Crude Ètat

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Latif Al Ani

Originally published in di’van | A Journal of Accounts, Issue 6, July 2019.

Image: School Lunch, Baghdad, Iraq, Latif Al Ani, 1961

In October 1969, British Petroleum organised festivities to celebrate Dubai’s recently confirmed oil wealth, though the company wasn’t going to profit much from it. Six years earlier, they had relinquished most of their claims to Dubai’s petroleum potential over to American-based Continental Oil. Still, BP was celebratory enough to plan the party, having organised similar ones in their past decades of sniffing out oil in the region. In Dubai, the sum of their whole two-day ceremony was the city’s biggest event ever: VIPs filled the city’s most luxurious hotel, the Carlton, a film was commissioned for their viewing, a monument was built and revealed (including an “eternal flame” supposedly fed by bountiful oil reserves), fireworks were imported from England, and a motorcade of air-conditioned cars was assembled. Festivities weren’t for the general public, mostly just for oil industry experts, other representatives from associated industries, their spouses, and important local leaders. It may have included the first fireworks display in Dubai, but the affair was tepid, and underreported by the international press.

Fireworks ended the first day’s dinner, which included, according to BP’s report, “no social entertainment”. The next day reportedly began with a performance of Dubai’s national anthem, even though Dubai is not a nation. At the monument’s unveiling, Dubai’s ruler lit the flame. Guests, largely British and American, applauded and returned to the motorcade to attend the film screening in Dubai’s first air-conditioned cinema. After they applauded the film, they made their way to lunch at a Dubai official’s Jumeirah villa, but it was rushed so that they could arrive on time for the day’s climax.

The final performance was scheduled to take place in the glare of an open, unadorned beach at the peak of the afternoon sun. Guests had been more comfortable in the air-conditioned cinema. Now their dress shoes filled with sand, and salty air stung their perfumed necks. Hats weren’t really in fashion, so bald spots were exposed to the sun. As the invited guests found their balance in the sand, each of the motorcade’s drivers stood next to his car, ready to take guests back to the hotel rooms as soon as the event was over. Participants were instructed to wait and keep focused on the Gulf waters that hardly moved, a low leaden stratum that extended to an indiscernible horizon. They tried to block the sun’s glare with slightly cupped hands over their brows, like limp salutes.

The approaching climax was heard before it was seen. Two DC-3 airplanes materialised from the north along the coast, over the construction site of Port Rashid, and headed toward the assembly. When they were nearly overhead, the planes veered right, out toward the sea and toward the source of the afternoon glare. From under their limp salutes, the guests watched the planes grow smaller, maybe wondering whether they would come back or drop some parachutists or release some coloured smoke. None of these happened. The planes had been hired as pointers simply to direct the guests’ sights outward. Ninety-seven kilometres beyond was Fateh Oil Field, where the Americans had struck oil. Not only was it too far away to be seen, but most of the work happened underwater. A submerged tank of extracted oil, a khazzan, was tapped daily by ships passing by.

Intended not to come ashore on Dubai’s land, oil was sublimated to the conceptual. The event had been crafted as a meditation on the abstraction of oil, on the calculations of geology, physics, and economics. With nothing to be seen, there was only the diminishing effect of the low-flying DC-3s. But, with nothing to be seen, there was also no obstruction to entrepreneurial imagination. Horizons were vague and therefore limitless. Guests continued peering out at the uninflected haze, toward a horizon that could not be formulated, toward “the invisible industry” as the journalists referred to it. Instead of oil, wealth came ashore in the form of money, ambitions, technologies, people and building materials—all arriving on a mounting current at nearby Port Rashid. The wealth from the sea did not arrive to erase history; it assumed it had never existed.

Memorialising Dubai’s oil wealth was no central theme for CRUDE, Art Jameel’s inaugural exhibition at the Jameel Art Centre in Dubai. Nevertheless, the art gathered together on Dubai Creek spoke clearly about the artfulness—the narrative power of petroleum—that helped create the new institute’s home. CRUDE brought together the work of living and deceased artists to explore how petroleum—its extraction, its sale, and its transmutation into other forms—imprints itself onto a public, and sometimes autobiographical, imaginary. Curated by New York-based Murtaza Vali, it proved a most fitting way to open the Centre’s much anticipated Dubai home.

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