Daniel W. Drezner

Scattered thoughts about the Dubai project

I was very curious to come to Dubai. I kept hearing people describe it and then stumble on a lack of proper adjectives. In 2008 I wrote about how it was an exemplar entrepôt economy that others in the region would copy in order to diversify away from oil. The financial crisis burst the property bubble, however, ...

I was very curious to come to Dubai. I kept hearing people describe it and then stumble on a lack of proper adjectives. In 2008 I wrote about how it was an exemplar entrepôt economy that others in the region would copy in order to diversify away from oil. The financial crisis burst the property bubble, however, and Dubai had to turn to much wealthier Abu Dhabi for a sovereign bailout and rename the Burj Dubai to the Burj Khalifa. Since then, the big picture has improved somewhat. What about the picture on the ground, however? Is Dubai still a model for the rest of the Gulf?

First, the picture on the ground. Ever since I arrived, I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to explain Dubai. Here’s what I’ve come up with: If Stanley Kubrick had an unlimited budget and was making a movie about Las Vegas glitz, Dubai would be his set.

What do I mean by this? Well, like Kubrick’s films, Dubai is underpopulated in an odd way, and the lack of people gives the place a very odd feel. There are shiny hi-tech malls, stores, and skyscrapers galore, but there isn’t much else. From a citywide perspective, looking from the top of the Burj Khalifa, one sees all the new skyscrapers, a few blocks of the old part of town, and then … desert.

Even in the shiny parts of the city, there just aren’t enough people to fill up the space. Everywhere I looked, there were way too many workers per customer. The Dubai Mall, for example, is truly massive, with every Western brand name that still exists and a few (Rainforest Cafe, Benetton) that I thought had gone under. There was an entire wing of racy lingerie stores. The mall wasn’t empty by any stretch of the imagination, but neither was it really all that full. I don’t honestly know if there’s sufficient demand to keep these stores afloat, however.

Lest one think this is criticism, it isn’t. I’m rooting for Dubai to succeed. If enough people come to the place, I think the Kubrickian oddness will wear off (though, not, perhaps, in the Armani Hotel. The hotel literature informs me that "every detail has been personally chosen by Armani to reflect his passion for stylish comfort and functionality." To your humble blogger, it seems like Mr. Armani has expended considerable sums of money to bring back the tacky wood finish of late 70s American suburbia, combined with the creeping isolation of Kubrick’s The Shining). Any country that embraces the service sector with the same vengeance of North America is fine by me.

Can Dubai be replicated? Here I’m more skeptical than in 2008. I suspect Dubai will survive and thrive. Every region needs a world-class airport and service-sector hub, and Dubai has become that hub for this region. I’m not sure the market here is big enough to support similar hubs in Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, and Kuwait, however.

I’d be very curious to hear what other Dubai visitors and residents think in the comments.

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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