The utter Ballardian weirdness of Dubai

Sheik Zayed Road, DubaiReading this may take you half an hour, but it’ll be half an hour well spent. Johann Hari of The Independent goes to Dubai and unearths a slice of desert dressed as utopia, full of half-finished buildings, jaded over-moneyed ex-pats and a colossal underclass of what are essentially indentured slaves. I knew the place was bent, but not this badly.

Time doesn’t seem to pass in the malls. Days blur with the same electric light, the same shined floors, the same brands I know from home. Here, Dubai is reduced to its component sounds: do-buy. In the most expensive malls I am almost alone, the shops empty and echoing. On the record, everybody tells me business is going fine. Off the record, they look panicky. There is a hat exhibition ahead of the Dubai races, selling elaborate headgear for £1,000 a pop. “Last year, we were packed. Now look,” a hat designer tells me. She swoops her arm over a vacant space.

I approach a blonde 17-year-old Dutch girl wandering around in hotpants, oblivious to the swarms of men gaping at her. “I love it here!” she says. “The heat, the malls, the beach!” Does it ever bother you that it’s a slave society? She puts her head down, just as Sohinal did. “I try not to see,” she says. Even at 17, she has learned not to look, and not to ask; that, she senses, is a transgression too far.

Between the malls, there is nothing but the connecting tissue of asphalt. Every road has at least four lanes; Dubai feels like a motorway punctuated by shopping centres. You only walk anywhere if you are suicidal. The residents of Dubai flit from mall to mall by car or taxis.

It gets weirder and bleaker as you read through, making you realise that until recently the public veneer of Dubai was very effective in keeping us from seeing what was really happening… that and the complicity of our own willingness to accept what we’re told, of course. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the truth’s always stranger than fiction, because fiction is required to make sense. [image by chorcel]

3 thoughts on “The utter Ballardian weirdness of Dubai”

  1. Dubai, is like the ultimate mirage that everybody knows isn’t real but yet are quite content to ignore its falsities. I am the child of a South Asian ex-pat couple and was born in Sharjah a small city near Dubai back in ’84. Stayed there until I was 12 years old – before we immigrated and became Canadian citizens – and even than as young as I was I couldn’t ignore seeing the slave like treatment of ex-pats from the India, Pakistan and the Philippines. So glad we left when we did. All the horror stories emanating from that city would turn your blood cold…and it’s especially chilling when you hear it from friends who thought they could make it big in that city just to have their money taken, their passports taken away by employers and worst of all threats of abuse. Ugh.

  2. wow… I read the whole article and I really do feel like I’ve read Ballard’s latest draft. Although I’m not sure even Ballard could have described the tragedy vs jadedness within an aura of luxury quite like the real thing.

  3. I grew up in the Middle East, and lived in Dubai in the 1970s and Abu Dhabi 1990s. I know plenty of horrors stories about the place, but that Independent article is a hatchet job and not a balanced piece of journalism. The implication that all expats live the life of Riley on the backs of slaves from India and the Philippines is a gross distortion. But then, the truth never did sell newspapers…

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