Wealthy playground,
By the sea;
Never meant
For you or me.

You may be a bit hazy on the Persian Gulf. Basically that’s where a lot of the world’s oil comes from.

The Gulf is a long, slim, shallow dead-end sea connected to the Indian Ocean by the distressingly narrow Straits of Hormuz. Those straits are likely to be a battle zone in the next war since that’s how the oil gets out.

On the east side of the Gulf lies Iran. To the west is Saudi Arabia, its shore pocked with Lichtenstein-sized Arab sultanates, all smirking with oil and protective U.S. bases.

Each of these states boasts a very small native population, commensurate with their pre-oil life as pearl divers and goat herders, stranded on the edge of an inhospitable desert. But that thin population density will no longer do. As with the very rich everywhere, there is an appropriate lifestyle to be maintained. This requires hordes of immigrants.

U.S. and European visitors handle the oil duties. The rest, varying from 30 percent to an amazing 75 percent of the population, come from Asia. Those workers often pay a ransom to various scoundrels who arrange the necessary work visas. The workers are referred to as “expats” (expatriates) and have virtually no chance of citizenship, even those born in the Middle East. The largest immigrant community comes from India.

Governing this strange amalgam of humanity are the sultans, largely unfettered by such inconveniences as parliaments, elections, critics, free press, or human rights. They should not, however, be underestimated. The king of Kuwait, for example, promised the United States that democracy would flourish if we would only rescue his land from Saddam Hussein. We did, but he didn’t. Still no democracy. Only glistening skyscrapers and oozing oil wells.

The savvy Sultan of Qatar created Al Jazeera, a very influential global television network. And Abu Dhabi is the financial boss that invests in and bails out the other emirates as needed. (It also sports an $11 million Christmas tree bedecked in gold and gems this holiday season, the most expensive ever reported.)

But the public relations king is Dubai. That’s the place with the world’s tallest building, the palm-shaped artificial island, the sail-shaped hotel with the $100 lunch, the new subway system, the 95,000 hotel rooms, and the working indoor ski slope. All this may seem a bit over the top for a sliver of sand that ran out of pearls long ago, and which ranks at the bottom of the region’s oil reserves.

That, of course, is the genius of the plan. Just as Las Vegas has transcended gambling to become a citadel of entertainment, so Dubai is transcending oil to become a citadel of greed. The shrewd sultan understands that the top attraction for really rich people is to be around other really rich people. Thus he has created all the features listed above plus the Tiger Woods golf course, the Formula 1 race track, the ATP tennis tournament, the world’s glitziest shopping malls, the landmark office buildings, and the exclusive residential estates.

Oil is always a good bet, but when it finally runs out, smart planners want obscene wealth to carry the kingdom forward.

That’s a tall order for a land where the mercury regularly tops 120 degrees F in summer, where beaches have no surf, and where grass and wildlife don’t grow. But then really rich people own other homes where they can summer. They don’t need the Gulf. And despite the heat, at the height of the building boom, Dubai alone hosted more construction cranes than any nation but China. Even today it makes Manhattan seem a tad shabby.

All those empty condos and office buildings can summon flashbacks to Wily Coyote running off a cliff, before plummeting into the economic chasm below.

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William A. Collins

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. He recently traveled to Dubai.

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