Dubai’s new tower

The world’s tallest building has just been opened in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

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burj_dubaiThe Toronto Globe and Mail writes:

Soaring 200 storeys and 828 metres into the sky, the world’s tallest structure has opened in Dubai, a monument to the excesses of the emirate’s bygone boom. But while the $1.5-billion (U.S.) tower’s striking opulence recalls the unrestrained era of a massive property bubble, its surprise name is very much grounded in Dubai’s new reality.

Originally called Burj Dubai, it was renamed Burj Khalifa Monday in a tribute to Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, head of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Abu Dhabi, which came to debt-laden Dubai’s financial rescue last month.

Abu Dhabi has provided about $25-billion in bailout funds for Dubai in the past year, including a $10-billion lifeline in December that was funnelled to state-owned conglomerate Dubai World to avoid an embarrassing default on its crushing debt load.

The Guardian comments that:

More worrying than the tower itself, however, is what’s around it. In 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright unveiled a scheme for an elegantly preposterous mile-high skyscraper for Chicago, safe in the knowledge that he’d never have to figure out how to build it. It was undoubtedly an influence on the Burj Dubai. It even had a similar triangular structure. But Wright’s intentions with his mile-high skyscraper were to create a concentrated human habitat, the better to halt Chicago’s unstoppable urban sprawl, and free up ground space for parks, nature and leisure.

The Burj Dubai, by contrast, has become the tentpole for several more acres of anonymous, soulless, energy-hungry cityscape. You can apparently see for 60 miles from the top, but when you look down, the immediate landscape is the same schematic real-estate tat you see everywhere else in Dubai: vast shopping malls, bland office towers, sprawling residential developments semi-themed to resemble “traditional” Arabian villages, outsized ornamental fountains. The Burj Dubai might be a triumph vertically, but what about the horizontal?

The Financial Times writes:

To be sure, the world’s record-breaking skyscrapers, such as Burj Khalifa, often presage recession, but with time these buildings have gone on to form the centrepiece of thriving economic centres, such as the Empire State Building in Manhattan.

When Dubai built what was then the region’s tallest tower in 1979, it was ridiculed for building the World Trade Centre on the sand-strewn outskirts of a city. Now the World Trade Centre sits in the middle of a developed area and Dubai has transformed itself from a trading post to a commercial centre.

The emirate is once again banking that a bet on infrastructure, now complemented by the world’s tallest tower at the new heart of the enlarged city, will allow it to retain its position as the services hub for the region.

It will likely take many years to work through the excesses of the past decade, but it would take a brave man to bet against the city in the long term.

Mike Davis has already taken that bet, writing in 2006 in the New Left Review he writes:

Welcome to a strange paradise. But where are you? Is this a new Margaret Atwood novel, Philip K. Dick’s unpublished sequel to Blade Runner or Donald Trump on acid? No. It is the Persian Gulf city-state of Dubai in 2010. After Shanghai (current population 15 million), Dubai (current population 1.5 million) is the planet’s biggest building site: an emerging dreamworld of conspicuous consumption and what the locals boast as ‘supreme lifestyles’. Despite its blast-furnace climate (on typical 120° summer days, the swankier hotels refrigerate their swimming pools) and edge-of-the-war-zone location, Dubai confidently predicts that its enchanted forest of 600 skyscrapers and malls will attract 15 million overseas visitors a year by 2010, three times as many as New York City. Emirates Airlines has placed a staggering $37-billion order for new Boeings and Airbuses to fly these tourists in and out of Dubai’s new global air hub, the vast Jebel Ali airport. [1] Indeed, thanks to a dying planet’s terminal addiction to Arabian oil, this former fishing village and smugglers’ cove proposes to become one of the world capitals of the 21st century. Favouring diamonds over rhinestones, Dubai has already surpassed that other desert arcade of capitalist desire, Las Vegas, both in sheer scale of spectacle and the profligate consumption of water and power. [2]

The city-state is also a miniature Raj in a more important and notorious aspect. The great mass of the population are South Asian contract labourers, legally bound to a single employer and subject to totalitarian social controls. Dubai’s luxury lifestyles are attended by vast numbers of Filipina, Sri Lankan and Indian maids, while the building boom (which employs fully one-quarter of the workforce) is carried on the shoulders of an army of poorly paid Pakistanis and Indians, the largest contingent from Kerala, working twelve-hour shifts, six and a half days a week, in the asphalt-melting desert heat.

Dubai, like its neighbours, flouts ilo labour regulations and refuses to adopt the international Migrant Workers Convention. Human Rights Watch in 2003 accused the Emirates of building prosperity on ‘forced labour’. Indeed, as the Independent recently emphasized, ‘the labour market closely resembles the old indentured labour system brought to Dubai by its former colonial master, the British.’ ‘Like their impoverished forefathers’, the London paper continued, ‘today’s Asian workers are forced to sign themselves into virtual slavery for years when they arrive in the United Arab Emirates. Their rights disappear at the airport where recruitment agents confiscate their passports and visas to control them.’ [45]

In addition to being super-exploited, Dubai’s helots—like the proletariat in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis—are also expected to be generally invisible. The local press (the uae ranks a dismal 137th on the global Press Freedom Index) is restrained from reporting on migrant workers, exploitative working conditions, and prostitution. Likewise, ‘Asian labourers are banned from the glitzy shopping malls, new golf courses and smart restaurants.’ [46] Nor are the bleak work camps on the city’s outskirts—where labourers are crowded six, eight, even twelve to a room, often without air-conditioning or functioning toilets—part of the official tourist image of a city of luxury, without poverty or slums. [47] In a recent visit, even the uae Minister of Labour was reported to be shocked by the squalid, almost unbearable conditions in a remote work camp maintained by a large construction contractor. Yet when the labourers attempted to form a union to win back pay and improve living conditions, they were promptly arrested. [48]

Al-Maktoum, who fancies himself the Gulf’s prophet of modernization, likes to impress visitors with clever proverbs and heavy aphorisms. A favourite: ‘Anyone who does not attempt to change the future will stay a captive of the past’. [57] Yet the future that he is building in Dubai—to the applause of billionaires and transnational corporations everywhere—looks like nothing so much as a nightmare of the past: Speer meets Disney on the shores of Araby.

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