A Sodom and Gomorrah for secular miserabilists

Dubai’s crisis has been cheered by Western observers, for whom the ‘ecocidal’ Gulf state is a symbol of everything rancid about modernity.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Since Dubai World, a government-owned investment company, announced at the end of last week that it needed six months to repay debts of £35billion, there has been an outburst of unsightly Schadenfreude in eco-sensible circles in the West. The Gulf state has been labelled ‘demented’, ‘vulgar’ and ‘insane’, and worst of all has been compared to glamour model Katie Price, in the sense that ‘both created extravagant success from virtually nothing’ (1). Dubai is now ‘getting what it deserves’, we are told, at long last suffering a ‘hubristic, Icarus-style tumble [from power]’ (2). All we need now is for some wrathful force in the West – the Guardian editorial board, perhaps, or Greenpeace – to strike the people of Dubai blind and, hey presto, the Gulf state’s transformation into the Sodom and Gomorrah of our age will be complete.

The unbridled glee with which some people have greeted Dubai’s financial woes reveals what the Gulf state has become in our miserabilist, misanthropic, nature-fearing age: a symbol of everything that is rancid about modernity. Some have tried to doll up their Dubaiphobia in radical language, claiming they are concerned about the ‘virtual slaves’ (immigrant workers) who built Dubai’s skyscrapers and beach resorts, or about the dearth of freedom in this and the other six Emirate states. Yet their loathing of economic growth, their shock-horror that Dubai’s financiers and constructors dared to ‘ignore the rules and limits of nature’ (3), sweats through to the surface of their enraged commentary every time. In truth, Dubai is looked upon as ‘the West’ on steroids, a conveniently far away – and Arab! – illegitimate, bastardised version of outdated Western values, which can be attacked with abandon.

Even more than with Lehman Brothers (which actually collapsed, unlike Dubai, which is teetering), the problems in Dubai were swiftly transformed into a morality tale about comeuppance for human greed. Commentators have employed Ballardian language to describe the nightmarish combination of conspicuous consumerism and big buildings that made up modern Dubai. It is a ‘concrete hallucination’, a ‘sarcastic version of Las Vegas’, where the skyline is ‘dotted with gigantic whimsical behemoths’ (4). And it is insane, too. For one commentator, Las Vegas is ugly but ‘at least it makes sense’ (that is, the ‘woozy drunks thumbing coins into slots 24 hours a day, hundreds of thousands of them slumped semi-conscious in rows like dozing cattle hooked up to milking machines’, clearly fund Las Vegas’s strange economy). But Dubai is just mental. The buildings are ‘huge and demented’, they’re ‘insane monuments’, they are like ‘lofty syringes injecting dementia directly into the skies’ (5). The idea of Dubai as completely unfathomable, a mad mystery to all right-minded people whose brains haven’t been fried by the Gulf sun, is a recurring one.

Many are pleased that Dubai’s ‘carefully crated image of brash, glitzy modernity’ now seems to have ‘dissolved into chaos’ (6). There is much talk of ‘payback’ and ‘metaphors’ (Dubai is apparently a metaphor for everything from the madness of the ‘casino economy’ to ‘the dangers of overconsumption’ to the ‘insatiable greed of the rich’) (7). Its greatest sin, and the one which it is now being punished for, is to encourage reckless, wanton, conspicuous consumerism. It built ‘cathedrals of consumerism’, where the rich – and even the nouveau rich – could indulge their desire for stuff, whether it be kitchen utensils, cars or an island in a manmade archipelago shaped like the world (8). Bible-style, Dubai is accused of worshipping a false god – Money – and of building ‘temples’ and ‘cathedrals’ to this false god (its shopping centres are always described as ‘temples’ and ‘cathedrals’). Perhaps some little eco-Jesus should smash up these sacrilegious, money-exchanging buildings and put everything right again.

And of course Dubai committed the gravest sin of our age: it did things that were ‘unsustainable’. None of its metal-wrought dementia seemed ‘vaguely sustainable’, says one observer, while every other observer on Earth has deployed the tired cliché about modern Dubai being ‘built on sand’ (9). ‘Sustainability’ is one of those buzzphrases that is very difficult to oppose – who wants to stand up and say, ‘Actually, I think we should have utterly unsustainable development’? Yet it’s important to recognise the loaded meaning of the eco-pious cult of sustainability. The idea is that human beings should tread lightly on this mortal coil, should only make small buildings and small things that can be sustained or remade without much effort, and should never, ever think about making leaps forward – that is, making something today but discarding it tomorrow in favour of a better alternative. The stifling orthodoxy of ‘sustainability’, of only pursuing projects that can be permanently sustained, springs from the backward idea that humans are mere guests in this ‘warehouse of resources’ (the planet Earth) and should stick with what works rather than unsustainably rethinking, redoing and remaking the world around us (10).

Indeed, Dubai’s biggest crime, the one it is most frequently put in the eco-stocks for, is its flouting of nature’s ‘rules’. Dubai has been accused of ‘ecocide’, the obliteration of the environment (11). It has tried to ‘defy its environment’ says one environmental activist – that is, it tried to make (actually it did make) a gleaming, modern city in a desert (12). Worst of all, it bent nature to its whim, it ‘never gave Nature the time of day, ignored its rules and limits, its crueller vagaries’: ‘If you lack the beach-front for all your millionaire mansions, push back the sea, move the desert… If that beach is foot-blisteringly hot, get pipes to cool the sands.’ (13) Yeah, how dare the rulers and moneymen of Dubai use technology to make their natural environment – very hot and very sticky – more bearable? One environmentalist says of Dubai: ‘If you take on the desert, you will lose.’ That is actually bullshit. In Nevada they built a city in the desert; they tamed desert conditions in California, too. Why shouldn’t the Arabs do it in the Gulf?

