“Dubai: Gilded Cage”

Within 40 years, Dubai has been transformed from an obscure regional port into a global city glistening with iconic architecture, such as the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. But, Syed Ali argues, it is a unique kind of global city: “a city of transients”.

Astonishingly, 90% of Dubai’s population are expatriate workers. From builders to bankers, all are on short-term, renewable visas. They live in a state of “permanent impermanence”. For Dubai’s rulers, the lack of permanence is a form of social control. Anyone they don’t like is simply deported, a fate suffered by Ali himself. “You are asking too many questions about locals and non-locals,” the police officer said.

Ali argues that Dubai is a social experiment. In Dubai’s market society, money is all that matters and culture is generic and global. “Dubai Inc” has become the ultimate non-place, where no one feels at home. Laissez-faire urban utopia or exploitative, artificial dystopia? As Ali shows in this fascinating study, in the future there may well be many more cities like Dubai.

Dubai: Gilded Cage
Syed Ali
Yale University Press, 2010

— By PD Smith


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