Dubai is held as one of the most desired destinations by Muslim and non-Muslims alike. With its tall skyscrapers, opulent malls, vast desert, clean white beaches and halaal food, Dubai has become the dream destination to holiday and for some to relocate permanently. With celebrities, the likes of the late Michael Jackson, The Beckhams, Brad Pitt, Mariah Carey and Claudia Schiffer all residing in Dubai, its attraction has only grown. Dubai’s success has led to many to advocate it as a new form of economic development, with a distinctly Islamic approach.
I recently had the opportunity to visit Dubai and my time there left me with much to reflect upon. One aspect that immediately strikes any visitor is the pure surrealism of the country. Common sights included shiny new cars just off the production line, clean streets, people shopping continuously throughout the day and night and more Starbucks outlets than you can imagine. It is as if one had arrived on a new planet where there was no poverty, depression, hunger or oppression. I however found this feeling a little awkward even distasteful as all this escapism only served to ignore the horrors inflicted upon our ummah only a few miles away. The Muslim world was erupting in revolution and political awakening, while shoppers were busy looking for what colour Swarovski crystals to put on their abayah.
The ‘land of promise’ vision Dubai has cultivated is what draws tourist, expatriate and labourer. Dubai’s rulers were considered to have provided a master class in how to develop an economy from almost nothing. They used what oil revenues they had to create a port and free-trade zone, believing their little state could become a business hub if they created the right conditions. For many this was a shrewd move. Emirates, the airline, bolstered the hub and became the best possible mobile advertising banner. Dubai was considered a genuine economic miracle. This rapid economic development attracted the world’s largest companies, finance, celebrities and cheap labor from the East. This led to foreigners constituting over 80% of Dubai’s 2.2 million population.
The search for employment led many from the Philippines, Bangladesh and Pakistan to arrive on Dubai’s shores. They work today in conditions Human rights watch described as ‘not fit for humans.’ Stories of very little health and safety for these vital workers are all too common. Walking by any new building under construction one will see workers labouring in the scorching heat. It is clear to all those who visit Dubai that the government regularly flouts recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The global economic crisis that began in 2008 hit Dubai hard. The dessert nation was dependent upon the talent and expertise of foreign entities for its survival. It could only offer specialist services such as banking and finance as a means to guarantee its future, along with tourism. As these sectors rely heavily on the goodwill and confidence of foreigners, when the crisis hit, foreign investment dried up, foreign companies began to relocate and the Dubai government defaulted on its debt repayments.
Tourists disappeared overnight and many construction projects came to a crushing halt. With no money and no jobs, thousands of labour workers were left destitute, some so desperate they considered suicide. The Dubai government did nothing to help such people.
For those fortunate enough to be Emirati or those who are foreigners residing in Dubai it is them who live the shiny Dubai life of big cars, restaurants and posh apartments. One issue that struck me was the monotonous life most residents live. Life in Dubai is a struggle to pass time and find ever new ways to spend money. The youth are a good example of this. A walk along the sea front is common for young men in sports cars, revving their engines to attract girls, loud live music, jam packed restaurants and car parks full of youth displaying their kitted up cars, whilst watching a loud advert for a new computer game being shown on a projector screen. For the wealthy youth there is little to do except socialise, shop and kit up their cars. Whilst Dubai may be considered a world apart it is in reality an artificial reality in the dessert.
There were many mosques in Dubai, segregated swimming facilities and a clear dislike for relationships outside of marriage. As a woman I felt far safer and was not subjugated to the sexualised atmosphere of the west which was a welcome change. At Salah time women who covered and those who didn’t made their way to the mall prayer rooms, which I was glad to see was still part of Emirati life.
However this was where Islam also stopped. Other than Salah there was little else to mark Dubai as an Islamic society. Whilst jilbabs or Abayahs were common, this was clearly a cultural aspect of Emirati life as excessive makeup, strong perfume and coloured fringes were all on overt display. Unfortunately the jilbab has become the street uniform. I was especially shocked and confused to find women in the Emirate who wore Jilbabs but no hijabs!
Another worrying aspect was Dubai’s attempt to offer a Western lifestyle with an Eastern flavour for all. This has led the authorities to turn the other way when tourists indulge themselves in non-Islamic activities. Whilst staying at a Dubai hotel the western tourist can drink alcohol and visit nightclubs. Relationships between unmarried couples are allowed to openly operate as long as the authorities are not aware of their activities. In January 2010 a British Muslim woman who had claimed she was raped during a night out, was arrested whilst lodging her claim after she was found to have been drinking alcohol and had a boyfriend whom she had sexual relations with.
Far from being the image of an Islamic model of governance, Dubai is in reality a cheap imitation of the west whilst trying to hold on to the odd Islamic practice. Their attempt to imitate the West has resulted in the dilution of their Islamic identity. The pursuit of economic growth led Dubai to turn to an unsustainable debt driven economy, which is now on its knees.
If Dubai represents anything then its how one should not construct a nation.