Should we be racing to Dubai?

From John Arlidge in the Sunday Times Magazine

What’s the most popular place on the planet …? Is it somewhere old, say, the Taj Mahal or the pyramids? Somewhere hedonistic, such as Las Vegas? Somewhere for the family, maybe Disneyland? or one of the natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon or Uluru?

The best place in the world is only five years old. It has no natural beauty. It is a giant, dirty grey shed in a sun-scorched sandpit in what used to be the middle of nowhere. It has no culture, no depth. But more people go there than anywhere else on the planet – almost 80m in the past 12 months.

That’s 17m more that the population of Britain and more than the number who go to the Eiffel Tower, Niagara Falls and Disney World in Florida combined.

What is this wondrous place? – The DUBAI MALL.

This is the mother of all Malls: 14 miles of shop fronts, 1,200 shops, 6m sq ft of floor space, income of over £3bn annually and sales rising by 20% per year.

The mall is a vast underground bunker: a refuge of consumer heaven in the midst of a city, itself a strategically planned safe haven in the middle east. What’s the vision and purpose of Dubai? The mall sums it up – to be an economic and socially liberal oasis where East and West meet. Alridge notes that it is the drive to economic success that has given women in Dubai unimagined business opportunities.

Is this consumerism as a force for world peace? Is it in the blandness of a giant mall where all religious, social and political differences are subsumed into a homogenous nirvana?

Go outside into the 40C+ heat and you would come to some of the 20,000 imported migrant workers who built the mall in round the clock shifts in 4 years.  Workers who are little more than wage slaves. Foreign workers cede rights of residency, to organise a union, or bargain for pay and conditions. No job and you are expelled.  For the 1000s of construction workers and maids, there is no little or no recourse to justice if they are exploited – and there is much evidence of abuse. No voice and no rights for the silenced majority.

Beyond the ruthless labour market, there is also a fantastically unsustainable vision of the city. Alridge talks of the ‘gazillions of dirhams to air-condition the Dubai Mall … thousands of gallons of fresh salt water are delivered to the aquarium every day, trucked in from 20 miles away.’ Waitrose in the Mall import 10 tons of berries from California every day because people expect winter and summer food all year round – in the middle of a desert.

Dubai Mall is merely the excessive extreme of a particular illusion – that our insatiable desires can be met without consequence. The real costs are literally hidden away behind the glitz and glamour.

I play a bit of golf. The PGA European Tour for the last few years has become structured around the ‘Race to Dubai‘ – the big money-winning finale of the season, where fantastically well-paid sportsmen compete for the bonus pool prize of €5 million. Top golfers are sponsored by Dubai businesses. Big tour events are staged in the desert. Dubai money has bought massive publicity for and public legitimation of a semi-slave state.

Am I being idealistically naive to hope that one day, some famous golfer might simply question the ethics of Dubai becoming virtually synonymous with the European Tour name? Is it unimaginable to picture a sportsman questioning the big business that pays him and his fellow competitors? Might someone even choose not to play in the big money bonanza out of principle?

My point here is not just a rant against Dubai and it’s not just about golf. It’s a question around the pervasive and largely unquestioned power of global capitalism. The Dubai Mall is just its extreme face.

Is it conceivable for sportsmen to act and think politically around issues of justice? Can you remember any sportsman or woman in the modern era of massive sponsorship from global companies actually refusing on the basis of conscience and ethics?

Or does money buy silence and complicity in the status quo? One thing is for sure – once you accept millions to wear a company logo, the company owns you and not the other way around.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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