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oil-fields

Dubai is a palace of excess and contradition. It is a mushroom that paradoxically bloomed under the whithering rays of the sun. But the leadership of the UAE is a lot smarter than anyone in America today. From today’s New York Times:

[The UAE’s] new investment [in renewable energy] aims to maintain the gulf’s dominant position as a global energy supplier, gaining patents from the new technologies and promoting green manufacturing. But if the United States and the European Union have set energy independence from the gulf states as a goal of new renewable energy efforts, they may find they are arriving late at the party.

The irony that the most wasteful and oil dependent part of the globe should be on the cutting edge of green energy is unremarkable next to the ambition — characteristic of the Gulf states — to go all the way all at once. Consider Masdar City, a planned community outside of Abu Dhabi that claims it will have a zero-carbon footprint. Even though skeptics doubt this claim, it is notable not for its complete success in execution, but for its audacity.

According to the Times article, Qatar has invested $225 million into a British research fund, and Saudi Arabia has invested untold millions into American universities, including $25 million for Michael McGehee an associate professor at Stanford, to develop cutting edge technologies. That is fifty times the amount invested by Western governments or industry.

Finally, the Times tells us Masdar City “goes beyond creating new materials and is in fact exploring a new model for urban life.” To wit: “The city will have no cars; people will move around using driverless electric vehicles that move on a subterranean level. The air-conditioning will be solar powered.” As a New Yorker I take exception to this. After all, we also have subterranean electric cars that move people around. It’s called the subway. If only the city, state, and federal government could get their posteriors and capitals wired together they could see that a massive investment in the New York City subway is a necessary good faith effort to putting America into the 21st century.

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Muslim women buying Barbies

Dubai, unlike it’s neighbor Abu Dhabi, does not have oil riches. Though oil and gas were discovered in the 1960s, the Al Maktoum Emirs of Dubai knew early on they had to capitalize on oil money in the 80s, 90s, and 00s before the gravy train ran out of steam. Dubai creek was dredged several times over those decades so that today Dubai is the largest deep water port in the region.

Dubai’s rulers have also worked hard to make their town a financial center, giving sweetheart deals to major western financial houses to locate offices there. With finance comes real estate, which, according to Wikipedia, accounted for 22% of Dubai’s GDP before the housing bubble of started to inflate in 2004. It is difficult to find up-to-date figures on the financial situation in Dubai, probably for two reasons: first, if its economy was driven by a bubble, those interested in it do not want to spread the news it has popped and cause a panic; second, the government of Dubai and the UAE does not seem to be particularly transparent, at least if you are looking at the official website. (This article is indicative.) That said, my eyeball estimate of the economy in Dubai shows three salient categories of economic activity: commerce, service and tourism, and finance, under which I include real estate. (If you don’t like my categories, go talk to a professional economist.)

1) Kelly McEvers of Marketplace reported a couple of months ago that confidence in the Dubai’s real estate market has evaporated. 2) If players like Morgan Stanley are in trouble here, then you can be sure they’re in trouble at the Dubai satellite office. 3) And news that China is rethinking its investment in USD bonds should make any country with its currency pegged to the dollar (like the UAE) think twice about its future purchasing power. That leaves us with the service and tourism sector.

Kareoke machine in the Emirates Mall

Kareoke machine in the Emirates Mall

It’s true, everyone loves kareoke. And in the Mall of the Emirates you can record yourself in sound and vision doing a cover of Bowie to send to your friends back home.

Indoor skiing at the Emirates Mall

Indoor skiing at the Emirates Mall

I was particularly thrilled to know I could leave cold, rainy New York to go to the warm, sunny desert, and not have to miss a day of skiing. Not that it was so cold in New York. On the day we left for Dubai a friend who lives near Whiteface ski resort upstate lamented in a Facebook status update that it was unnatural to have 60 degree days at the end of December. But that makes indoor skiing in the desert all the more desirable.

Westerners working at the ski slopes in the Emirates Mall

Westerners working at the ski slopes in the Emirates Mall

When they close down mountain resorts in the US for lack of snow all the ski bums will be able to get jobs at the Mall in Dubai. The Dubai Mall also has ice skating and hockey…

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Ice rink in the Dubai Mall

… and a massive indoor aquarium.

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Dubai Mall Aquarium

Cool huh?! Notice all the folks in Western dress. That’s because most of the people in the malls were either Indian/Pakistani or European. I saw a few Emiratis, but not enough to keep these massive emporia open. Most of the shops are Western too, from Hardee’s and KFC (the writing is Arabic)…

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YUM brands

… to lingerie.

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This may be what Emirati women wear under their black robes, but I wouldn’t know.

Lingerie shoppers?

Lingerie shoppers?

The malls all have a space for “local” stuff, either tourist kitch or jewelry that is dressed up in a faux souk.

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Gold "souk" in the Dubai Mall

If you have any problems shopping, any disgruntled counter help or problems with your credit card, you can appeal either to the mall management or to God.

A higher power

A higher power

In sum, as long as tourists can afford to spend money, as long as novelty and kitch can last, as long as a flower can grow in the desert, Dubai will have a future.