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Sunday, May 7, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A city of dreams ... and unease

The Washington Post

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — There aren't a lot of qualifiers in Ahmad Sharaf's vocabulary. Like his city, he prefers superlatives. As he accelerated his 1995 white Porsche 911 down a grand boulevard landscaped with palm trees and periwinkles, Sharaf, the senior executive of a government corporation, looked out at a city-state that is building the world's tallest skyscraper, the largest shopping mall, the most luxurious hotel, the largest man-made marina and the biggest artificial island.

"Dubai," he said confidently, "is the railroad for the Middle East."

Railroad is a metaphor often heard in Dubai, an autocratic city-state ruled by a dynasty that evokes a language uncommon in the Arab world today: an utter confidence. It has emerged as a 21st-century phenomenon, a city of perspectives, whose globalization suggests its inspiration and the discontent of those left behind.

To Sharaf and others, Dubai is the answer to the Arab world's ills, so diverse that conversations in taxicabs are sometimes a patois of Arabic, English and Hindi. Its architecture suggests Pharaonic ambition; at 3 billion square feet, the amusement park known as Dubailand will be three times the size of Manhattan, complete with a replica of the Eiffel Tower and a 60,000-seat stadium.

But a darker undercurrent pervades the success of Dubai. Hundreds of thousands of foreign workers toil with few rights and sometimes just above subsistence. Unrest has mounted; last month, laborers rioted near the site of Burj Dubai, planned as the world's tallest skyscraper, where a new floor is added every week. The Islamic piety visible in the rest of the Persian Gulf has receded behind a rollicking nightlife of bars, clubs and prostitution so rampant it is assumed to have official sanction. The city has a history as a shipping hub for contraband, including illegal drugs and nuclear-weapons components. Rumors of money laundering are laced through the real-estate speculation that has sometimes driven prices to double in six months.

A backlash over the pace of change and its direction is simmering among the city-state's citizens, who make up just one in five of its 1 million residents.

"Some people feel they are losing control of the city itself, of the society," said Mohammed al-Roken, a lawyer and human-rights activist who was barred from teaching at a university and banned from writing a column after airing complaints.

At the heart of what Dubai and its globalization are creating, two cities overlap. One is a dystopic, even soulless vision of the future, where notions of civil society, individual rights and identity are subsumed in the logic of capital. The other is a rare triumph of the private sector in an Arab city that provides a model for prosperity and a force for integration,

Clustering

Healthcare City is one of the latest in what officials here call clustering: creating free-trade zones in the desert that, with marketing and infrastructure, attract cutting-edge companies and provide an engine for growth. There is Media City, Internet City, Knowledge Village and plans for Dubai Outsource Zone, Dubai Techno Park and Dubai Biotechnology and Research Park, among others. There are no taxes, no customs, no restrictions on transferring funds, little red tape — in short, a capitalist free-for-all. The bustle and building around Internet and Media cities, with nearly no space left to rent, have transformed scrubland grazed by camels a decade ago into a city center awash in steel and glass.

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Healthcare City is no less ambitious. By partnering with Harvard Medical School, the project hopes to create a global center for treatment, education and research. Tatweer is pouring $1.8 billion into the project, which will begin operating in 2009 and sprawl across 4.5 million square feet. The next phase will cover an area four times as big.

"People who needed treatment had to pick up and leave. They had to go to Europe, they had to go to the United States, they had to go to Asia," said Sharaf, a 39-year-old Emirati who was educated in Michigan and Colorado and worked in Houston with oil giant Conoco. "This really is making a statement that you no longer have to go. We have the best of the world here."

The Dubai model boils down to a self-consciously corporate approach to government: a can-do attitude that appeals to business, speed in decisions possible under an authoritarian system and achieving results that create momentum. The approach infuses the landscape. In a gesture at efficiency, government buildings bear the department's Internet addresses on their facade. Advertisements tantalize with a stilted lingo, a sort of Arabic newspeak.

Democracy?

It is remarkable how little U.S. policy figures into conversations here. The dispute this winter over a Dubai company's plans to manage six U.S. ports was seen less as an insult and more as a failure of Dubai officials to market themselves and master public relations. Religion comes up usually only in the context of illustrating Dubai's tolerance.

Unlike Egypt, Lebanon or Syria, almost no one mentions the Bush administration's talk about democratic reform. Politics, in fact, are rare in Dubai, where power resides with a single family, the Maktoum clan. In this city of transients, 85 percent of its work force foreign, politics hardly exists.

For good reason, said Sharaf's boss, Saeed al-Muntafiq, chief executive officer of Tatweer.

"Democracy is a means, not an end," he said. "It's a system, a process, a tool. What is the end? I don't know, but I have my own opinions — a world-class health-care system, a world-class education system, a job for every person willing and able, rule of law, civil rights and liberties. I would have thought these would be the outputs of democracy. Does it matter how we get there?"

Coming up short

Tatweer is part of Dubai Holding, the sprawling investment arm of the government that has overseen the creation of Media City, Internet City and Knowledge Village. Another of its projects is the Jumeirah Beach Residence, near the Persian Gulf, where Abdel-Rahman Shrooz Miah and Mohammed Noor al-Amin work each day, beginning at 7 a.m.

At the end of one shift, covered in paint, the Bangladeshi laborers walked past the project's advertisements. "The Lifestyle of a Lifetime," one reads. "When the work comes to an end, it feels good," Amin said, settling into a bus seat for a 90-minute ride to their shantyown in neighboring Sharjah.

