As a Matter of Fact, the Legend of Dubai

(Excerpt from article about Dubai’s modernization, published in Log 13/14, Fall 2008)

Al Maktoum Hospital, Dubai, ca. 1968.

In 1968, while many Western cities coped with social turmoil, one of the world’s largest and most expensive social experiments was well underway, and hardly anyone suspected as much. The site was Dubai, already described as being built where there had legendarily been “nothing.” Most commonly referred to by its port, Dubai was less known as a stable settlement than as a tenuous nodal point of nomadic bedouins and fleeting boatmen, of waters and lands that provided scant reason for staying. As the leaders of Dubai sought an existence beyond transience, the idea of permanence first needed to be comprehended and willfully adopted before any urban ambition could be considered. The project began with strategic insertions of modern infrastructure and then started to develop its own rules for sustained modernization. Accounts of Dubai’s incremental modernization often take the form of lists, the components rolling off cargo ships like the parts of a train set: tarmac roads, a deep-water harbor, a hospital, an airport, a bridge. Instant new housing units, evidenced by the appearance of concrete mixers on the region’s coast, went up along barely hardened roads. Building a city never seemed simpler, with all the parts easily identifiable, but together they added up to something no one was ready to claim as a proper “city.”

The main protagonist of this urban experiment was Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai.(1) Modernity, once again, would be driven by autocracy, but not by a kind that ever rested on the whim of sovereignty. Sheikh Rashid was at the helm of a modernization process that elsewhere had required more than a century of work. Unknowing of what the process might entail, he relied on a handful of advisors, mostly British, none of whom could claim experience in city making. It would be fair to say that they didn’t even see their work as such. Dubai was proving to be a land of opportunity at a time when an emergent global economy was offering people in rich but stagnate economies the chance to look abroad for work and profit. Histories of Dubai describe an indefatigable leader who would do anything to enable the emirate to withstand time. British government documents depict a needy leader who called on his British advisors every day. Both accounts seem plausible, given the need to create a city’s functioning infrastructure in less time than an existing city has to prepare for the Summer Olympics today. The story rarely escapes being told as legend; perhaps the sentimental genre is the only one that can relate the unimaginably narrow timeframe in which Dubai arose. Where legend fails Dubai it is because it cannot explain the most basic reason for Dubai’s drive toward a constantly accelerating future – its endless wish to achieve permanence. Dubai had never been perceived from the outside as anything more than provisional – expectations were that it would eventually either succumb to larger, regional forces or simply fade away. Modernity may have come calling belatedly, but it provided the means to change Dubai’s course forever.

We are too small to get involved. – Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum (Ruler of Dubai 1958-1990).(2)

In 1967, with the impending British departure from Dubai and the entire Gulf region, the Middle East was undergoing a geopolitical power shift.(3) In the decade immediately following World War II the West finished redrawing the Middle East, transforming it into nation-states sanctioned by the young United Nations. Now, with little outside knowledge of developments elsewhere in the world, Dubai’s fledgling statehood required decisions and definitions. Its ruler could elect to fold Dubai into something larger, an act that would end its independence and, for that matter, probably render a quick turn toward marginalization, or find a novel way forward. The sandy emirate had nothing to offer that could not be recreated at any other point along the Gulf coast. Its harbor was silting and could not keep up with modern shipping requirements. Its foreign population – already its economic lifeline – was not necessarily anchored to Dubai; people could leave as quickly as they had arrived. Sheikh Rashid’s social and economic policies made Dubai open to people from almost everywhere, as long as they wanted to participate profitably in the project. This made Dubai uniquely porous in comparison to the rest of the region, but it was an opportunistic rejection of politics that, he would learn, other states could easily replicate thereby threatening to lure away his mobile population. To make matters more propitious, however, Sheikh Rashid was readying to play a card he did not actually have in hand. All speculative accounts confirmed that Dubai would soon strike it rich with oil. It hadn’t happened yet, but the small emirate’s leader was already planning for what the discovery of oil would enable. Oil would provide determinacy, a way forward; it would connect its people to its land and Dubai to the rest of the world.

To prepare for oil’s arrival Dubai had to put down roots. Rashid began formulating his great project, taking on massive private loans from a British bank and Arab neighbors. The following years would require a number of physical and cultural changes to convince both citizens and outsiders of its viability. For its part, the British, simultaneously preparing a political exit strategy and eyeing new commercial opportunities, expressed their enthusiasm for maintaining trade relations by participating in Dubai’s modernization. Dubai would no longer be one of the last vestiges of a dying colonial system; it was to become a key British commercial interest, released from a political relationship.

