As expected last night's Panorama, which I am still yet to see (youtube is my next stop...), did indeed spur a fair amount of media interest in Dubai. Not all of it fair. Such reports have in fact spawned a genre all of their own - popularly known as "Dubai bashing." In the words of a very popular man, to be revealed below, "Only a fruit laden tree has stones thrown at it." So this will be a brief post, but one that I feel a certain duty to write.
Though many aspects of life here should indeed be put under the microscope, it should not be forgotten that the city, and its burgeoning growth, has repackaged the Middle East in the thoughts of many people. The means of its arrival on the world stage were questioned by last night's documentary, rightly so, but a huge experiment is underway , that mixes culture, ethnicity, and religion. It was never going to be easy.
This is a city experiencing ardent growing pains, that had planned to grow when growth became systemically impossible. I've written before that there is no shame in taking a hit due to the behaviour of a posse of greed-fuelled, unregulated, Western-centric, champagne-guzzling, yacht-sailing, cigar-waving bankers, injected to the hilt with bonus cheques and platinum credit cards, too busy getting their nails manicured, their empty suits fitted, their egg-shell-white-with-raised-gold-type business cards printed, and their lazy, sponging sons into the same company as them, to notice that they were dragging not just their partner for the night, but also the entire capitalist system, to its grubby knees.
It's true. The economy of the state of Dubai has taken an unfair battering from the international press of late. Dubai found itself in an unfortunate position when the credit situation turned from crunch to bite. The city was in the midst of inflating a real estate bubble, like many tiger-economies before it.
To draw a parallel, In Hong-Kong, property crashed in 1997, sliding 40%-60% as a result of the collapse of the Thai baht and subsequent Asian financial crisis. Within months, a penthouse overlooking Hong-Kong's Victoria Harbour shed so much value it was worth little more than, well, a shed.
So when the worst global recession since the great depression reared its ugly head last year, and the international liquidity river ran dry, Dubai, busy whistling away, blowing up balloons in the corner of the room and generally minding its own business, found its throat was particularly parched.
Add to this the fact that Dubai has opened its doors to the world, inviting those from all over to come and help build a nation. When you consider that around 90% of the population are non-UAE citizens, you begin to get a hold on the importance of foreign cash (and labour) to the economy. Again, not an easy situation to be in, when a global recession chooses to attack.
Paint a picture, if you will, of a grinning magician - circa Paul Daniels - who came along at the close of 2008 and in a flash swept the tablecloth from beneath Dubai's tea-set. But here's the point. The tea-set is still standing, albeit on shaky ground.
Dubai bashing is a very real phenomenon. I wouldn't be surprised to see it as the exhibition sport at the next Olympics. Now, I'm not one to cast doubt on other's work. But, to raise some choice points from recent articles on Dubai: No, the Palm island is not sinking; No, the streets are not plagued with broke expats dusting the sand from their clothes after another night sleeping in the sand dunes; and I've turned on the taps THOUSANDS of times, and a river of cockroaches has never come pouring out (thank the NY Times for that pearl!)
The point of this post is that it's important to get things in perspective. The lack of media freedom here, that I have touched on numerous times, has the unfortunate side effect of destroying credibility - it is simply not possible to differentiate the truths from the half-truths, and the assumptions from the down right lies, unless you are here, staring it in the face.
That's why I pay my respects to Ben Anderson, the journalist behind Panorama: Slumdogs and Millionaires. Yes, OK, I still haven't seen it, but the man was here, for three months, and he raised a deeply important issue; that of the exploitation of migrant workers. But such sterling work must be separated from that which is less so.
I will not give up on the case of the construction labourers. It's too important and unjust. In three weeks, thanks to an event organised by a good friend of mine Oscar Wendel, I am set to be in the same room as the UAE Minister of Labour Saqr Ghobash. And who else will be in the same room? Ellie Larson, the director of the Solidarity Centre, a US-based NGO seeking to build a global solidarity movement. There will never be a more golden opportunity to raise the labour issue back up the flag-pole of the local media where it belongs.
So rest assured, there is still much work to be done. Wrongs to be righted. Sometimes I genuinely do love my job, despite the occasional frustrations. As for Dubai, as it finds itself again thrust into the international media spotlight - and not out of choice this time - the truth is out there. Allegedly. Maybe it's a place that grew so fast, the wheels of legislation could not keep up. Well if so, they now have their chance.
In a rare moment of solidarity, I'm going to quote Dubai's ruler, who said last year, at the height of the upsurge in Dubai-bashing: "Only a fruit laden tree has stones thrown at it." A most articulate point. But who planted the fruit, that the minority may enjoy?