Monday, 17 November 2008

Dubai - profligate self-indulgence

Saturday, Sunday and Monday morning were a blur of presentations and discussions, interspersed with excellent food. The business of the conference was very successful and it was worthwhile finding out about all the research being reported and discussing what it all might mean. On Monday, the company responsible for the massive property development here gave us a presentation about the construction of the world's tallest building, the Burj Tower; 750m and 160 stories high. Naturally, he was gushing with statistics about the number and speed of lifts, the planned use of the building, the technicalities of the design and construction and so on. The building is truly impressive and a major feat of engineering. But although it has taken six years to build, they have already started a taller one, which will exceed 1 km. Also, a 1.5 km tower is planned for Saudi Arabia. The drive to create such high towers when there is so much land is not immediately obvious. However, when asked about this, the presenter, Mick Dalton, explained that the vision of the Sheikh was to attract millions of tourists. The Burj tower has a huge 7-star hotel in the first 34 stories, then apartments, with some offices at the top. There will be an observation deck around floor 154. The building has already been paid for, from selling the apartments off plans. One technical innovation was automatic X-raying of everyone that comes into the building. They even have a machine to X-ray whole vehicles as they drive in. It will take 7 weeks to clean all of the windows of the building, and it will be a permanent rolling operation. Just cleaning the windows will cost $3m per year. There is biometric security in some kind of chip that occupants have. When they arrive, the security system gives the receptionists certain details of the person so that they can be welcomed by name with the kind of sycophantic insincerity that the very rich seem to favour. They don't even wait for lifts, or press buttons, because the security system detects the resident first arriving, so by the time one of them arrives in the lobby, the elevator is open and waiting, and it knows which floor to go to. The rich in these parts behave like disabled people! Only the parts that spend money on self-indulgence seem to function.

The technical details gave way to a superlative-laden sales patter as we were told about some fountains in the grounds costing $160m dollars. Some number of times bigger than the previously biggest one, this apparently involves a sound and light spectacle every Friday (supposedly a religious day, but in these parts, the day that all the rich people accumulate in expensive shopping malls or at spectacular displays). It was about this time in the presentation that I noticed how many of the people in the audience had become uncomfortable with the profligacy and pointless self-indulgence of the self-centred occupants of this kind of facility. As we were introduced to a lake in the grounds of the Burj that would lose 25mm of water per day through evaporation, requiring 30,000 litres of fresh water to be added each day just to top it up, the staggering waste of resources hit home. They even use words like sustainability in their vocabulary. They can't be stupid. They are simply disingenuous, I think. They seem to have persuaded themselves (or their customers, more like) that being profligate with a total lack of regard for the planet or one's fellow humans is sustainable.

The extent of the construction works around the city is difficult to comprehend. For example, a large two-track metro rail system is being built all over the city, and is close to completion. Every station is being built simultaneously. Yet there are no footbridges, few footpaths, and you cannot cross the road, such is the weight of traffic.

After the conference, we had the opportunity of another technical visit, to look at extensive luxury developments, including the islands being built to be covered with more buildings. The aim of all these islands is to increase the amount of coastline from something like 75 km to 1700 km, because rich people want to live on the coast, even if it looks like a golf course. We had a short boat trip while someone droned on in a monotonously enthusiastic voice, responding positively and sycophantically to every question put to him. Here, communication is only a marketing activity. After the boat ride a few of us decided to pass up the offer of being shut into a dark, air-conditioned room to be sold the dream. I don't think my colleagues appreciated the offer, but many were impressed by the engineering feats.

The rest of the afternoon was free. The Croatian contingent got the bus driver to drop us near Emirates Mall. We wanted to see the ski slope. He had said we could get a taxi from where he dropped us, but we simply crossed another carriageway of the road to get to the footpath. This was really difficult because it was, by now, close to rush hour. The traffic was fast-moving, nose to tail, on two lanes. Although we tried to cross, there were no gaps in the traffic. Eventually we had to flag cars and step into the road to try to force them to stop. They didn't like to let us cross, but once one had touched the brakes, and the cars had to drive around us, they had to slow down. We crossed the first lane, and caused the second lane to slow down. One wealthy woman with lots of makeup and jewellery felt that it was wrong for her to stop, even though she was already down to 1st gear, and nearly hit me as she drove to close up the gap in the traffic that we were stepping into, but because she'd accelerated at us, there was a bigger gap behind her, and we finally made the footpath on the other side of the road.

We asked people where the taxis were, but it turned out it was normal to have to wait an hour if phoning. We'd seen the ski slope from the bus, and it seemed only a kilometre, so we decided to walk. It turned out to be a lot further. After about half an hour, we encountered a highway crossing our path, next to a transport testing station, and after asking several people in the station, we found one who knew where we might cross, and he kindly came out from behind his desk to show us a gap in the fence next to a generator where we could slip through to a side road and then get to a place with filter lanes where the traffic occasionally thinned due to traffic lights some way down the road. It was not as difficult as the first experience, but still took a ridiculous amount of time. I think that this must be the route used by the Indian and Bangladeshi manual workers who don't have cars. The Emirates Mall was huge, but not as big as the new Dubai Mall. After having walked nearly an hour, we got to the ski slope and paid the fee for going in to have a look. It was remarkable stepping into such a large space with almost no humidity and an air temperature of -4°C. It was enjoyable to see the skiers and snowboarders in front of the alpine murals and adverts on the walls. We couldn't see around the bend in the track to the main slopes, but we were permitted to have a go on the tires and slide down a short run of the slope. So we had a bit of fun and tried to ignore the sheer profligacy and waste represented by this ski slope. We bought some CDs of Arabic music in the mall, and got a taxi back to the hotel. The city seems enormous. The taxi drove dangerously fast and too close the vehicle in front, as everyone seems to do here. Even so, it took well over half an hour. We were pretty tired when we got back to the hotel, but it was good to have seen a bit of Dubai. Some people left for their flights that evening, but I was glad to have a good night's sleep before my daytime flight the next day.

I think that most of us felt that this city was awful. The poverty of the workers and the empty lives of the stupidly wealthy were depressing. There is nothing here that is real. A triumph of marketing over content.

1 comment:

Will Hughes said...

Colleagues who were in Dubai have been discussing their unsettling experiences on the CNBR e-mail network. Among other things, Michael Murray posted this link to Building Towers, Cheating Workers, a report of Human Rights Watch into the labour practices in Dubai. It makes interesting reading.

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