The only way to make sense of Dubai is to never forget that it isn’t real. It’s a fable, a fairy tale, like The Arabian Nights. More correctly, it’s a cautionary tale. Dubai is the story of the three wishes, where, as every kid knows, with the third wish you demand three more wishes. And as every genie knows, more wishes lead to more greed, more misery, more bad credit, and much, much, much more bad taste. Dubai is Las Vegas without the showgirls, the gambling, or Elvis. Dubai is a financial Disneyland without the fun. It’s a holiday resort with the worst climate in the world. It boils. It’s humid. And the constant wind is full of sand. The first thing you see when you arrive is the airport, with its echoing marble halls. It’s big enough to be the hub of a continent. Dubai suffers from gigantism—a national inferiority complex that has to make everything bigger and biggest. This includes their financial crisis.
In just one life span, Dubai has gone from sitting on a rug to swiveling on a fake Eames chair 100 stories up. And not a single local has had to lift a finger to make it happen. That’s not quite fair—of course they’ve lifted a finger; to call the waiter, berate the busboy. The money seeped out of the ground and they spent it. Pretty much all of it. You look at this place and you realize not a single thing is indigenous, not one of this culture’s goods and chattels originated here. Even the goats have gone. This was a civilization that was bought wholesale. The Gulf is the proof of Carnegie’s warning about wealth: “There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else.”
The Arabs live in their own ghettos, large, dull containments of big houses that are half garage behind security walls, weighed down with satellite dishes. We drive by an empty lot, and my driver tells me that this was the site of the house of the second son of a high-ranking official. Daddy had it bulldozed when his boy was caught having a Western-style rich-brats’ party. There is a growing, unspoken problem with the indigenous youth here. Fat, and spoiled beyond reason, they are titanically rude. They have reportedly taken to forming slovenly gangs that have been responsible for random attacks on foreign workers and women simply for the computer-game fun of it. This is a generation of kids who expect to never seriously work—but do expect secure jobs. An Indian manager who runs hotels in Dubai told me that everybody dreads the call from some royal Arab telling them to expect a nephew who will be coming to work. The boy will demand an office, a secretary, a car, wages, deference, and an empty schedule. It’s a sort of protection shakedown that you pay to do business here.
Dubai is the parable of what money makes when it has no purpose but its own multiplication and grandeur. When the culture that holds it is too frail to contain it. Dubai is a place that doesn’t just know the price of everything and the value of nothing but makes everything worthless. The answer to everything in Dubai is money. In the darkness of the hot night, the motorways roar with Ferraris and Porsches and Lamborghinis; the fat boys are befuddled and stupefied by sports cars they race around on nowhere roads, going nowhere. Taxi drivers of their ambitionless, all-consuming entitlement. Shortchanged by being given everything. Cursed with money.