Does everyone have a price?
On Monday I went to Bloomingdales, the Gap and Starbucks but passed on a visit to Magnolia Bakery. Instead IÂ stopped by the St. Moritz bakery where you can order hot chocolate and sit by a video of a cozy winterÂ fire that overlooks the indoor ski slope and is just around the corner from the largest candy store in the world, which happens to face an aquarium that occupies an entire wall on one side of the worldâ€™s largest shopping malls. This by the way is opposite of what claims to be the worldâ€™s largest candystore whose mission statement is to make every day â€œhappierâ€™. Earlier, while exploring the watery depths of the bright Pink Atlantis Hotel (one of the white elephants of the property crash of 2007) I knew it was really the last kingdom because the fish swam around two cracked thrones and other kitschy stone artifacts.
Dubai is utterly overwhelming, the kind ofÂ dystopia that blogger Evgeny Morozov sees in Huxley, a consumeristic paradise where mind-numbing shopping replaces real thought. Most of the I had no idea where I was except that my passport had been stamped DubaiÂ and many of the mall-going women were shrouded in black. After a few hours I sank into a state of ennuie. Given boatloads of oil money in the 1970s and the chance to build a whole new city, who on earth would decide to build a series of shopping malls?
Itâ€™s not like the developers didnâ€™t have ambition, what with the architecture that demands superlatives — the gondolas, medieval stone houses and soaring illuminated sky scrapers and islands built in absurd never-before-seen configurations. But why not build a museum with, say, the most incredible collection in the world or a university with the finest research laboratories? With so much money why build this Disneyland? And what about the workers who make up most of the population?
Who would go to expensive old Harvey Nichols or French boulangerie Eric Keyzer? The answer is pretty much anyone who can afford it goes not just to shop but to eat. For Arabs living in the region, the malls are closer than a flight to London or New York, they are air conditioned in the sultry summer, they have indoor sports and entertainment facilities, and are safe and family friendly. They are the old village green and the public square that Jurgen Habermas wrote about though not as he imagined it, surely.
The choices are limitless: an ice skating rink, a swimming pool, cinemas, as well as Penhaligonâ€™s, Haagen Daz, California Pizza Kitchen and Nandoâ€™s. Even a tiny artsy neighborhood in an even tinier industrial quarter that showed angry Iranian sculptures of war-time prisoners, some held by Iraqis and some by Israelis on their knees with their hands behind their heads. My favorite piece was a video of a row of colorful balloons bobbing on the water that were tied together and shot one by one. This piece was done by a Turkish artist, who also filmed the balloons being executed. Metaphor for the human condition, anyone?
The locals say shopping malls are precisely why Dubai will never blow up as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia did and as Yemen threatens. Dubai is a safety valve for the whole region. Saudis come here to shop, expats come here to drink, people from places where itâ€™s hard to find a job such as India and East Africans come here to work. Without Dubai, the whole region would be less stable. The city benefits as it always does from instability in the Middle East because like Switzerland itâ€™s a safe haven. Everyone comes here to hide out; real estate prices and hotel occupancies go up at the sign of trouble in Bahrain.
The only people who are not happy are the domestic and construction workers whose appalling treatment has been repeatedly documented by Human Rights Watch. They arenâ€™t given visas even after decades of life here so if they complain they are deported.
The question on everyoneâ€™s mind is will Saudi Arabia have the next uprising? I repeatedly heard the same words: Saudi has all the ingredients: high unemployment, high youth unemployment, a vast gap between rich and poor, a surprising amount of poverty and an unsurprising resentment of the royals and their million dollar allowances.
Efforts to finally educate Saudi women will only raise expectations further. Itâ€™s got potential for trouble but so far the Saudi government is throwing money around hoping to tamp down the unhappiness. If it succeeds it will be another example of bread and circuses (this time in the form of the Dubai fountain light show and a raisin baguette from Eric Keyzer) winning over the hearts and minds of the masses. Just as it does in much of China and Singapore.
Photos, top to bottom: Youths walk past a shop at Emirates mall in Dubai December 25, 2009. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah; Shops in Dubai Mall are reflected in the glass of an aquarium as a diver holding the UAE flag swims past on the country’s National Day in Dubai December 2, 2009. REUTERS/Steve Crisp