by Adrianne Kalfopoulou
Once a port town on the Arabian Gulf that gathered trading merchants and Bedouin tribes, Dubai today is a 21st century metropolis of the digital age, an image-making map of highly Instagram-worthy moments. From theme parks to commercial hubs, Dubai gathers people from around the globe and across the labor spectrum to serve and be served. High-rises splashed in nightly technicolor extravaganzas and a surrounding desert attest to a city that has defied the odds, one being time itself. An informal British protectorate state until 1971, the port town went, in some thirty years, from a fishing community of pearl divers and trading merchants hailing from Persia, South Asia, and Africa to a global commercial hub. Thanks to the foresightedness and business acumen of its then-ruler Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who ruled from 1958 until his death in 1990, the unlikely growth of the bustling port on the Dubai Creek became, in less than fifty years, what today is often called “the city of the future.”
When I arrive in the middle of August I see a humidity-infused skyline— barely etched skyscrapers that signify mutable horizons. It was, in fact, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed’s aspirational gaze into the desertscape that transformed that ultimate tabula rasa of desert space. With the collaboration of British political agents in the late 1950s, and 60s the seemingly impossible—a radically deepened and widened Dubai Creek, roadways that grew the city’s development clusters, and eventually an airport—became game-changing projects. The resilience and willingness of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed of the ruling Maktoum family to go into debt in the late 1950s seeded the transformative initiatives that turned a port town into a city of human-made shorelines, real-estate developments, and service clusters. Today’s Health Care City, Festival City, Academic City, International City, and Sports City, to name a few of these proliferating micro-cities, are testament to Rashid’s pioneering forward-looking gaze. Time here, like the desert expanse, is not a linear, seasonal passage but a space within which to materialize what the gaze (or gazes) upon it might project. Today’s digital trade mecca under Sheikh Mohammad (Rashid’s son), also known as the “CEO Sheikh” who coined the slogan “Build It and they Will Come,” is where tourists and locals will find a ski-slope in the Mall of the Emirates, an ice-skating rink and storied aquarium in the Dubai Mall, a Miracle Gardens of plants from around the world, and any number of superlatives, from the world’s tallest building, to the most expensive burger.
When I walk out of the air-conditioning to wander the area where I am staying, I see advertisements of what’s to come. A flashing monitor reads “Dubai Digital Park.” Plasma screens show scenes of people eating, exercising, shopping—the only people I see, as it is August, and few are willing to leave their air-conditioned interiors. I am in a development called Silicon Oasis, a name that gives me pause. Like its original in Silicon Valley, the suggestion is that here too, in what is a Free Zone—an independent tax-free trading hub—there are opportunities for innovation, start-ups and business. It is where I have come to teach general education courses in a university for budding techies. Like so much in Dubai, Silicon Oasis is another simulacrum; what Dubai does best is imitate proven templates of success. There’s even a Dubai World Trade Center whose first designs replicated New York’s twin towers down to its steel and glass façade and monolithic height. To call the building by the same name as its New York City original is to recall the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard and his discussion of simulacrums and the hyperreal. For Baudrillard models of reality that are purely conceptual and boast no originating map become a reality unto themselves. The hyperreal is a reality more real than the reality that inspired it, a template for understanding the spectacle that is today’s Dubai: “To simulate is to feign to have what one hasn’t,” writes Baudrillard, insisting that “to feign” is “to enact that which generates a reality of its own; this is the hyperreal” (my emphasis).
