The Middle East is not supposed to look this way. Organized city grids, pre-planned mixed-use neighborhoods, green highway medians, strip malls, and a street lamp on every corner. Don’t forget elegant, if empty, steel buildings and roads so smooth that you feel guilty driving on them.
From the skies, in one of Etihad’s plush planes, Abu Dhabi seems like a pristine grid that, as one passenger put it, “looks like it was built from scratch.” That’s because it was. All that hardware – a bizarre mix of European urban planning, American comfort, and futurism – is perfect.
But the software – that is, the social fabric – is still coming together.
Cosmopolitanism has its tensions, particularly when achieved almost overnight in an interconnected world that allows diaspora communities to plug into their respective motherlands. The Western expats seem distant, concerned with their immediate circle of friends and preoccupied with their precarious lives of luxury. Ubiquitous South Asian labor keeps the malls stocked, the cabs running, the resorts secure, and the construction sector growing. Neither pattern is unique to this city, but both stand out like a pair of sore thumbs.
(As an aside, the Lebanese have dotted Abu Dhabi with “grills,” “resto-lounges,” and “plubs” [short for pub-club. What a dumb word.)
Meanwhile, the locals sit – or think they sit – on top of the social pyramid. Absent from many everyday spaces of social interaction, they appear at the mall, filling their empty lives with consumer goods imported from every corner of the globe, as well as on their jet-skies, in their extravagant cars, and at their unbelievably nice restaurants and cafes. It’s almost as bad as Beirut, though people in Abu Dhabi can in fact afford these toys and, in contrast to their hustling Levantine cousins, owe this success to legal enterprises.
To fairly examine this place, though, it’s important to check bitterness at the door. To be sure, the Arab Gulf has gotten lucky with oil. Anyone who argues otherwise is just drinking Kool-Aid from a diamond-encrusted chalice. On the other hand, the Arab Gulf is not the first place that fortune has blessed with geography or resources. Empires have been built on rice, sugar, spices, timber, gold, and iron. Oil rules today.
At a deeper level, leaders here seem to be investing in the future, positioning the area as a transport and logistics hub, regional financial center, flashy holiday destination, and potential corporate paradise. Luck has nothing to do with the pivotal decision to open the country up to Westerners, Levantines, and South Asians. Overcoming deep cultural insecurities, which are apparent and permeate the socio-legal environment, was not easy. It was necessary. And, sometimes, it takes vision and courage to do what’s necessary and engage the world.
Development is where this openness ends. Restrictive property laws and tight rules on citizenship don’t bother me as much, because changes on this front would risk marginalizing the indigenous population. Wealth aside, people feel an attachment to their home, their land, and their immediate environs – especially in this part of the world. Setting aside the perverse reality that Emiratis openly benefit from open property regimes in the West, particularly the U.K., it makes sense for a small country to shield itself from foreign buyers and speculators.
More problematic, at a personal though perhaps not principled level, is the conservatism – some religious, some broadly social – imposed by the government on its population, most of which actually has no say in how the country is run.
Decades after the UAE began its upward surge, people are still cautious when talking about the leadership, Emiratis, and prevailing social norms. The word repression is too harsh, and neglects the many liberties people do enjoy. There is, however, a quietly stifling sensation here – and it’s not the desert heat.
For instance, it is still technically illegal for Muslims to drink, though other people may do so freely in certain places. Of course, many Muslims drink openly too, but the letter of the law stands against that practice. Sometimes, during an argument or an accident, Muslims may flee the scene to avoid being caught with alcohol in their systems. This isn’t a public safety concern, epitomized by drunk driving laws. Rather, the state systematically differentiates between people of different religious affiliations in a manner that rivals anything seen in communalistic Lebanon.
Swearing in public could bring attention from law enforcement (depending on their mood). According to two sources, saying the word “fuck” in public is now illegal in Abu Dhabi. Apparently, the government has deemed a campaign against “potty mouths” more important than ensuring locals and Western expats don’t tread all over the South Asian labor that keeps this place buzzing.
To be fair, I’ve been unable to verify whether the word “fuck” is illegal, but the fact that most people I’ve asked believe that such a law is plausible – and the fact that one restaurant owner already used the ostensible law to silence an acquaintance of mine – is cause for concern. If true, the logic behind the ban is evident. First, linearly, “fuck this food” soon becomes “fuck this heat” which soon becomes “fuck this place” which soon becomes “fuck the government.” And then the UAE risks becoming like Egypt, where “FUCK SCAF” is plastered all over downtown Cairo. Second, less so in the Middle East, “fuck” may refer to a physical act of great enjoyment, intimacy, and social interaction. It’s an utterly liberating concept.
On that note, many internet sites – including pornographic sites and political blogs – are blocked by the state. It is, however, rather easy to download music, movies, and publications in violation of intellectual property law.
Porn, alcohol, and profanity aren’t popular heroes, at least not when people sit at a table together. Be that as it may, they are proxies of openness. Their relegation to backrooms, hotel lobbies, and enclaves is quite telling.
(At the end of the day, however, people choose to come here. So maybe, as a person very dear to me says, it’s better not to “pick cherries.” Fair enough. It’s a package deal, but at some point the people who’ve helped build this place probably have the right to complain a little bit, if not join the body politic.)
All of this says that consumerism is fine, exhibitionism is standard, and material gratification is encouraged. And that is truly a great thing. Most people in the Middle East, or anywhere else in the world, can only imagine building such a place. The hardware here is absolutely mind-blowing. More important, the city-states of the Gulf provide a new space of opportunity for people from around the world, which is why recent successes here should last.
As for the software? They’re still working out the bugs.