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in Filmmaking
on Dec 16, 2007

Filmmaker‘s Managing Editor, Jason Guerrasio, returned from the film festival in Dubai this weekend and, like most visitors, he was knocked out by the pace of construction there. (See his photo-essays, below). In fact, a discussion of Dubai’s explosive growth — the political, social and design repercussions of such — is a hot topic at the moment, and two very different takes on the build-up of Dubai can be found online. The current issue of Metropolis contains three articles on Dubai, one of seven states belonging to the United Arab Emirates. (Thanks to Bergen Swanson for the link.) The first, “Beyond the Spectacle,” by Stephen Zacks, views Dubai as an example of a kind of progressive hyper-capitalism.

From the lede:

Fifty years from now, New York will be considered the economic and cultural capital of the previous century, fille d with quaint artifacts of another time and places to visit for the sake of nostalgia, but not the center of world culture— somewhat like how we think of Paris today compared to 100 years ago. Federal immigration restrictions, the religious police, and the protection of large corporations from foreign competition will have cut off our biggest sources of wealth—invention and innovation—and historic preservation will have saved the unique character of neigh borhoods and conserved innumerable buildings but killed the spirit that made the city the greatest of its time.

The megacity of Dubai, one of the seven federal states of the United Arab Emirates, will be the new economic and cultural capital of the world, spanning its neighboring emirates of Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, and beyond in one urbanized mass, rich in the biggest source of renewable energy—sunlight—a pioneer in sustainability and new technology, and conveniently located within easy travel distance of a population of more than two billion in the Middle East, Europe, India, and Africa. In the six years since the Twin Towers fell, a thousand skyscrapers have been rising on the Arabian Gulf.

Late in the article, Zacks concedes that “Dubai’s progressive policies exist only within well-defined urban zones” but views equality between the country’s residents and its foreign workers as something history will correct: “…with the vast majority of the population made up of foreign workers, it may ultimately be difficult to maintain the separation — especially if there’s an economic decline and the one million noncitizens are less content with their situation.”

In his “Fear and Money in Dubai,” published in New Left Review, critic and theorist Mike Davis captures in his prose Dubai’s almost hysterical cultural and economic post-modernism:

Thanks to [Emir Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum’s] boundless enthusiasm for concrete and steel, the coastal desert has become a huge circuit board upon which the elite of transnational engineering firms and retail developers are invited to plug in high-tech clusters, entertainment zones, artificial islands, glass-domed ‘snow mountains’, Truman Show suburbs, cities within cities—whatever is big enough to be seen from space and bursting with architectural steroids. The result is not a hybrid but an eerie chimera: a promiscuous coupling of all the cyclopean fantasies of Barnum, Eiffel, Disney, Spielberg, Jon Jerde, Steve Wynn and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Although compared variously to Las Vegas, Manhattan, Orlando, Monaco and Singapore, the sheikhdom is more like their collective summation and mythologization: a hallucinatory pastiche of the big, the bad and the ugly.

He also discusses the labor that led to the creation of all these big buildings and discusses the circumstances in which the formation of a group of Zacks’ “less content” workers might — or might not — arise:

Dubai, together with its emirate neighbors, has achieved the state of the art in the disenfranchisement of labour. In a country that only abolished slavery in 1963, trade unions, most strikes and all agitators are illegal, and 99 per cent of the private-sector workforce are immediately deportable non-citizens. Indeed, the deep thinkers at the American Enterprise and Cato Institutes must salivate when they contemplate the system of classes and entitlements in Dubai….

The unruly voice of labour echoes louder in the deserts of the UAE than it might elsewhere. At the end of the day, Dubai is capitalized just as much on cheap labour as it is on expensive oil, and the Maktoums, like their cousins in the other emirates, are exquisitely aware that they reign over a kingdom built on the backs of a South Asian workforce. So much has been invested in Dubai’s image as an imperturbable paradise of capital that even small disturbances can have exaggerated impacts on investors’ confidence. Dubai Inc. is thus currently considering a variety of responses to worker unrest, ranging from expulsions and mass arrests to some limited franchising of collective bargaining. But any tolerance of protest risks future demands not just for unions, but for citizenship, and thereby threatens the absolutist foundations of Maktoum rule. None of the shareholders in Dubai—whether the American Navy, the Saudi billionaires, or the frolicking expats—want to see the emergence of a Solidarnosc in the desert.

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