Many people, when describing Dubai, sum up their own worst fears: That Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates, is all sickening shine and has no soul, an air-conditioned bubble of hype whose hubris guarantees imminent cultural and ecological Armageddon. They believe the UAE to act as a kind of narcissistic mutating mirror to the emerging anxieties of the West.
Dubai and the whole region was a piece of desert sparsely populated by Bedouins, is now transforming itself rapidly into a center, if not the world’s greatest center, of trade, finance, and tourism. The oil (discovered in 1958, exported since 1962) brought prospectors and the money brought hustlers. Fortunately Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan controlled change. He was the principal driving force behind the formation of the State of UAE (1971). Using the country’s enormous oil revenues, Zayed built institutions such as hospitals, schools and universities and made it possible for UAE citizens to enjoy free access to them.
Since the 70‘s, everything went fast. Very fast! Lightning-quick construction made a town of an outpost in a week, maps were redrawn monthly and laws stretched to accommodate overnight industrialization realized by a migrant workforce and expats underwritten by the promise of a pot of gold. Dubai has often been described as one large transit hotel – everyone stays with a check-out date in mind. ‘No one cleans a rented car,’ is a known maxim in Dubai, where those creating Dubai might have no vested interest in its outcome.
But something important happened in the last few years: Culture! Dubai and its neighbors have come to believe that even seven-star luxury and tax-free sunshine is stale without culture. If underwater hotels and desert ski slopes were how Dubai once sought to grab the world’s attention, design is the new catchword among the leadership. The Dubai Design District (D3) has been erected on a patch of out-of-the-way wasteland and the Emirates ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, has decreed the founding of a Design and Fashion Council that lobbies government in the name of the industry. Believe it or not, all designers we met had claimed it to be the best moment in their lives, being in the right place at the right moment!
Today, a new Arab world is being plotted and planned. The entire Gulf is teeming with initiatives – from the most public to the most private – to change and reinvent seemingly immutable rules, regimes, edicts, and assumptions, culminating, perhaps, in the stated intention to work more closely together. The Gulf states have a past, and they will have a future. The contours of that future are legible in this issue!