Public Comment

Petroleum Impregnated Lofty Sand Castles of the Middle East

By Rizwan A. Rahmani
Wednesday January 26, 2011 - 02:39:00 PM

“I arrived at length at Cairo, mother of cities and seat of Pharaoh the tyrant, mistress of broad regions and fruitful lands, boundless in multitude of buildings, peerless in beauty and splendor, the meeting-place of comer and goer, the halting-place of feeble and mighty, whose throngs surge as the waves of the sea, and can scarce be contained in her for all her size and capacity." This is a synopsis of what Ibn Battuta the great Moroccan traveler wrote of Cairo when he arrived there in year 1326. Although it is still a very important city in Arab world, it has lost some of that splendor through the ages. 

I have been to the Middle East several times since the early seventies, mainly the United Arab Emirates and briefly Oman, and had the opportunity to see its metamorphosis into a modern metropolis. Unfortunately, its ostentatiously dazzling facade of western style skylines is only skin deep. When I first arrived in Arabia 38 years ago, I was just a boy, and it was a completely different Arabia in terms of exterior and infrastructure. Much of that has changed: in its current iteration, I wouldn’t recognize the Dubai of today compared to its earlier humble footprint, with quaint traditional wooden schooner (dhow) lined port, and the old bazaar (suq), which served it well in older times. But the gulf infamously came into its own under the Qawasims and others as ‘Pirate Coast’ during various stages of Ottoman and European influence in the region ending with the British. After a truce, the British agreed to a peaceful coexistence in exchange for protecting the region from other Europeans, free flow of goods, and a cessation of ship raids, hence their original name: Trucial States. Since 1971 a modern truce has been at play between U.A.E and the world of late, a devil’s bargain with consumers, money launderers, and sun-seekers: come shop, stay, and enjoy our gold-gilded air-conditioned playground—we will give you the modernized Arabia of your dreams at the expense of political freedom, worker rights, totalitarianism, and second class treatment of the immigrants. But will this truce hold? 

The ports in the Persian Gulf, and especially Omani ports, have been active for millennia when the region was a major maritime trade route and pearl producer: the peninsula did brisk trade with the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Iraq, east Africa and Southeast Asia. Before Dubai, Oman and Yemen may have been an even grander trading hub, when frankincense and myrrh was all the rage, followed by silk, fabric, and exotic spices as produits du jour. Yemen was the centre of several major empires before the rise of Islam, as one of the most influential powers in the region. All that changed during the 60s and 70s, when Yemen’s neighbors found black gold of the cheap variety (easily extractable) and the appetite for gasoline rose meteorically in the west. Suddenly, by geographic good fortune a mid point, Dubai found itself in the middle of all this new activity: it is literally a jet age Constantinople—in actuality more of a desert caravanserai with well lit, glitzy, and dazzling duty free shops catering to the consumerist appetite of VAT-stricken Europeans and sub-continent citizenry where certain things aren’t as readily available. But unlike Constantinople, it is situated in a rather hostile and arid land with little or no major source of potable water for hundreds of miles—its natural resources are some oil, sea, and well over 300 days of blistering sun. 

During the late sixties and early seventies my father worked in Oman - then still a de facto British colony despite the fact that Oman was considered a sovereign nation. When we travelled from Muscat (the capital) to the town where my father was assigned as the chief physician of the region, we encountered a sizable British army presence en route. The roads were still unpaved and rugged; the only vehicles seen on the road were four wheel drive Land Rovers. There were times when the vehicles were partially submerged in water traversing through a mountainous pass. The journey took several days as it was just too arduous to endure in one sitting. 

The aging Sultan of Oman was a shrewd man, and despite alliances he kept the British under a hawk-like watch. He wouldn’t let them exploit its oil reserves to the extent they wanted. But he was soon deposed in a convenient bloodless coup that involved his son and his ally: the British. It was a short news item on the BBC international service: I still remember hearing the news along with my brothers and father with our ears glued to the transistor radio. Once the son of the Sultan (Qaboos) took over Oman under the aegis of the British benevolence, the oil fields were exploited en masse and Oman changed rapidly, though it still lagged behind its neighbors: especially Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, and Dubai, with their ample reserves of oil. I remember seeing BP’s ubiquitous logo sprouting all over the country during that time. 

We traveled through the Trucial States (not yet U.A.E.) from Oman on unpaved roads: by the time we arrived in Dubai, we were parched and seared from the desert heat and coughed sand and dust-laced phlegm. Dubai, while small, was even then a trading hub of the region. Both Abu Dhabi and Dubai were already on their infrastructure-centered renaissance—superficial in nature, development centered on newly paved roads and lights to line them, ghostly with a complete absence of any tenements alongside. While some of the trees were appropriately enough date palms (though even date palm requires some water), many others were surrealistically out of place in the arid desert, being grown forcibly with ample irrigation. When I visited Saudi Arabia, it too was experiencing a similar boom with the help of its beneficiary: ARAMCO (Arabian-American Oil Company). During the night I could see dozens of oil wells pre-burning and utterly wasting perfectly usable source of energy so that the oil beneath could be drawn out of ground safely. 

