champagne, people who've never encountered a single interesting idea (let alone an idea critical of the kind of world they inhabit) in their lives, bubble-headed people floating about in a bubble economy.

Burst, Dubai, burst! And take your dictator with you! But don't take my bank, my sister, my editor, or the entire world financial system down into hell with you, please.