Though he is celebrated for improving the lot of his people, Sheikh Rashid did not need to rely on any moral obligation for setting up a modern Dubai. A pragmatist credo had always been the ruling family’s modus operandi: mere sovereignty was not going to keep the people of Dubai fed, but an aggressive marketing scheme might. The project could only succeed by convincing foreign workers and their families to stay. Already by the 1950s Dubai was dependent upon a foreign majority, and relied not only on the British government but also on merchants and laborers from India, Iran, Baluchistan, and Japan for financial and urban growth. Base financial interests were the most easily calculable factor to keep these foreigners there. If Dubai remained profitable for these residents, more people would surely follow. To increase that likelihood, Sheikh Rashid had to bolster Dubai’s precarious territorial condition by building a mantle of solidity. He realized that importing the comforts and customs of the modern First World was the most practical and forward-looking means to achieve this goal. Modernity, in this case, meant immutability – its myths of stability and endless progress. Dubai’s first phase of modernization brought the most basic amenities. In the first eight years of his rule, Sheikh Rashid oversaw the laying of Dubai’s first water pipes; ordered the laying of the first telephone lines; and established the electricity grid that was connecting 50 new households every week. Each move pushed Dubai’s roots more deeply into its shifting sands. Never before had off-the-shelf components of the modern city been used with such precision to convince both nomadic and international populations to settle down.

We need YOU! – Safety-first sign at Dubai metro station construction site, 2008.

The riskiest and most expensive component of the project was also the most essential: the reinforcement of Dubai’s natural harbor, endearingly called Dubai Creek. Sea trade in the Gulf had prospered and ebbed by means of a dispersed and erratic network of bays and inlets, sometimes referred to as “pirate coves,” a term that would continue to describe Dubai’s lax trade policies for coming decades. This temporal network would provide bustling links between land and water one day and then quite often vanish the next, mostly because the inlets themselves disappeared due to the shifting ocean sands. The unstable shores mirrored nomadic life on land. Manifesting its geophysical condition, Dubai’s natural inlet was starting to erode in the latter 1950s, and accelerated silting was making the waters unnavigable for even small boats. As Dubai’s future required deeper harbors to receive the first large ships that would connect it to the more expansive international trade networks it was courting, nature’s course had to be countered. In 1958, Sheikh Rashid approved an engineering plan that would cost many times the emirate’s modest GDP, and the British encouraged the project, both to sustain its trading interests in the area and to promote its civil engineers. However, as hungry as Britain was to maintain its commercial dominance in the region, Her Majesty’s Government found the project too risky to underwrite. Dubai financed the project with a loan from oil-rich Kuwait, and British engineering companies reaped the profits. The project would be completed in 1961 but constant upkeep of the harbor, plus additional shore work, would keep British engineers busy for the coming decades.

By this time as well, Al Maktoum Hospital was being transformed from the region’s first but limited hospital into a modern facility. It had opened in 1952 as the first hospital in a 1000-mile radius, and with its reopening in 1968, Al Maktoum hospital had beds and extensive healthcare to offer its growing population. State-of-the-art healthcare and modern medical practices such as vaccination were signs that the future had arrived in Dubai. A healthy Sheikh Rashid had to pay the hospital a number of visits to demonstrate to disbelievers the institution’s legitimacy. As the idea of giving birth in the presence of a doctor became more accepted, the new maternity ward linked both native and guest citizens’ fortunes to Dubai. It was now possible to be officially “born in Dubai.” Advanced healthcare and enhanced longevity became synonymous with life in Dubai – for its citizens, but also for its campaign to market itself abroad. In the souk, the first sign of First-World consumer goods was not the usual electronic gadgets or household accoutrements but the conspicuous contrast between the natural beige of the traders’ clothing and the crisp, antiseptic white of bandages – the aesthetic of modern medicine.

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1 Upon the death of his father and the approval of the British government, Sheikh Rashid inherited his authority as Ruler of Dubai in 1958. He ruled Dubai until his death in 1990.

2 Graeme Wilson, Rashid’s Legacy (Dubai: Media Prima, 2006).

3 In 1967, the British government set an exit date for its 75-year presence in the Gulf region. From 1892, through a series of treaties, the British navy had governed over the region’s foreign affairs and managed its seafaring laws as a means to maintain peace among the various interests on the Gulf and neighboring seas, and, more importantly, to ensure safe passage for the Empire’s own commercial and military vessels in the region. The British, the most powerful presence in the region, spent the years from 1968 to 1972 unwinding its “special” relationship toward creating a regional balance to make up for the absence of imperial power.

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