Cooling Heels in Dubai

It’s a strange set of circumstances that has led to me cooling my heels in Dubai for the last week. A security scare in Islamabad, the details of which I won’t go into for what I hope are obvious reasons, has forced me into my current state of semi-exile. But at least I’m in good company. Half this city seems to be in a similar boat. Most people are running from something here, whether it’s bad economic luck back home or an ex-spouse or literal political exile.

Speaking of the latter, last night I had a conversation with the media rep for Pervez Musharraf, former military president of Pakistan. I’m working on securing an interview with the ex-general, which would be sometime next week. it’s questionable how politically relevant to Pakistan he is these days, but he’s an interesting character. In some ways, he’s responsible for me being here. He gave a speech at Stanford back when I was there on a fellowship, and it gave my ex-wife the idea that we should re-base ourselves in Pakistan. So, we did. And now, I’m back in Dubai, which we left in 2008, attempting to meet face-to-face the man who inspired the move in the first place. Kismet!

Mind you, we didn’t move because he was such an driving force. What I found fascinating was the reaction to his speech. The audience in the Stanford auditorium was dominated by Indian and Pakistani students, and it was the interaction between (and within) the two groups that was so interesting. The Pakistanis were utterly divided into the pro- and anti- camps, while the Indian students just seemed eager to score points off Kargil and, perhaps, Mumbai, which was pretty fresh back then.

Watching this never ending war of words between the various camps convinced me that Pakistan was where it was at, news-wise, for the next few years. And so, there I went.

Musharraf on the other hand, left Pakistan in disgrace in 2008 after being forced from power and threatened with arrest. These days, he splits his time between Dubai, London and — I guess — Riyadh, as he looks for support for his MacArthur-like return.

So, the former prez and I have something in common — we’re both sitting around waiting to go somewhere else. And that helps define Dubai for me. Its attraction has never been the malls or the culture (hah!) or, save me, the climate, which reaches kiln-like temperatures by mid-spring. Its own policies encourage an expat churn, a wave that washes through, dropping flotsam and jetsam from around the world as it washes out again, an accretion of global influences laid down over the indigenous Gulf way of life. As a foreigner, you’re not expected to actually stick around. Come, contribute, partake and then be on your way. Very few people here consider this a permanent home. It is, at best, a gilded way-station, a city-sized transfer terminal. Many people say the best thing about Dubai is its role as a global transport hub, but I’ve never thought it says much for a place when it’s primary draw is the ability to easily leave.

And yet, the waiting here is not the hardest part. It can be pretty pleasant if have money. For the poor bastard south Asian workers, who get treated like shit by pretty much everyone with any power here, it’s much, much worse. (I used to fantasize, when I lived here in 2008, that I would lead a slave revolt of these guys by passing out 500,000 t-shirts that said “I’m Spartacus!”)

No, if you have money, Dubai isn’t bad. Lots of shopping malls, absurd indoor ski slopes that now offer rides down the slope in human-sized hamster balls, food that doesn’t abjectly suck and — in early May — a not-unbearable temperature. You can booze it up (and lord, people do), wear what you want and go about your business in happy air-conditioned cocoons. Even the new metro is pretty nice. It goes right to all the big malls, after all. A lot of people love it here.

And for a lot of people — including the grossly exploited south Asian construction workers — it’s better than where they left. The money’s better, perhaps there’s more personal freedom, it’s cosmopolitan. … But it’s not home. It’s transient, liquid. It’s not a place, it’s an opportunity.

(Even the Emiratis, for whom it is home and who make up a fraction of the population, are conflicted over what the place is and should be. They stand athwart their own conservative Gulf culture and the influx of the outside world with its bling, booze and babes. What does it mean to be Emirati?, is the burning national question.)

Don’t get me wrong. The world needs places like Dubai. It needs places where you can start fresh, work and make a little scratch to send home. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s still something deeply absent here. There’s a yawning emptiness on the horizon. Perhaps its the desert on the outskirts pressing in just a bit, as if reminding us that all things must end, all of humanity’s works are fleeting.

I’m resisting the whole Ozymandias king of kings schtick, but its echo is there. We’ll eventually move on, but the hot sands remain. And in the meantime, we all just wait for the next flight out.

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