When I arrive in August, all I know of the city is what I can see and feel; the burning surface of my skin when I leave the air conditioning and move into the heated breeze of a late afternoon, like other surfaces, becomes my indicator. The heat bearing down on me, the metal from my earrings that singes the flesh of my earlobes as I wait for a Careem taxi to pick me up after work, is as physical as it is metaphysical. It is hard to stand for more than a few minutes in this temperature, and yet itinerant people work in it, laborers from South Asia, the Far East, and Africa. Colleagues urge me to rent a car, but the complicated roundabouts and ramps off and on Sheikh Zayed Road intimidate me, as does the fact that there are continuous works-in-progress that have any number of DETOUR signs. I know I would be overcome with anxiety, which has already become my default emotion—what, when far from recognizable markers, is the difference between a detour and a main road as everything is a turn away from the familiar. The driver who arrives is Indian or Pakistani. I’m told that the taxi drivers are generally from India or Pakistan, though it is Emirates who often own the companies. I notice other ethnicities in particular job categories. In the beauty salons it is mostly Filipina and Vietnamese women. Some salons have groups from certain towns or villages who’ve come by word of mouth to share a work environment, like Ripa, who cuts my hair and is from Armenia. The cost of the ride to my rented apartment is twelve dirhams AED (3.2€ or US$3.26), the minimum charge. Some years ago, the minimum was as low as five dirhams. I see tasteful complexes of two-story villas blending into the sandstone shades of the desert, and in the distance the vague outline of other-worldly high-rises where the Burg Khalifa stands, the world’s current tallest building.
When I finally visit Downtown Dubai or DIFC—Dubai International Financial District as it’s popularly referred to—it is night. The Burj Khalifa, at 829.8 meters (2,722 feet) scales the air as its thinning gradations of steel and glass peak in what looks like the needle of a syringe or a new-age minaret. There are light shows and fireworks over the human-made lakes and piers as the Burj is splashed in psychedelic colors and images including that of Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The sensory immersion that is the music, light, and water fountain display gathers as many locals as it does tourists. In his essay “What is Cosmopolitan” Jeremy Waldron takes pains to note that cultural cosmopolitanism, as he understands it, is not about cultural “distinctiveness” as much as the practices that unite people in their differences: “A culture just is what it is, and its practices and rituals are constitutive of it in virtue of their place in a shared way of life, not in virtue of their perceived peculiarity.” This “shared way of life” is worth noting in the context of those many, and various, who have found their way to and continue to contribute to what has become the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) most ambitious city. What is shared is a level of foreignness, perhaps as true for the local experiencing boundary-shifting innovations as it is for the itinerant worker uprooted from a country of origin to work ten-hour, twelve-hour, or longer job shifts. We are all, in our different roles, visitors. Like the imported trees and quickly seeded grass that landscape so much of the city, we are transplants shaped and reshaped by this intrinsically made world.
The UAE’s “Vision Statement” informs us that “the Vision aims to make the United Arab Emirates Among the Best Countries in the World by the Golden Jubilee of the Union” in December 2021. Launched at the closing of his cabinet meeting in 2010, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the UAE’s current prime minister, expressed his nation’s foundational aspirations around “six national priorities” to be of immediate focus. Tellingly “the Vision,” as it is referred to, urges an always future-focused encouragement of working “harder,” being “more innovative, more organized and more vigilant in examining the trends and challenges that will face us.” The statement also asks us to be aware of the state of both “emerging regional and international changes” toward future ambitions to be faced with “confidence, optimism, and determination.”
Modernizing Dubai has always been a blueprint ahead of itself. The maps, town plans, harbor schemes, made for “an optical assurance” of “continuing improvement” as Todd Reiz describes the ever more ambitious infrastructure projects that grew out of John Harris’ first 1960 Municipal Town Plan adopted under Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed’s rule. The impetus of these initial works was to reflect a sense of permanence and security, as representations of modernity would communicate a quality of stability. In Jean Baudrillard’s discussion of simulacrums and simulations he reminds us that simulations of reality are abstractions and as such follow no map; for modern-day Dubai time too seems to have moved away from any connection to a past as it molds the present into its most current ambition, a loss the Emirate poet Khalid Albudoor notes with some melancholy:
Because no one is there
We will lie down
On the shoulder of a dune
At colors of far hills
We wait for no one
You might say
No more Bedouins
All of them
Before we knew them
Yet for Albudoor, it is this forgotten Bedouin past that suggests a way of salvaging a future:
Behind our dune
I can see their souls approach us
Rising from the mirage of distance
Appearing to us from
Is this perhaps another detour, one that leads a way back before another forward step? One whose “mirage of distance” Albudoor’s speaker hopes nomadic travelers of old will take to “stop their journeys/To settle into the sand” where “from their time worn bags,/” they “Will hand us/ Love/ So we can learn it/ Again.”
