I wonder if Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, ever
built model cities out of Lego when he was a child.Lego is a great medium for acting out fantasies. Given a wide enough bedroom
floor and a large enough supply of bricks – and I bet Sheikh Mohammed’s
family could have afforded millions – you can design pretend cities with
whatever utopian architecture you can dream up. Bestriding your city like a
god, you can concentrate on the grandest building projects without worrying
about tedious details like infrastructure or the environment. It doesn’t
matter if your Lego city has no agriculture and no water supply, other than
inedible plastic flowers and undrinkable blue tiles, because the little
people are made of plastic and will never go hungry and thirsty. It doesn’t
matter if your Lego city lacks adequate housing for its population, or
adequate roads and railways to move them around (other than the stretch of
track you built because it looked cool), because the little people will
stand wherever you put them and will never complain. They are certainly not
in a position to vote you out of your bedroom if you prove to be a lousy

But why would the young Sheikh Mohammed have bothered with Lego, when he
knew that one day he would have a real city to play with?

It would have taken an army of hyperactive children to build a Legoland on
the scale of twenty-first century Dubai. (Fortunately, since Dubai is not
made of concrete rather Lego, its designers has been able to do the job by
exploiting imported Asian labourers instead.) A city of over a million
people, which has increased its population by fifty times in as many years,
the little emirate has come a long way from its beginnings two centuries ago
as tiny village beside a small inlet of the Persian Gulf. Back then, the
place was so insignificant that when the Al Maktoum family turned up in 1833
and declared themselves its rulers nobody bothered to try and stop them. The
only resources Dubai had, apart from pearl-producing oysters and few date
palms, were a modest amount of yet-to-be-discovered oil and a well-located

Oil money lubricated the city’s growth, but it was the latter resource that
really powered Dubai’s transformation into a major city. Ever since the late
nineteenth century, Dubai’s rulers have encouraged foreign merchants to do
business in the emirate, luring traders away from neighbouring ports with
offers of lower taxes and greater commercial freedom. Today the city boasts
vast industrial Free Trade Zones, an international airport that serves a
regional hub and the base for one of the world’s best airlines (which was
why I ended up there), a thriving financial sector, and a growing status as
a tourist destination. Not to mention a construction industry that has seen
cranes rise like lampposts and nearly every street corner dug up by
roadworks, while dusty cement factories spread for miles across the
outskirts of the city. On Pentecost, I know of villagers who have struggled
for years to find the money for a few bags of cement in order to build
themselves a small chapel. In Dubai, concrete is poured like water. The
emirate’s rulers have no intention of going back to their tents in the
desert after the oil runs out.

For wealthy sheikhs, and their foreign business partners, Dubai is a
spectacular playground. It includes the world’s grandest hotel, luxury
waterfront developments, glitzy conference centres, glamorous shopping
malls, a vast acreage of polished marble, and (in an impressive feat of
air-conditioning) the Arabian desert’s only ski centre. Its buildings stand
taller and shinier than in almost any other city on earth.

But there is something distinctly uncomfortable about being one of the
little people in somebody else’s Lego fantasy.

“What did you do during your stopover in Dubai?” people asked me when I got

Well, I wandered around shopping malls admiring things I couldn’t afford to
buy, and wandered around the city admiring hotels I couldn’t afford to stay
in and developments I could never afford to invest in. I sat on the
armchairs in Starbucks (not a place I’m fond of back in Britain, but a great
refuge in stressful foreign cities) and flicked through guidebooks trying to
find attractions that were affordable and could be reached by public
transport. I can recommend the Dubai Museum, and the city’s historic areas
are worth a look in spite of their faked-up appearance, but there wasn’t
much else.

In between, spent a large proportion of the time sitting on overcrowded and
infrequent buses trying to get from one part of the city to another.
Sometimes I would get out at a bus stop that seemed like a short walk from
where I wanted to be, only to find that it was in fact a two mile trek
through grey industrial suburbs where gangs of Indian workers laboured in
the desert heat and lorries thundered past. I picked my way on foot between
lanes of murderous traffic, and negotiated junctions circumsected by
barriers and roadworks. On one occasion I was actually forced to take a taxi
in order to cross a highway.

When I built Lego towns I never thought to include road crossings either.

In none of the hundred or so cities I’ve visited have I spent so much time
on buses, walked so many miles, breathed so much dust and carbon monoxide –
and seen so little of interest – as I did in Dubai.

Above all, the emirate is a tragic waste of an opportunity. If all of its
grand constructions had been clustered together in one place, and connected
by a transport system as futuristic as the buildings it served, Dubai would
be a wonder of the world: far and away the most impressive city on Earth.
Instead, the buildings have been scattered like loose boulders over a
hundred square miles of desert. The effect of this obscene sprawl has been
to reduce a potential Futurama to something closer to an oversized Milton
Keynes, except that Milton Keynes is pleasant and green.

Even the tallest of all Dubai’s buildings is unimpressive when viewed over
such sprawling distances. This is the Burj Dubai, a tapering tower which
will eventually stand around half a mile high, a symbol of the emirate’s
prowess and the most obvious Freudian expression yet of what Sheikh Mohammed
is trying to achieve with his city. The building is still under
construction, and its exact projected height is a secret (Dubai is not the
only up-and-coming city playing the “mine is bigger than yours” game), but
it has already outstripped Toronto’s CN Tower as the world’s tallest
structure – the first time since the days of the Pyramids that a Middle
Eastern construction has held the record.

The Burj Dubai bears a resemblance to certain artists’ renderings of the
Tower of Babel, the Biblical construction built by humans in an arrogant
attempt to climb to heaven.

The people of Babel got off lightly: God put a stop to their work by the
simple measure of confounding their language. That wouldn’t work in Dubai.
With immigrants from over 90 countries whose lingua franca seems to be
broken English of the most awkward kind, the emirate’s language is already
thoroughly confounded, yet still the buildings rise. Whatever God, or fate,
eventually does to put a stop to Dubai will to have to be a lot nastier.

In fact, the inhabitants of this oil-fuelled little emirate may already have
sealed their fate. Those who find Dubai a hideous excess can take grim
comfort in one fact: few parts of it are an appreciable height above sea
level. And when the water begins to lap around the base of the skyscrapers,
no city will more richly deserve its fate.


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