Hovering over Dubai is a cloud called nemesis. The first time I saw the place two years ago through a plane window, its towers were hovering in the heat over the desert, gulping up water and energy and fussed round by reputedly a quarter of the world’s construction cranes. Even then the vision was unmistakable: of Ozymandias and his “vast and trunkless legs of stone.”
When prices go up, buildings go up. When prices come down, buildings tend to stay up. Until recently visitors to Dubai returned gasping. This was truly a city designed from start to finish by autocrats and architects. It was the last word in iconic overkill, a festival of egotism with humanity denied. It was an architectural chorus line of towers, each shouting louder and kicking higher. People were ants.
Dubai must have as many publicists as it has towers. Business and travel journalists in need of a freebie can just call. So, too, did a stage army of British writers who went to last month’s Dubai International Festival of Literature, pretending to discover that it was not a free country — and practices censorship — only after being installed in their luxury rooms. A “tower of Babel” of a place “with neither charm nor character,” declared an ungrateful Germaine Greer.
Even as the property market turned sour last autumn, the vast Atlantis hotel, built for US$1.5 billion with a whale shark in its swimming pool, was spending US$20 million on its launch party. Yet still the newspaper supplements and television contra-deals spluttered their superlatives. Every time the builder of the tallest tower in the world, the monster of Burj Dubai, sees the local ruler, Sheikh Mohammed Al-Maktoum, he is told to add more stories for fear someone else may build an even taller one.
The stockmarket is down 70 percent on 2005’s level, and construction has ceased on half of the unfinished towers that stretch out into the desert. Eighty percent of the population of Dubai are passing migrants who are there, like gold-diggers of old, only for the cash. The cash is going and so are they, leaving expensive cars in the street and at the airport, many fleeing possible imprisonment for debt.
Consider, meanwhile, the city of Detroit. Here was another that rose on the shore of an inland sea, fueled by the cult of hypermobility. With the implosion of the motor industry it has gone to seed. Houses are pictured boarded-up or selling for a dollar. Dogs roam empty streets. Wind howls through vacant shops. The unbelievable has come to pass. The love child of America’s greatest postwar passion is preparing to die.
Detroit is part of a great country that has shown itself capable of rescuing even its rustbelt municipalities. But this depends on finding people who will live in a place from which most have fled. Luckily, much of Detroit is of low-rise plot housing that could be transformed at least into Bohemian neighborhoods, like ruined New Orleans.
No such option is available to Dubai. It is the ultimate Corbusian city, rigid in format and old-fashioned in conception, based on the grids and set squares of super-planners, and on grand symbolic buildings rather than intimate streets. It cannot respond to demand and supply for land and property, let alone to the wishes of free citizens. Human scale is confined to the Las Vegas-style replicas of Florence and Venice adopted by hotels that realize guests will not come if slapped constantly in the face by modern architecture. One business that cannot afford inhumanity is a hotel.
Such cities are like the planned science settlements of Soviet Russia or the instant downtowns of US “metroplexes,” in which people do as planners ordain. There are no visual surprises, no corners of privacy away from Big Brother or at least Big Car. Buildings are exclusive and architecturally defensive, like London’s Barbican.
I can only imagine that Dubai will one day be seen as a punctuation mark on the architectural follies of the past half century. This off-the-shelf city state has been built on laundering the profits of oil, drugs, arms and Western aid. Its sheikh was not a complete fool, like comparable African and Latin American autocrats. He realized that city states cannot live on one product alone unless it is money. Since he had no oil, he would drill for money.
Mohammed Al-Maktoum’s failing has been his belief that megalomania is best when big. He built a giant port and a giant airport, a giant stock exchange, giant finance sector and giant shopping mall. Dubai is a monument to big-must-be-beautiful.
During the gold rush the prospectors came. But as the rush wanes, Dubai is believed to be nursing the world’s biggest per-capita debt. It may have to be bailed out by its neighboring Gulf states, whose more prudent attractions Dubai tried to outshine; indeed, the process has begun.
Nothing can bail out a tower if there is nobody to live in it. It cannot be pulled down and quaint English country villages replicated on the spot. The same goes for thousands of villas and apartment blocks along the Gulf shore and on the artificial islands in the world’s most boring sea. They will stand empty in the heat.
Most were bought as investments. The value of those investments has fallen an estimated 60 percent in just six months. If their emptiness reaches a tipping point where there are no neighbors, no shops, no services and no social life, they will decay, like downtown Detroit.
Smart money says Dubai could survive as the playground of India, even if the oil money of the Middle East moves back to more salubrious Europe. This depends on India failing to supply its own playground and, critically, on Dubai surviving what could be a Muslim backlash against its hesitantly hedonistic Western lifestyle. Rivals such as Dohar, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain — especially as they are now bailing out Dubai — may welcome its swift return to the desert ecology.
Just as visitors to the Middle East see half-built, mostly abandoned concrete housing blocks and barracks littering the landscape of Syria and Jordan, so the towers of Dubai will become casualties not of human greed but of architectural folly. Their elevators and services, expensive to maintain, will collapse. Their colossal facades will shed glass. Sand will drift round their trunkless legs. Animals will inhabit their basements.
Thousands of residential properties, if occupied at all, will be squatted by a migratory poor, like the hotel towers of the Spanish littoral or Corbusier’s blockhouses of Chandigarh in India. Refugees will colonize the camps where Indian workers have lived as they built Dubai. Gangs will seize the gated estates and random anarchy will rule the soulless boulevards.
If it is lucky, Dubai will at least be a refuge from the political cataclysms that could engulf countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. But mostly the dunes will reclaim the place.
In centuries to come, tourists will share with Ozymandias the message: “Look on my works ye mighty and despair.” With Shelley they will see how,
... round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Chinese strongman Xi Jinping (習近平) hasn’t had a very good spring, either economically or politically. Not that long ago, he seemed to be riding high. The PRC economy had been on a long winning streak of more than six percent annual growth, catapulting the world’s most populous nation into the second-largest power, behind only the United States. Hundreds of millions had been brought out of poverty. Beijing’s military too had emerged as the most powerful in Asia, lagging only behind the US, the long-time leader on the global stage. One can attribute much of the recent downturn to the international economic
On Sept. 27, 2002, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (East Timor) joined the UN to become its 191st member. Since then, two other nations have joined, Montenegro on June 28, 2006, and South Sudan on July 14, 2011. The combined total of the populations of these three nations is just more than half that of Taiwan’s 23.7 million people. East Timor has 1.3 million, Montenegro has slightly more than half a million and South Sudan has 10.9 million. They all are members of the UN, yet much more populous Taiwan is denied membership. Of the three, East Timor, as a Southeast Asian
Taiwan has for decades singlehandedly borne the brunt of a revanchist, ultra-nationalist China — until now. Ever since Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had the temerity to call for a transparent, international investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing has been turning the screws on Canberra. This has included unleashing aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomats to intimidate Australian policymakers, enacting punitive tariffs on its exports, and threatening an embargo on Chinese tourists and students to the nation. A tense situation became more serious on June 19 after Morrison revealed that a “sophisticated state-based actor” — read: China — had launched a
Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) is to be Taiwan’s next representative to the US. Hsiao is well versed in international affairs and Taiwan-US relations. In her days as a student in the US, she was a member of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA) and served as chief executive of the Democratic Progressive Party’s US mission. She is familiar with a broad spectrum of Taiwanese affairs in the US. FAPA hopes that Hsiao, after taking up her new post, would continue to deepen and normalize relations between Taiwan and the US, and that she would try to get a free-trade agreement