The French anthropologist Marc Augé’s seminal work Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity (1992) articulates how geographical and anthropological locality—an intimacy with the specificities of place and its connections to identity—is upended in liminal spaces. His work helps to contextualize some of the speed and consequences of Dubai’s evolution. It is Baudrillard’s definition of “the desert of the real” where empires of old are replaced with simulations and technologies that function “with the same imperialism [that] tries to make the real, all the real, coincide with their simulation models” (“Simulacra and Simulation”). This is what Baudrillard also calls the hyperreal that supplants physical reality. Augé has given us the language to discuss the differences between what he defines as “non-places” and “anthropological places” where identities are rooted and histories embedded in relational as much as transactional economies. “Non-places” foreground transience and temporality; they are spaces rather than places, though such distinctions can overlap. Spaces do not provide a continuum of history in their more ephemeral, abstract iterations of location. Augé cites supermarket chains, hotels, airports, refugee camps, and exhibit halls as examples of non-places.
Perhaps, in the “non-places” of our transient worlds, the common ground is as much a projection, virtual or otherwise, of shared interests as it is a product of individual solitudes and desires. As visitors to Dubai, we are “in contractual relations with it (or with the powers that govern it)” (Augé); the visitor is made legible within frames outside of which, like the desert blankness, they remain unspecified. What these parameters and their anxieties suggest of our solitudes feels cosmopolitan; it roots singular and variously broad experiences in the paradoxical fact of a distance from any common (anthropological) ground. Yet I will see people unfolding their prayer rugs near bus stops, on patches of grass, and in the corners of streets to kneel toward Mecca in supplication to their faith, making of what ground they find a space of their own. And it is space (rather than place) that Dubai’s created worlds are focused on constructing— a space like Dubai’s Museum of the Future, which invites projections of what a virtual, simulated polis might look like.
Developed by Killa Design architects and engineered by the Bruno Happold consultancy, The Museum of the Future opened to the public in February 2022. The stainless-steel façade consists of 1,024 pieces “manufactured by a specialist robot assisted process; covering a total surface area of 17,600 square meters” at a height of 77 meters (225 feet). A crescent-shaped circle covered in the calligraphy of Arabic quotes from His Highnesses Sheikh Rashid and Sheikh Mohammed, suggest the city’s interleaving gaze between its super-modern present and its ancient Arabic past. The grounds and the foyer of the building are spacious. But once one begins the museum visit—a non sequitur as there are no artifacts on display, unless one counts the present as we know it to have become an artifact—one feels claustrophobic; at least I did. The online logo of the museum reads “Where the Future Lives,” and just below that logo a tab invites us to “Preview your experience.” From the airy spaciousness of the entranceway, one is ushered into the closed space of an elevator where an automated voice tells us we are going to be sped some fifty years into the future, to 2071.
Led through rooms that have specified functions, we “WITNESS THE WONDERS OF NATURE” or “EXPLORE A LIBRARY OF LIFE.” Some of the jobs available in this imagined future include “Luna Robo Driving Instructor” in the “Applicant Pioneer” category. In “Hope Recruitment Center” and “The HEAL Institute,” a sign under “The Laboratory” explains: “HEAL’s ecosystem simulator is where we test how new species will impact their environments.” The low lighting and cool temperatures, reminiscent of a laboratory, showcase extinct “specimens” from animals to plants and trees and sea life in fluorescent-colored test tube vials. The space is a kind of psychedelic journey of the mind and senses. In the WELLBEING room we’re told that: “Despite our technological abundance, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and addiction remain common.” In 2030, “depression passed obesity as the world’s greatest health risk. Too little has changed in the 40 years since.” There’s also this in the meditation room: “A SALVE FOR YOUR SENSES & SPIRIT: Our senses bond us as humans. Sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch are the original human technologies and keys to living a healthy, balanced life.” I resist the idea that “smell and touch” were ever “human technologies” but in the Museum of the Future, the always forward-looking city reaches its moment of “the pure simulacrum” (Baudrillard).
