June 01, 2006
Rambling Thoughts on Public Space, Community, and Culture in Dubai
Dubai has long been the commercial capital of the Gulf. But much as it would like to pretend otherwise, most of what little culture it contains has been imported, and anything that looks historical only does so by virtue of a good façade. The rulers have always focused first and foremost on attracting business, and have been rather successful at this; most of the city's population has moved there from somewhere else for money. It thus differs in many ways from its next door neighbor Sharjah, whose ruler has put far more of an emphasis on retaining traditional and Islamic values, and where there is a 'decency code' and a prohibition on all alcohol.
Since the vast majority of Dubai residents are not citizens, the government has not needed to seek legitimacy from them. Its goal has instead been to extract some rent from them and to make sure they are not sufficiently oppressed that they feel the urge to rise up against it. This has meant doing the bare minimum in terms of providing public facilities for expatriates.
This system has had some rather curious ramifications. While the city boasts rather outstanding infrastructure in some departments – the roads are better than those of the US, and problems with electricity and water are very rare in Dubai – non-business facilities are rather meager. The library system, for instance, is a joke. There aren't nearly enough public parks being built, and many of the ones that do exist charge entrance fees in order to exclude low-paid workers from entering. Indeed, as noted elsewhere on this site, Sharjah doesn't let workers enter parks at all. There are no community centers in which residents can meet their neighbors to play tennis or teach their kids to swim. There certainly aren't municipal councils in which residents can discuss issues or grievances and attempt to resolve problems.
Most people don't know their neighbors very well – if they know them at all. There are many reasons for this: the demographic mix of the city, which includes different nationalities, cultures, and languages, makes mixing harder; the city's pace of life is fast relative to the region; a very large share of the population has a full-time job and long working hours and has little time to devote to unrelated activities, especially if money is to be sent back to families in home countries. There is also the political aspect of this: when residents are not organized well and civil society is weak, the chances of any organized political dissent diminishes, so why should the government encourage this?
So what, then, are residents supposed to do with their spare time? Why, contribute to the economy, of course. Residents not enjoying themselves in free public parks could go instead to one of the city's many cinemas showing Hollywood or Bollywood fare (no artsy or independent stuff, sorry). As in much of Europe or North America, the streets with lots of pedestrian traffic are shopping streets. Unlike there, however, there is no public art (e.g. sculptures or murals) here, or even pretty architecture in those areas. There certainly aren't any homemade trinkets spread across a rug – instead, selected avenues have neat, licensed stalls in designated areas selling cheap Chinese-made goods, primarily to tourists. Struggling artists are conspicuous by their absence as well – after all, they would need air tickets and visas to come in. Pedestrian streets are therefore unremarkable and built to avoid distracting would-be spenders.
In many cities, the center of public life is a large square of some sort. In Dubai, there is only one large square, and the grass patch in the middle where subcontinental children once played cricket has long since made way for a tourist information office and a parking lot. Instead, life has moved into the city's dozens of shopping malls, which have the added advantage of being air conditioned, ensuring that they are still comfortable in the hot summer. And what do shopping malls try to promote? You guessed it – spending!
Since Dubai first legalized property sales to foreigners about a decade ago, more and more affluent investors (and residents) have bought houses in designated parts of the city developed by large property companies. Eager to attract buyers, these companies have provided communal facilities to their residents. However, this has only led to the proliferation of gated communities. Huge blocs of land in the south of the city are accessible only to their residents, who pay large fees to ensure that they can minimize contact with people elsewhere. While residents of these areas do have a slightly better chance to interact and associate with one another (provided that they live in the same project), it has now become harder still for residents of different parts of Dubai to come together to form any sort of community; everyone has been physically segregated. Also, the de facto ban on all unplanned and unmonitored human activity on the streets combined with huge cookie cutter urban projects has led to visitors and residents alike complaining that growth is inorganic, and that the city feels artificial.