The lesson of Dubai, apparently, is that we should revere nature. Or Nature with a capital N, as many commentators have taken to calling it. Just as surely as those saucy men of Sodom flouted God’s laws, and were duly punished, so Dubai has allegedly flouted Nature’s laws, and is being duly punished. Yet the truth is that, whatever you think of Dubai and its shininess, elements of naffness and its playground nature, human civilisation is built precisely upon not ‘giving Nature the time of day’. Our civilisation would be impossible, a non-starter, if we did not ‘ignore nature’s rules and limits’ and seek to conquer its ‘crueller vagaries’. There was a time when Western nations also considered it a good thing to move nature out of the way, to, in F Scott Fitzgerald’s words in 1924, ‘change the sweep of rivers and the shape of mountains so that life could flourish in the old bad lands of the world where it had never taken root before’ (14). Today, because many in the West now consider such an approach to nature to be a Bad Thing, we expect the Arabs to consider it a Bad Thing too.

Part of the glee over Dubai’s problems springs from the fact that it is an Arab state trying to do what the West has already done and become bored of. So Dubai is labelled a ‘sarcastic version of Las Vegas’ or an even more vulgar version of Beverley Hills (15). One writer for Newsweek wrote after visiting Dubai: ‘Where were the camels? What time was the belly-dancing show?’ (16) In short, why couldn’t this Arab state stay recognisably Arab – with men on camels and women gyrating for the tourists’ buck – instead of going all glitzy? Yet more fundamentally, Dubai is being laughed at because its problems are seen as a profound lesson for us in the West – apparently it is our system, our love of stuff, our desire for money, our disrespect for nature, that is falling apart in that Arab state. Dubai is a ‘living metal metaphor for the neo-liberal globalised world that may be crashing – at last – into history’ (17). The thrifty, nature-loving, anti-stuff commentators of the West feel super-estranged from Dubai not only because it is made up of strange Arabs building stupid buildings, but because it is too much like the West – or at least too much like the West used to be.

The rise of Dubaiphobia shows what really lies behind the critique of capitalism today. It is not concern with workers’ rights. After all, those who wring their hands over Dubai’s very badly paid immigrant workers say not a thing about NGOs’ and governments’ promotion of Fairtrade/backbreaking farming in the Third World, or the fact that David Cameron, Prince Charles and other wealthy Westerners employ Indian children to graft on farms in order to offset their carbon-rich lifestyles (18). Nor is it about getting to grips with the true nature of today’s economic crisis, where it is not only Dubai that has built an economy and a society on flimsy things such as tourism or the revenue of financial speculation. No, capitalism, neo-liberalism, Dubai-dementia or whatever you want to call it is really hated because it is arrogant, hubristic, too human- rather than nature-centric, and it encourages people to think they can live ‘unsustainabe’ lives of comfort and wealth.

In short, it is the good things about economic growth that are most frequently attacked. I would rather stand with the sinners of the modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, however rich and vulgar they might be, than join forces with the miserabilist eco-Gods looking down and laughing at Dubai’s misfortunes.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Vicky Francis reviewed Dubai: the Vulnerability of Success and asked for a serious debate the economy’s sheikhy foundations. Alastair Donald talked to the architect of the world’s first rotating skyscraper. Brendan O’Neill compared Beijing 2008 to London 2012 and asked ‘Can only dictatorships dazzle?’, and after a terror attack wondered if Mumbai is hated because it is modern. Or read more at spiked issue Architecture and planning.

(1) Jordan and Dubai, parallel universes collide, The Times (London), 28 November 2009

(2) Jordan and Dubai, parallel universes collide, The Times (London), 28 November 2009

(3) Jordan and Dubai, parallel universes collide, The Times (London), 28 November 2009

(4) Remember those dreamlike images of Dubai? Guess what. You were dreaming, Guardian, 30 November 2009

(5) Remember those dreamlike images of Dubai? Guess what. You were dreaming, Guardian, 30 November 2009

(6) Dubai: Bling City is dead, but the desert dream lives on, Observer, 29 November 2009

(7) The dark side of Dubai, Independent, 7 April 2009

(8) The dark side of Dubai, Independent, 7 April 2009

(9) Dubai’s dream is built on sand, The Times (London), 21 June 2009

(10) See Anything ‘sustainable’ is not worth having, by Frank Furedi

(11) The dark side of Dubai, Independent, 7 April 2009

(12) The dark side of Dubai, Independent, 7 April 2009

(13) Jordan and Dubai, parallel universes collide, The Times (London), 28 November 2009

(14) ‘The Sensible Thing’, in Bernice Bobs Her Hair, F Scott Fitzgerald, Penguin, 1963

(15) Remember those dreamlike images of Dubai? Guess what. You were dreaming, Guardian, 30 November 2009

(16) An American Tourist in Dubai, Newsweek, 14 April 2008

(17) The dark side of Dubai, Independent, 7 April 2009

(18) See Is carbon offsetting just eco-enslavement?, by Brendan O’Neill

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Topics Politics


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