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March 26th, 2009 - Desert Blogger [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Jamie Stewart

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March 26th, 2009

Keeping the faith [Mar. 26th, 2009|09:46 pm]
Jamie Stewart
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It may be necessary at this stage to offer the briefest of introductions to the city-state of Dubai, as it is my sojourns through the city and its media landscape that will define the posts that follow.

One of seven Emirates that constitute the UAE, Dubai is defined on the global stage by its audacious real estate projects, building huge tracts of land where before was sea, raising the tallest building in the world - the Burj Dubai - by a comfortable margin, and by the sweet promise of a playground for the rich beneath the year-round Arabian sunshine, where one can snow, sand and surf-board in the same searing hot Sunday afternoon.
But of late, the city has come to be defined by rather more complex issues of a disquietingly polemic nature, which certain areas of Dubai society would prefer to sweep beneath the desert sands, and none of which should be spoken about, at least, not in public, and not within the Emirate.

These issues have arisen as a result of the city's sprint towards an unchartered territory where east and west converge in the 21st century. A society still ruled by the underlying Muslim faith of its founders, yet which has opened its doors to the west, and all the trappings of excess.

Fancy a beer? Every hotel has its bar, some lining the beach, others lined by ladies of a questionable profession. Fancy some pork? The Jebel Ali Club, in the city's original western expat village, will offer up a lump of glorious crackling-lined pig the size of your fist, and your wrist.

But the ripples of an underlying willingness towards cultural hegemony have been spotted sweeping the usually placid waters of the Gulf.

When Israeli bombs were falling on the streets of Gaza last December 31st, Dubai banned any celebration of Gregorian New Year within its borders. On the morning of new year's eve, all bars were ordered to close for the night, fireworks and music were outlawed in public, and the people were ordered to show solidarity with the Palestinians, in the most sombre style - much to the consternation of many who had jetted into the city for their one night of lager, lauding, and Auld Lang Syne.

The issues that have arisen as a result of this most stark, unambiguous cultural clash - none of which we should really talk about remember - include last year's infamous sex-on-the-beach scandal; the banning of Israel's seeded female tennis star Shahar Peer from the Dubai Championships last February, to the severe displeasure of the Women's Tennis Association, on the grounds that organisers "feared for her safety"; and, on a broader scale, the arrival of the global financial crisis on the economy of the Emirate.

In a city that relies so heavily on foreign direct investment, much of it originating from western economies, it was always going to happen.

It is a challenge when raised surrounded by the freedom of expression enjoyed by western media, to see the benefits of the restrictions on the press in the Middle East. The arguments for the correctional mechanism instilled by an open media are well documented, and will wait for my further posts. But of all the issues listed above, the coming of the economic crisis is the one we must not discuss.

A good friend of mine recently lost his job for doing just that. He ran a story quoting from a prominent UK economist and expert on Middle Eastern affairs, suggesting that the recent underwriting of a $10 billion bond - issued by the government of Dubai - by the UAE Central Bank, may have constituted something of a, dare I say it...bail out. The money has since been put to work, firing up many infrastructural projects that had ground to a halt. But can we, do we, dare we say bail out? That depends how far we value our future in the place we call home.

There is no shame in the great east-west experiment temporarily slowing on its manic sprint through the desert, pausing for breath beneath the globe's economic storm clouds. No shame in being a victim of outside circumstance, victim of a posse of irresponsible, bonus guzzling mortgage lenders, smoking guns in hand, or in the desk drawer, depending on whether one still has a desk or not. The only shame, it would appear, is in talking about it.

The great experiment will continue, and the outcome will depend much on the tolerance of the people, regardless of religion and ethnicity. Tolerance of many aspects of life in a cultural and literal melting pot.

Keep the faith, Dubai. Or don't. There's no shame in either.

email: desert_blogger@hotmail.com

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