Large fences and armed security personnel also guard the major universities of the Dubai metropolitan area. While the acquisition of knowledge might be encouraged and subsidized by the state in much of the rest of the world, universities here seek exclusivity in a manner other than admissions policies. Indeed, almost anyone with a fair-sized bank balance can enter the most prominent of these institutes, although some universities are for UAE nationals only. Once more the facilities – which are often underutilized by students – are off-limits to unauthorized visitors.
It is not hard to see how this diminishes the prospects of a sense of community. Not only can residents not take advantage of the decent library collections that exist there, they do not come together by identifying themselves with and rooting for their sports teams – they don't even know they exist. This can be contrasted with college football stadiums in America, which often host substantially more people than their affiliated institutions of learning.
Dubai has a strong class system, with the manual laborers at the bottom being largely invisible to the rest of the city while not at work. The lowest of the low – perhaps 40% of the population – are housed outside the city in squalid labor camps in order that they remain out of sight and out of mind. Labor being cheap, other people can be paid to stand in queues for members of the upper and upper middle classes at banks and embassies. Since the affluent travel almost exclusively in taxis and their own cars, they are unlikely to interact with people of a substantively lower social status very regularly unless they have drivers or housemaids.
The lack of public space not only diminishes the sense of community, but also means that members of the lower classes have little chance to enjoy themselves during whatever little free time they have. The city's construction workers, for instance, are dumped in the central business district on their day off. They would be made to feel very uncomfortable if they walked into the city's upscale shopping malls, and certainly wouldn't be able to afford to purchase very much. Instead, they wander around in the sun between shops, searching for others from their village, or failing that, their region, in order to solicit news from them about their homes, and to get the chance to speak in their native languages. Phone calls are expensive and letter-writing is often impractical, so audiocassettes from family members are often sent on and received through third parties. People from each region have specific unofficial gathering points inside these districts, but the lack of open space for them means that they congregate in the streets. Driving the already-busy narrow, old lanes there is nightmarish on these days – there are simply too many people trying to use the space for something it wasn't designed to handle.
Dubai suffers from restrictions on activities in public space. Public demonstrations are unheard of, and there isn't a single street performer to be seen. Any expatriate that the rulers see as a menace to society is simply deported, ensuring that most of residents keep their heads down. The vast majority of nationals are too well-off to resort to public protests, not that there is much of an indigenous tradition of publicly voicing grievances. This, combined with restrictions on freedom of expression, has meant that there is no local film or theater scene to speak of. Whatever little music there is either underground, sanitized heavily for consumption in fancy hotels, or takes the shape of cover bands. You can occasionally see a stand-up comedian, ballet, or B-rate foreign musical act, but the performers in question are flown in from abroad for short gigs, and flown straight back out. Transport costs contribute to very high ticket costs for most major events, especially Western ones.
It is thus rather depressing to imagine what, if anything, the latest massive real estate development – Culture Village – will contain in an attempt to live up to its name. A little sanitized 'art,' selected for its blandness and lack of meaning for the region? How does one even speak of 'culture' when there is no space or tolerance for its creation?
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How come Dubai is such a popular subject? Just axksing.
Posted by: Klaus at June 2, 2006 05:57 AM
What a great post.
Posted by: David Weman at June 2, 2006 07:16 AM
I think that since the DP World fiasco it has become fashionable to write about the place. I really should stop being so lazy and take advantage of this.
Posted by: dubaiwalla at June 2, 2006 09:53 AM
The situation in some ways is cruellest on the Asian expats who spend their whole lives here - often being born here - yet do not have (and never will have, at least in this lifetime) any rights or suffrage.
It's not safe to live in Dubai and ever lose the perspective that it is not home: you are a guest, a temporary person, here on sufferance. That you are being tolerated, not welcomed. That it's a quid pro quo, and if you outlive your value, you're history. And that everyone is at the very bottom of the pile - no matter how rich they are, or how aristrocratic or well-to-do in their own societies - compared to locals.
And many Asians do lose this perspective. But how can one blame them, when having grown up and worked here all their lives, they have no other perspective than UAE=home?
Posted by: secretdubai at June 8, 2006 05:51 AM