Reflections, commentary and analysis from Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University.
By Jameson M. Wetmore,
In the spring of 2011, the Emirate of Dubai appeared in headlines as the site of a series of protests. These protests, however, were largely not aimed at the Emirati government. Dubai has become a place where Arabs feel safe demonstrating against governments like those in Egypt and Libya. But the citizens of Dubai do not live in a democracy themselves. Dubai is governed by a ruling family that passes leadership of the Emirate through the family tree.
Independent watchdog Freedom House noted that the Dubai government has never held an election, freedom of speech is restricted, non-governmental organizations are regulated (and can be closed) by the government, and the rights of citizens to demonstrate is extremely limited. Limitations like these provided much of the fuel that have led to bitter protests against other governments in the Arab world. So why haven’t the citizens of Dubai joined their neighbors and protested their government?
Maybe it’s because they can ski in the desert.
I spent much of the January before the Arab Spring in Dubai with a dozen undergraduates from Arizona State University on a study abroad program. I study the ways in which people shape technology and how technology in turn shapes them. We used the trip to explore how this happens in one specific Arab context.
Technology is incredibly powerful because it enables us to do things that were never before possible and in doing so it changes who we are. The Amish, for instance, know this all too well and have chosen to limit the technologies they use in order to limit social change and reinforce their tight knit community. In Dubai, we found the opposite can work as well. In many ways the Dubai Government has created technologies that give its citizens freedoms that no political system ever could and in so doing makes them happy to be Emirati. In Dubai, technologies seem to make the impossible possible.
For instance, several years ago developers didn’t think they had enough beachfront property, so the government sponsored the construction of Palm Jumeirah, a manmade island that added over 70 km of coastland, and filled it with condos, hotels, and villas. Dubai is pretty flat, so they built the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building which stretches over a half mile into the sky. The elevators take you to the observation deck at a speed of 10 meters per second. Supposedly on a clear day from the very top you can see 10 countries.
Emiratis like to get places quickly, so they’ve bought countless Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Maseratis. Before I visited I thought that the picture of Emirati men in white robes and headdresses driving in exotic convertibles was a misleading stereotype. It happens far more often than I ever imagined. Even a local professor we met had a brand new Porsche Cayenne SUV in the parking lot.
The unofficial hobby in Dubai is shopping, so they’ve created a consumer paradise known as the Dubai Mall. With 135 acres of floor space, the mall is the largest in the world and offers shoppers 1200 stores. When Emiratis need a break, there’s plenty of entertainment nearby. In the center of the mall is the Dubai Aquarium. Most just stop and stare at the sharks through the world’s largest piece of acrylic (which weighs 270 tons), but the more adventurous grab scuba gear and jump on in.
Just outside the mall is the Dubai Fountain. If you’ve seen the dancing fountain at the Bellagio in Vegas you haven’t seen anything. This one is three times as big. Thousands of people gather every night to watch the carefully choreographed interplay of water, light, and music. Jets shoot up to 20,000 gallons of water into the air at any one time and when it is lit the fountain is the brightest spot in the Middle East and can even be seen from space.
As I walked by the fountain and stared up at the Burj Khalifa, I wasn’t the only one awe inspired. Emiratis were taking their families to the same places and I could see by the smiles on their faces and the way parents talked to their children how proud they were to be a citizen of a country that could produce such things.
Unfortunately, not everyone benefits from these technological marvels. There have been protests by workers over wages and working conditions in Dubai. Since nearly all of the workers in the emirate are foreign nationals on work visas, the conditions must be pretty bad for them to protest. They risk not only being fired, but being deported.
But the government works hard to make the citizens of Dubai happy. The students I took on the trip quickly made friends with some Emirati college students. For fun one night they all jumped into SUVs and drove to the middle of the desert. My students asked a number of questions about Dubai’s ruling family. They did get some answers, but there were other things the Emirati politely said they simply couldn’t talk about. While certain political topics were prohibited, they didn’t seem to mind so much as they fired up their engines and raced each other up and down the dunes.
The citizens of Dubai enjoy a significant amount of freedom thanks to government sponsored technological wonders. One of my favorites is a manmade mountain of snow in the middle of the desert. Ski Dubai is a 400-meter indoor ski run in the Mall of the Emirates. I rode the lift up to the top surrounded by Emiratis in special snow suits that allowed men to keep on their traditional head scarves and robes and women their abayas. The thrill of flying down a hill on top of two slender skis is something that most Arabs had never experienced before they visited Dubai. Many of the ski instructors I met had never even seen snow anywhere else, only in Dubai.
Dubai’s citizens are not able to vote for their leaders or severely criticize the royal family. But they get to enjoy certain types of freedom that aren’t possible many places in the world. The leader of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, has a quote on his official website that reads: “The first responsibility of a leader is to make his people happy and then to provide them with the required security, stability, comfort, progress and development.” Who needs political freedom when you have the freedom to ski in the desert?
Jameson M. Wetmore is an associate professor in the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes and the School of Human Evolution & Social Change at Arizona State University. He is co-author of Technology & Society: Building Our Sociotechnical Future (MIT Press 2008).