Sunday, June 21, 2009

"Dubai is for flamingos" (Harper's, June 2009)

It's officially the first day of summer, that day you never dream is coming in February. And it's hot: 95 degrees? Or is it 97?

But take a moment to think of the flamingos forlornly sweltering at the Dubai International Airport. The June issue of Harper's features a brief report by Negar Azimi, editor of Bidoun magazine, on the state of the economic boom-gone-bust in the United Arab Emirate. Rumors were multiplying; the birds -- dyed purple -- were stuck at the airport in an extravagant development plan gone bad. There are still plans to market camels-milk chocolate (because "the little pleasures are forever," one company representative comments as they sip camels-milk cappuccino), and Dubai is home to the world's tallest building. Yet just as here in the U.S., it seems that the global "downturn" has had some unexpected consequences in Dubai. Here are some excerpts:

"The flamingos at Dubai International Airport had been in quarantine for five days and nobody knew what to do with them. Their handlers had gone missing, I heard, and there was great bewilderment about how to tend to their needs: what exactly they ate, the temperature to which they were accustomed. People said the birds were unhappy, fluffing their feathers and gravitating toward the edges of the enclosure like sulking children, or erupting into great fits of squawking that sent the airport personnel scurrying away. Natives of the Great Rift Valley, they were destined for The Lagoons, a 70-million-square-foot development of residences, shopping centers, and offices set on seven interconnected islands of finely cultivated marsh ecology in the middle of the city.

But the construction of The Lagoons, along with many other extravagant projects in Dubai, had been put “on hold,” maybe for good. The story I heard—and Dubai is full of stories these days—was that the primary developer on the project was in jail, held on multiple charges of corruption and bribery. The long-legged waterfowl, dyed a deep mauve color for dramatic effect, waited in awkward limbo.

Since the coming of the plunge, the Persian Gulf city of Dubai has been subjected to a windfall of press coverage chronicling its dramatic decline. Cocktail-party chatter once celebrated the spectacular rise of this 'global hub,' its multicultural can-do spirit and liberal-leaning ways. Now conversations over artfully carved morsels of cheese dwell on hubris and the inevitability of imploding bubbles. 'It just had to end,' one hears. 'It was too big, too much, too fast.' Heads nod in unison.

... Earlier this year, the Australian feminist and sometime Marxist Germaine Greer deplaned at Dubai International Airport for all of a four-hour layover. Boarding one of Dubai’s hokey green double-decker tourist buses, she traveled a typical route that took her from the tallest building in the world (the Burj Dubai) to a hotel shaped like a sailing ship (the Burj Al Arab) to a handful of malls, and proceeded swiftly to eviscerate the place. 'For all its extravagant novelties and its masses of petunias, Dubai is a city with neither charm nor character,' she wrote in a February issue of the Guardian.

... In part, Dubai invites such hysterical interpretations because it is nearly impossible to verify anything there. When the New York Times published accounts of 3,000 cars abandoned at the airport by panicked debt-ridden foreigners, officials insisted that the number was more modest: eleven. Three thousand or eleven? Who knows? The cars are but one example. No one seems to be collecting statistics in any systematic way. What is offered instead is a stream of perennially sunny press releases ('UAE Protects Workers’ Rights,' announced a piece in the Gulf News last year in response to a report by Human Rights Watch on the dire situation of laborers). And although rumors have always had a magical currency here, these days they have become Dubai’s chief commodity.

A cursory sampling: Thousands of businessmen have been locked up in prison for bad debts; come the end of the school year, half the expatriate population will abandon their strenuously air-conditioned palaces; the United Arab Emirates, famously tax-free, will soon impose an income tax on all its residents; neighboring Abu Dhabi will shift its border into Dubai in exchange for a $20 billion 'bailout'; the posh Atlantis Hotel, perched on the tip of a man-made island shaped like a palm tree, has shut an entire wing due to low occupancy; the ruler of Dubai is dead; judging from the city’s ubiquitous security cameras, there have never been so many people weeping in elevators; there are thirty-two purple flamingos languishing in Terminal 3 of the Dubai International Airport.

'It’s all lies,' an acquaintance from the Executive Office, the ruler’s consulting circle, told me defensively as we sat at a Starbucks in the Emirates Towers. 'It is all coming from Abu Dhabi,' said another EO employee, referring to the emirate’s oil-rich cousin next door.

... I call up Sama Dubai, the state-owned development firm that was in charge of The Lagoons project before it all came to a screeching halt. I am eventually referred to Kevin Hyland, a British-born flamingo specialist at Dubai’s Wildlife Protection Office, who confirms that the real estate venture was supposed to have included flamingos, though they’ve never set foot in an airport. They’re local birds—about 1,000 of them—and Hyland has been tending them since the 1990s, at their home in the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary, which was to be one of The Lagoons’ premier attractions.

Nor have they been dyed purple but are instead a standard shade of pink. And if the new, grand lodgings envisioned for them fail to materialize, at least they are not in jail, where several executives of Sama Dubai have, in fact, been obliged to take up residence. Like flamingos everywhere, they cluck, squawk, and flutter, but these are not necessarily noises of complaint. I’ve come to think of them as stoic, strutting under the sun as they weather the interminable downturn."


Troy said...

Wow! Things have really gone down the ol' shi**er in the UAE. Jen and I were trying to get over there ourselves a couple of years ago. I suppose we did well to stay put.

M Bromberg said...

You betcha! I could go for a frothy camels-milk cappuccino right about now, though.