Amin is 24, Miah, 19. Both look 14. Here for three years, Amin makes about $400 a month, Miah $245. Each paid an agent in Bangladesh more than $3,000 to secure a visa and work in Dubai, and both still owe a large share of that. Neither has visited home. They call their families once or twice a month, usually talking for the 10 minutes that an $8 phone card will buy.

"The first thing they ask us is to send money," Miah said. "And we usually don't have it."

At the biggest developments, knots of workers in coveralls of matching colors waited for company buses, their vacant stares greeting the traffic of a city where occupation is often stratified by race: Asian laborers, Lebanese and Western managers, Emirati owners. A proposed subway that will begin operating in 2010 will reserve one of five cars for VIPs.

"We're here to earn money, not for happiness," Amin said. "No one comes to this country for happiness."

Grievances

Most of the hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers are from India and other South Asian countries with strong union traditions. Episodes of unrest began last year over living conditions, low pay and hazardous workplaces. At Amin's site, two Indian painters had died a few days before when ropes holding their platform aloft snapped. In the worst outburst, as many as 3,000 workers rioted in March at the site of Burj Dubai, wrecking cars, computers and construction equipment.

Amin and Miah's complaints echoed others': The company seized their passports when they entered the country, their pay comes months late, complaints can lead to deportation and they make too little to offset the $175 they pay every month for rent and food.

For Nasser Saidi, a former Lebanese minister and the chief economist of the Dubai International Financial Center, the reasons for Dubai's transformation from a sleepy, pearl-diving village to a modern metropolis are many. After the Sept. 11 attacks, rich Arab states began investing in their region and Dubai, in particular. Oil prices have unleashed a spending and investment boom in the Persian Gulf on par with the 1970s. The city-state has invested in infrastructure — only China has more cranes, and Dubai's ports can unload a ship in 24 hours, on average 12 faster than Rotterdam.

There is little official corruption, less political instability, and Dubai ranks high in surveys on rule of law and regulatory quality. But money-laundering — residents describe multimillion-dollar houses paid for in cash, sight unseen — has come under growing scrutiny, Saidi said.

Then there is the rare combination of highly skilled workers and cheap laborers, like Amin and Miah.

The result is a gross domestic product that has grown 45 percent in four years. Everyone seems to have a different number for nationalities here — 150, 180, more than 200, all drawn by a modern-day gold rush.

Arab model seen

Saidi sees Dubai as the champion of greater economic unity in the Arab world, finally realizing the promises nationalist leaders made for 50 years that were broken by political divisions and economic failure.

More than a decade ago, when he returned to Lebanon after its civil war and served as a Central Bank official and later a government minister, he envisioned a Dubai model for Beirut. Those hopes were dashed by Lebanon's intractable politics.

But already, signs of Dubai's impetus are visible around the Gulf. Qatar has launched a spectacular building campaign. Saudi Arabia is planning a free-trade zone on the Red Sea. Bahrain and Kuwait are trying to recapture prestige they lost to Dubai in the 1990s. In recent months, private and quasi-government companies in Dubai have announced investments in Arab countries stretching from Morocco on the Atlantic coast to Jordan in the Middle East.

But Roken, the human-rights lawyer, sounds a warning, bringing back the analogy of the railroad.

"The people of Dubai are on a first-class train, a speedy one, seeing nice views, but there is one drawback to this train, and many people are not aware of it," he said. "It has no brakes ... it might crash one day, unfortunately."

Roken, 43, shies away from labels. His promotion of human rights and civil society might make him a liberal in a Western context. In the Arab world, his defense of tradition and morals mirrors the themes of political Islam. Taken together, he is a gadfly, which has repeatedly landed him in trouble.

Three times in three years, government security services canceled his lectures, usually with a phone call to the organizer. One talk was on the U.S. invasion of Iraq, another on the importance of holding popular elections for the first time in the country.

In 2000, he was banned from writing his column in the Gulf newspaper. In 2002, he was forbidden from teaching at the university. Two years later, with 21 others, he submitted an application for a human-rights group.

"They just took it and put it in the drawer," he said.

Stranger and strangers

Roken's focus is his society and what it is no longer. The itinerant city he sees today is unrecognizable, not even Arab. All that remains of the neighborhood of his youth is the mosque. When he goes to a mall, he estimates that 99 percent of the patrons are foreigners, and he rarely hears Arabic. Despite religious prohibitions, drinking is unabashed. The beaches of his youth were taken over by hotels and their occasionally topless sunbathers. He grimaces at women jogging in the streets, sometimes with their dogs, considered unclean under Islamic law.

Arguments for democratic reform in the Arab world are often offered as an antidote to the region's stagnation and repression. Roken argues for democratic reform but on different grounds. Only with more say by citizens like him can the process of Dubai's globalization be stanched. His democratic vision is not of a different society, but of a society he once had.

"The brakes are accountability, sharing in the decision making," he said. "These things will work as brakes on the train's speed. If citizens had a say, I don't think the city would have turned into this."

Government surveys reflect the unease among native Emiratis, even though officials are unsure how to respond. Roken said the society's traditional deference to the leadership of the ruling family remains intact. People prefer retreating over fighting.

"Until now, there is no violence, thank God," he said. He spoke slowly, knitting his brow, and he chose his words carefully. "The people are very accepting, understanding and tolerant. But who knows what will happen if it crosses red lines?"

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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