We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Michael Jennings on the oddness of Dubai

At my personal blog, I like to write about skyscrapers. Basically, my attitude is: skyscrapers are good.

A particularly choice one is being erected in London just now, the so-called Shard, despite fears all round that the economic meltdown would demand that it be aborted. And of course I have recently also been taking note of that huge tower they’ve just opened in Dubai. I recently did a posting saying that maybe Dubai is not such a daft place as many are now saying. Maybe all those towers actually make some sense, basing my very tentative optimism on a photograph which included not just the towers but their surroundings.

But Michael Jennings, who has actually been to Dubai (on account of him having been everywhere), recently emailed me to suggest that the Dubai-is-daft tendency is probably right:

Dubai is just about the oddest place I have ever been to. I failed to go up the tallest building in the world because something went wrong and they closed it (a story in itself I would guess). The structure of the whole place is completely wrong though. It is as if someone has taken the most impressive looking bits of all the cities of the world – built new versions two or three times the size in the desert, and then attempted to weld them together into a city, but without any idea whether such things can or should fit together, and if they can, how to make it work. Virtually all the low level structure of a city is missing, and the overall question is simply who is supposed to be doing business in this place? I don’t get it at all. However, given the many tens or hundreds of very large structures half built in Dubai (the number of which rather boggles the mind) a few Arab bankers exposure to one little shard in London must be the least of their worries.


More of my speculations on the links between our “little shard” and the towers of Dubai here. But, as that posting says at the end, Michael was wrong about them building the Shard. He said they’d scrap it. Actually he went further than that and said that if they built it, he’d eat his laptop. So maybe he’s also wrong about Dubai being daft. I’m sure some of our commentariat, like Michael and unlike me, have been there. What did they make of the place?

Michael tells me that he intends to write again at greater length about Dubai, and also that he is not wrong about it.

9 comments to Michael Jennings on the oddness of Dubai

  • Hah! Dubai!

    I’ve got a couple of friends who live out there; from what they’ve told me it seems really erm… discretised…

    London is a City. You get on the subway and you go to Oxford Street or Picadilly Circus. Dubai is not a city in that sense; it’s a series of skyscrapers and malls joined by highway.

    What I’ve always wondered about Dubai is not “wow; how successful it’s been” but “why hasn’t it been more successful!?” The low-tax free zone ought to be a boon to human creativity and innovation, but where is the culture of Dubai; where are the great Universities? Where is the innovation and entrepreneurship?

    Nowhere to be seen; just rich men building monuments to their egos.

  • jsallison

    One of my favorite places in Kuwait City was a place called al Muthanna, or some such. Sort of a mini-arcology in that there are several levels of underground parking, about 3 floors worth of shopping mall, and numerous stories of offices and residential areas above. It wasn’t the mile-cube excrescence imagined in a proper arcology but it was a building that one could conceivably move into and never have to leave. A fascinating prospect worth further experimentation.

  • There next week en route from NZ to UK, meeting a UK relative who works there. I’ll post, and direct his attention to it too.

  • Alice

    From my limited exposure to Dubai — if anyone has problems understanding the concept of fractal geometry, go there!

    Start in the Gold Souk — a breath-taking broad avenue, lined with expensive shops. Turn any corner, and you are in a street lined with pricy shops. Turn off into a side street, and there are still more shops, a little downmarket. Turn into an alley, and there are the guys from Asia selling their sisters & their brothers.

    The strangest thing I found about Dubai was the behavior of the western expatriates. Poorly dressed western males of indeterminate age acting out their fantasies. Young women with English accents smoking furiously and looking around nervously.

    Of course, Dubai is the place where an English couple we defenestrated for having sex on the beach during daylight hours within sight of good Muslims — not so much for the ‘sex in a public place’ charge as for attacking the policeman who asked them to cease & desist.

    “where are the great Universities?”
    Good question. Of course, visitors to East Anglia ask the same. 🙂

  • Mike Morgan

    ‘Where are the great universities?’

    There are none in the Gulf states because Gulf Arabs are lazy, with very little intellectual curiosity and just as little capacity for hard work.

    They are, however, very good at displaying the outward signs of achievement. They have flash cars, the men wear ludicrously be-jewelled watches. Some have degrees,but some of those are achieved on the the work of others.
    It is not uncommon in Gulf countries to find American or British expatriates ‘helping’ locals with dissertations or theses.

    Never employ a graduate of a Gulf university to do anything you might regard as important because you have no way of knowing that he has passed his exams legitimately. He might well have done so because of ‘wasta’, which more or less translates as ‘corrupt influence.’

    On the splendid buildings, do not think these are reflections of an entrepreneurial low-tax economy.
    They are built with Western professional expertise and third world labour who have very low rates of pay.And that pay is not infrequently withheld.
    It’s very close to slave labour for the Asian labourers.

  • John

    It’s very close to slave labour for the Asian labourers

    If you are British and 22 years old a wage of £5.79 per hour is verboten.

    Slave labour – luxury!

    [Joke – well, sort of.]

  • JSC

    My sister lived in Dubai for 4 years, and my mother and 2 siblings went to visit here there.

    All of them reported more or less what the 1st commenter said — it’s like a bunch of shopping malls/tourist areas connected by a highway.

    The “visitors” in my family enjoyed it as a nice vacation, but my sister who lived there was quite happy to be moving away. Part of it was she started to hate her job, but a big part was also that she was just “done” with the city.

  • naman

    Does anyone know the occupancy rates for these big towers?

    I have a feeling that the rate is quite low.

  • I haven’t actually been everywhere, of course, and although I had a vague desire to go to Dubai and look around, that wasn’t a strong enough reason for me to make a trip there.

    The actual reason is that if you book a flight from anywhere in Europe to almost anywhere east of of the Middle East, the cheapest option that comes up is usually on Dubai’s airline Emirates, with a change of plane in Dubai. I was on my way to Singapore and Australia, and I therefore had an opportunity to stop in Dubai if I felt like doing so.

    Emirates have grown from being an insignificant airline to a very large one in a very short time, and they do look like one of the few actual real businesses built in Dubai that makes sense. There was certainly room for something to happen in that niche. Dubai is a nice central location to build a hub, and the competition on these long haul routes consisted mostly of state owned or formerly state owned airlines that lacked economies of scale, that were undercapitalised and had old fleets of aircraft, and which had unionised and not very competitive labour practices. Emirates appears to have done a good job of filling this niche with a more modern airline with a better cost structure, but it remains to be seen how much of this is real. It has been able to expand so fast due to an extremely low cost of capital – a seeming mixture of bubble economics and a perceived loan guarantee due to the immense wealth of Abu Dhabi. However, it is also charging low fares for a high quality of service. (It has also received a large indirect subsidy from the government of Dubai in the form of an enormous new airport, but that is now a sunk cost so probably doesn’t matter going forward). It now faces a situation where demand is relatively weak, competition is greater (Qatar and Abu Dhabi itself are now building airlines similar to Emirates) and the cheap capital is in the process of going away. We will see how much that that supposed profitability is real and how much is an illusion soon, I suspect.