Reading 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]