Sunday, November 07, 2010

india left me unprepared for the automatic toilet flushers in dubai's airport, for starters

Since arriving in the UAE since Nov. 4, I've spent a lot of time in Dubai's malls. A lot of those superlative accomplishments that define the emirate abroad--indoor ski slope, largest musical fountain, tallest building--are either in or adjacent to large, shiny luxury brand-filled malls peopled with the most diverse array of folks I've ever seen. You can reach the malls on the metro, whose maps are misleading because only one of the lines have been built though both are represented. The trains (and there's one car that's women-only) are so sparkling clean that I would eat food that's been prepared on them.

That stream of consciousness description contains all my first impressions of Dubai: it's shiny, under construction, over the top and there are too many rules. And Dubai (not so much the other emirates, which I was driven through yesterday and were more normal places) is chock full of foreigners. Yet, food aside, there are no indicators that there is diversity in the city. I saw mosques but no churches or Hindu temples, and foreigners and locals seem to occupy the same space without actually acknowledging one anothers' presence.  Everything is clean and beautiful, but it remains so thanks to laborers from developing countries who stay in perpetual debt to their employers and because there are a million and one rules about everything that make me think twice before blinking.

Rules govern everything from daily life to quotidian economic policy to personal behavior. Unmarried foreigners aren't allowed to share apartments. No public displays of affection. No public dancing. No eating on the metro. No photographing locals. If you speed on the roads, the surveillance cameras will catch you, though the creepier feeling of being watched comes from billboard-sized portraits of the emirati rulers that proliferate on the roadsides. Truthfully, I'm probably not supposed to be writing this.

There are also a lot of building project shells that began before the financial crisis. We passed the exterior wall of an amusement park which had no inside. Its outside decoration was still perfectly lit up, a Potemkin amusement park, for whatever that's worth. But a lot of things -- like the metro system, and that tallest building ever -- have been or are well on their way toward completion, and Dubai residents are proud of the way a world-class (though rather start-of-a-dystopian-novel-before-the-underbelly's-revealed) city has sprung up from the desert in the past decade or so.

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