The differences between Dubai and Constantinople run deeper than my glib remarks belie. Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) has millennia of heritage and lineage in its cistern-lined belly, Byzantine monuments, Topkapi Palace, and Arabesque architecture. It is historically one of the most rich and fascinating cities of the world. Istanbul is one of the oldest surviving metropolises, which has been and remains a major center of art and crafts, with a long tradition as a trade hub in both directions. It has been a crucial crossroads for learning and culture since antiquity. Some of its architectural monuments are timeless and older than most buildings of ancient Arabia with some exceptions. Let’s not also forget that it was the seat of the eastern Roman Empire, and remains to this day the home of the Eastern Orthodox Church’s patriarch much to the dismay of my Greek friends. After the British and French scheme divvyed up much of the Ottoman Empire among them, Mustafa Kemal Pasha (Ataturk) and his militia defeated the European allies in the war of independence, annulling the previous treaty and demanding sovereignty over Anatolia (Turkey). The allies were forced into a new treaty at Lausanne (Switzerland), and today Istanbul is still a thriving modern metropolis, wrought out of its ancient history. 

In contrast, the frenzy-paced ornamental renaissance of the Arabian oil kingdoms is mainly focused on redecorating their escapist cityscapes with tall buildings, snazzy architecture, lavish malls, and outlandish theme parks. And some of the cosmetic overhaul is heavily debt-financed, reminding me of my father’s colleagues from Pakistan living in U.A.E who would try to outdo the Jones’ with plush looking living rooms financed beyond their means just for bragging rights. Of all these economies, Dubai maybe the paragon example of this phenomenon (Dubai is part of U.A.E but in actuality the seven emirates are city states with autonomous regimes with Abu Dhabi as the big dog). 

Although before the formation of OPEC, the lion share of oil wealth was collected by the foreign oil companies. The Arabian Peninsula is now getting better revenue terms since then. Whether it is U.A.E or Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, these counties have been blessed with tremendous wealth owing mostly to their oil riches for the last 50 years or so—yet most of these monies have been only used for extravagant skyscrapers, grand palaces, decadent restaurants, opulent hotels, stipends for its citizen to buy their loyalty, and superfluous projects: little or nothing has been spent on industrialization, higher education, agriculture, and research (which requires a good educational system). No expansion or enrichment of universities, work incentive for the natives, women’s right, or social support for the workforce. While I was there, seeking a good education in U.A.E. was akin to a quest for truffle. We studied home with a tutor and took our University of London high school board exam at the British consulate in Dubai. While getting an education in U.A.E has gotten better, the improvement even after 35 years is still marginal at best. 

Again by contrast, Singapore, with its geographically convenient location, has achieved a similar feat in shipping and port efficiency, with cargo ships travelling from the Far East and westwards, and has made itself an appealing destination for tourists, especially to people from down under and New Zealand. But Singapore didn’t stop there: on top of building an advance infrastructure, it has been building its manufacturing base, educations system, and hi-tech research labs where some of the newest innovations are taking place. In terms of size and nation state status, it not dissimilar from some of the Arabian emirates and sheikhdoms who had/have a lot more petro-dollars at hand to fuel the economic furnace of development. While Singapore is not quite the utopian nation it claims to be in its propaganda-laden state sponsored tours, culturally it is still a lot more liberal than most Arabian nations. 

Dubai and to some extent Abu Dhabi (though Dubai’s oil revenue is a small percentage of it income) have overbuilt and overleveraged their assets, and now find themselves in an unenviable economic pickle. The man-made Palm Island occupancy rate is hauntingly low. The maître d’ at Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant is nearly out of a job. Most of the condominiums have lost value, and shopping is not as brisk as it used to be in the early 2000s. Dubai World had defaulted on it loans and had be bailed out by its big brother, Abu Dhabi. Dubai is a good place to launder money for the Russian mafia, and a decadent playing ground for some of the rich sheikhs and princes who are flush with cold cash to warm the pockets of these establishment owners, dabbling in activities their own countries will not allow. Will these anachronistic ruling class patrons be enough to carry this Xanadu into the next century? The current events in Tunisia should be alarming to some of these emirates. When Juan Carlos willfully retreated into the ceremonial shadows and gave way to parliamentary democracy in Spain after a brief stint at monarchy, he knew that the Spain’s royalist era probably ended when Franco rose to power. 

Dubai is still insisting to be the touchdown place for airlines travelling from Europe to the Far East and the subcontinent, despite the fact that modern planes are fully capable of doing these journeys in one leg. The scarcity of water and the finite oil reserve concerns aside, will the lure of shopping for goods sans VAT be compelling enough for the long haul? Will the Northern European heliophiles flock for the winter, even though it is culturally a much closed society? Will dual rules of morality—one for the tourists in five star hotels and another for the poor immigrants—prevail? Monaco is a great playground for the rich and famous, but it is certainly not an economic powerhouse or center of innovation. 

The Trucial States thrived because of their autonomous existence mostly due to Oman’s age old tradition of seafaring and ship building. The father of the current Sheikh played his cards right and realized that little oil reserve and the old port lined with dhows would not carry Dubai into the next century, so he built the largest modern port in the region, and made Dubai a prime trade hub. Rather than taking this accomplishment to the next level by developing other areas of the country, his son is taking a page out of Monaco and Las Vegas’ playbook—betting that “if you build it, they will come”. Castles of sand are ephemerally beautiful, but lacking deep foundations and reinforcements, they are at the mercy of the next big wave. Without meaningful societal, educational, and industrial progress, the winds of change and new international playgrounds may deal a similar fate to Dubai.