An aesthetics of modernity (inclusive of British manufacturing materials) first shaped the transformative infrastructure projects developed and engineered by John Harris and others, but after the 1971 formation of the UAE “new Dubai” enacted, and continues to enact, a more overt invitation to a multiplicity of gazes. In a region where some 90 percent of the population are transplants—visa-carrying guests, and/or foreign investors—the UAE, and Dubai especially, has branded itself as the region’s innovator, ahead of the curve and amenable to the latest market demands. Today, the Dubai World Trade Center site advertises itself as a space where “185 countries are represented” with “3M+ visitors annually” and “50K countries exhibiting.” Its Free Zone space is a constantly adapting platform ready to accommodate trade in digital assets. The Al Maktoum rulers of the city and nation-state have achieved its global presence, through an intuitive sense of timing and the courage (that not a few have called foolhardy) to take risks.
Any desire begins with a projection, and Dubai, perhaps more than any contemporary city, was built and continues to be built, to accommodate projections—from the tourist planning an “Arabian Adventure” to Ripa, who tells me she is on a two-year contract at the salon where she cuts my hair, saving to buy a home in Armenia. The built sites of what the gaze on the desert has produced are nothing short of spectacular, but they beg the question of what the costs have been, from the city’s carbon footprint to the inequities of labor. Yet like the Al Maktoum acumen that imagined the built city-state, there is currently an initiative to make Dubai the city with “the smallest” ecological footprint by 2050; it is yet another gaze into a future as seemingly improbable and incongruous with its present as was Sheikh Rashid’s decision to become a debtor in the 1960s, to deepen and expand the Dubai Creek harbor, to build Dubai’s first airport, and to create the Dubai World Trade Center. “Only in the future was Dubai made to last,” writes Todd Reisz regarding the city’s expansionary growth and aspirational resilience; a future always open to its next opportunity, but one it has scripted by inviting in the gaze of others.
A liminal continuum between the mosque and the skyscraper, the camel herds in the desert and battery-run jeeps, where I go from air-conditioned interiors to the burning air of heat-infused exteriors, I am more often than not, unsettled. How does one connect within contexts that foreground our transience? And yet, sense, existential as it is, reminds me that we are merely passing through and only temporarily here; I take nothing for granted and feel gratitude for the simplest gestures of familiarity. “What is your good name?” I’m asked as I go to make an appointment for a check-up. It is a commonly used form of address here, but it is new to me. I am asked this again in the salon when I go to pay after a haircut. My good name, yes, that adjective makes all the difference. I smile at the stranger speaking to me, and we both wish each other the best.
Albudoor, Khalid. “All That We Have.” Gulf Poets Suite, Blackbird Archive, https://blackbird.vcu.edu/v9n2/poetry_gulf/albudoor_k/all_page.shtml.
Augé, Marc. Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, translated by John Howe, Verso, 1995.
Baudrillard, Jean. https://web.stanford.edu/class/history34q/readings/Baudrillard/Baudrillard_Simulacra.html; all subsequent citations of “Simulacra and Simulations” are from this source.
Maktoum, Al Bin Rashid. Spirit of the Union, Lecture on the Occasion of the United Arab Emirates’ Fortieth National Day. Motivate Publishing, 2012.
Reisz. Todd. Showpiece City, How Architecture Made Dubai. Stanford UP, 2021.
Waldron, Jeremy. “What Is Cosmopolitan?” Journal of Political Philosophy, vol. 3, no. 2, 2000, pp. 227–43.
Adrianne Kalfopoulou is the author of three poetry collections, and two works of nonfiction. Her latest publication, ON THE GAZE: Dubai and Its New Cosmopolitanisms (2023), is out from Fulcrum Publishers.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 9 • October 2023
Header image by Mispahn.