Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Dubai 1990-2010: how to build an evil paradise

I have been in Dubai no less than 12 times, either for business purposes or for leisure escaping from time to time from the boredom of Kuwait and to be able to have a glass of wine while having dinner. For those who don´t know it, alcohol is not legal in Kuwait.

We all have heard so many times about the wonders of this small non-oil producer Emirate of Dubai: the city has been achieving many "records" in the last years: world's highest skyscraper, largest airport, largest shopping mall...whether we like it or not Dubai has become somebody, a new city name to write at a hotel front desk international time's clock! London - Paris - NYC - Dubai...Wuaw! (is there a punctuation mark for irony in a keyboard?)

However, this is what transcends to most of the people overseas, but it hides the basis this city has been built upon. I am not an expert but "I've seen things" and for me the underlying truth of Dubai city makes me state that what has been built there from 1990 until now represents the worst values of the modern society.

Let me put the context first: Historically, Dubai has been a trading hub between Southeastern Asia and Europe, the Creek was (and still is) crossed everyday by thousand of small boats and is populated by only 17% of UAE nationals, as a sign of the crossroad of cultures that it has always been. With a extraterrestrial heat and humidity in the long summer, local construction used millenarian techniques to keep some freshness on the inside during 8 months per year. However, the city, built on the desert sand was still a hostile place for the human being and so the population never exceeded 100,000 even well advanced the second half of the XXth century.

And what happened around 1990? The Gulf War made a lot of people (many palestinians scaping from Kuwait) and a lot of money (big Kuwait fortunes scaping from the iraqui sack) landed in Dubai. Jointly with the support of the Emir to shift into a touristic alternative for the arab world all this turned the city in an ocean of cranes during years up until now...The scenario today is completely different, as you know, with a landscape of towers crowned with the recently inaugurated Burj-Khalifa of 820m. But the desert is still there, and probably hotter than before, and the levels of energy consumption grow brutally every year in order to keep the indoor areas at a comfortable 24º temperature.

For those who have never been there, i will put it in simple words: it is the closest sensation to a sauna that you will ever have in your life. And when you spend a lot of time in a sauna, you generally die...

So the context is there and these are my reasons to strongly state that Dubai, a respected and honorable trading hub and gate to the west, has become the showroom for many of the things that the civilization should avoid this century:

- The power of (laundry) money: Dubai never had a plan but real estate developments here and there. The ultimate goal of the city was never to provide a better place to live to anybody, but to convert God-knows-coming-from-where money into the most short term profitable investment at the time when the bubble was growing: construction of residential buidings.

-Human rights: The fictitious fairytale of freedom in Dubai comparing to other arab countries: it simply cannot be believed if we just look at the conditions so many thousand of South Asia's labor were cheated to come to work there and have a better life whereas their passports were taken upon arrival and they were confined in indecent camps working indecent number of hours...Slavery was abolished almost 200 years ago...but modern forms of human abuse have taken place to build this city. But let´s be fair, many western companies operating there are responsible of these abuse.

- Lack of need: there is no need to have a city ready to host 6 million people in the middle of the desert, it has never been full capacity and it will never be. Specially with the crisis and specially with only 4 months when you can enjoy with the outside temperature and hence the sea! With the number of square kilometers built for nothing and no one many rural areas or areas affected by tsunamis or earthquakes worldwide...could have been completely rebuilt. Just one figure: one third of all the world's cranes were operating in Dubai by 2007!

- Sustainability: only supported by one of the largest oil producers this city can shine or be cooled...but having the fuel doesn´t mean you can use it obscenely. It´s easier to get a cold in Dubai in summer than anywhere in Europe in a cold winter due to the excess of cooling throughout the year. The message sent is devastating for those seeking for alternatives to fossil fuels: We will burn until the last drop of oil to keep our malls cool!

-Building efficiency: despite of having one of the most intelligent traditional construction systems, the new "intelligent" buildings with its glass walls are the least efficient way of building in a constantly sun-exposed region. The refrigeration loads become even more extraordinary, and the explanation for it is purely formal. In a world turning into an efficient way of building, Dubai's proud of still erecting XXth century's icons...

- The consumerism as a religion: proud of balancing prudently between Islam and western culture, Dubai forgets that the real devil is not in the "depravated" expats but in the culture of hyperactive consumerism as a single way of entertainment. To be fair too, this is something you can find everywhere in the Gulf.

However, nothing is black or white only, and UAE has also very good initiatives that should make emirati people proud of their country: on the opposite side of Dubai, the city of MASDAR is the first serious (and real) attempt to build the first zero-emission city for 40,000 people as a prototype that will hopefully be replicated and improved in the future.

Besides that, the good values of the emirati family and the religion, such as generosity, their humble past still recent, and the respect for their culture and traditions, jointly with the interest to diversify their industry and businesses when depending only on oil is tempting (see Kuwait or Venezuela)...makes me believe that Dubai is simply a wrong understanding of modernity and development. And also that someone from abroad has made a lot of money at their cost, building castles in the sand...

By the way, the title of this post is taken from Evil Paradises by Mike Davis.

Arcade Fire are playing in Madrid in less than 10 days. I already got my ticket!


  1. Dear Gonzalo,

    I usually never follow other people's blogs but yours is the first one I am following.I have stumbled across your articles on-and-off through linkedin/facebook or some other means and I always find them intriguing and an interesting read...

    its much more meaningful and hearfelt than blogs that say how I conquered GMAT, found a job, B-School experience etc etc

    I see that you haven't blogged after November though:( Bad for us...Keep up the good work.

    I am currently on exchange at Cornell in the States.


  2. By the way...I'm Preeti Inchody from April IMBA...its just that Preeti Ann Iyer is another name of mine:))

  3. Dear Preeti,

    Thank you so much for your words, they are a much more important driver for me to continue writing than anything else!

    As you say, i haven´t written since November, maybe because this blog is more based on what, at some point, i feel i want to write about than a constant thing...but i want and i must continue writing, and hopefully i will still have you as a reader!

    Of course i know who you are, I didn't know you're on exchange in Cornell! I wish you the best over there and get the best out of the experience of a new school, new country and new folks!