November 17 and 18, 2016: The Burj, the Palm, and the Dubai Brand

I haven’t been able to write much since I arrived in Dubai.  This place is a sensual onslaught of glamour – colored lights and stunning views, rich food and richer cars, hot sun and cool AC, full burka and lots of leg.  I’ve been overwhelmed.

But this morning, 125 stories up, high atop the Burj Kalifah, I wrote my friend Allen a postcard.  Addressing my friend, I was unselfconscious, and in my hastily scribbled doggrel, my perspective returns:

I write you from atop the man-made world.  Dubai is a monument to excess and hubris, built upon a foundation of sand, both literally and figuratively.  The deluxe buffet is nice, but the real feast is always intellectual…

The Burj Kalifah is emblematic of the story of Dubai: it is the biggest, the tallest, the best, the most.  A testament to man’s ambition and glory – his will to preserver at any cost.  Dubai’s wealth came initially from oil, but its sheikh knew this was a short-term boon, at best.  Thus was born Dubai the brand – the world’s most luxurious, decadent city.  Some men dream at night, but it is those who dream during the day that change the world.


But like most science fiction set in the not-too-distant future, the story is more complicated than just a carefree life lived in an apartment above the clouds.

I have met some warm and gracious people who live in those apartments with stunning views of the Palm and the Burj.  They tell me that their lives are proof that god has a plan.  They are kind, caring people, and I want to be absolutely clear – I am passing no judgement on them..

But I have also met the people who live in the shadows of their towers, representatives of the guest worker population drawn from across the developing world.  From the Philippines to Uganda, Pakistan to Indonesia they come for economic opportunity – a story as old as time.  They are the workers who strive so hard to realize god’s plan.  Or man’s plan, I think it was.

It’s easy to lose track from 125 stories up, when the people turn to specks and even the roaring sports cars below look like toys.

Waterfall, The Dubai Mall.

At the Ministry of Education yesterday, the deputy minister told us that one of their goals was preserve the culture and the national spirit through civic education.  I think that we as Americans hear that one way – a harmonically tuned dog whistle for blending and assimilation.

The lady working the elevator at the Burj was a sweet Filipino woman.  She came from Manila four years ago for the economic opportunity that her poor nation cannot offer.  She came with her children, who attend one of the three private Filipino schools here in the emirate.  The school’s tuition is cheap, she said, unlike everything else here.  It runs on a Filipino curriculum with the MoE-required courses of Arabic and Islamic studies that every school in the emirate includes – public or private.  Her kids speak better Arabic than she does, she offers wistfully.  I think she hears the phrase “preservation of culture and national identity” a different way – is she Filipino or an Emirati?


Even though this is her home – and she told me that she plans to stay a long time – the answer is pretty clear.  She is a Filipino, drawn close but held separate.  She cannot be naturalized, does not enjoy nationalized healthcare or the good pay of an Emirati, is subject to Sharia law (no public affection in the mall) and can be sent back to the Philippines with no effective notice.

I see buses full of guest workers like her, headed from the city’s outskirts in the fading daylight – the worker ants at the end of another day on the hill.

Temporary housing for guest workers near the base of a new skyscraper, Dubai

The American economy runs this way, too, in the form of undocumented immigrants – we’re even less artful in keeping them at arm’s length than is Dubai.  As of this writing, our president-elect wants to forcefully round them up and deport them for the crime of participating in an economy that functionally welcomes them.  If you enjoy affordable fruit back in the US, for example, thank an undocumented economic immigrant.  You as a consumer are a part of the chain, too.  You benefit directly from the risky border crossing that that worker has made from Central America in order to do a job you don’t want for less money than you’d ever accept.

As for the elevator operator in the Burj Khalifa, her life here is better than her life in Manila, otherwise she would almost certainly go home.

None of this is criminal.  None of this even wrong, per se.  Who am I to say if it is just? But it’s a story less told than the more glamorous daydream.

It is Dubai in another light.  In the west, Dubai is presented as a place for those with money to burn; for the rest, Dubai is a place for those with money to earn.

Dubai is where worlds converge, positioned ever so tenuously to be everything to everyone.

And that is a powerful brand.

The other Dubai, where the buildings are concrete instead of glass and steel.