The great capitalist dystopia of Dubai, a huge speculation bubble in paradisical tourist islands and business skyscrapers built on the slave-labor of South Asian migrant workers, is on the verge of collapse. Even though it is located in one of the driest and hottest parts of the world, its developer-king, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, saw a bright future for the place as the great playground of modern cosmopolitan capital. Indeed he presented himself and the whole project as a capitalist variation on the ‘enlightened kingdom’ of the old concept of the philosopher-king: none of those pesky things like regulations and taxes, or even good taste, could stand in the way of capitalist development here. In Dubai, anything would and should be possible on a larger and more commercial scale than ever before seen.
Financed largely by the oil income of its brother emirate of Abu Dhabi, it succeeded marvellously well at the spectacular show of capital’s boom during the 2000s. As one vision described the imagined Dubai of its Sheikh and investors:
Although you have an important business meeting at Internet City with clients from Hyderabad and Taipei, you have arrived a day early to treat yourself to one of the famed adventures at the Restless Planet themepark. After a soothing night’s sleep under the sea, you board a monorail for the Jurassic jungle. (…) With your adrenaline pumped up, you round off the afternoon with some snowboarding on the local indoor snow mountain (outdoors, the temperature is 105 degrees). Nearby is the world’s largest mall – the altar of the city’s famed Shopping Festival, which attracts millions of frenetic costumers each January – but you postpone the temptation. Instead, you indulge in some expensive Thai fusion cuisine. The gorgeous Russian blonde at the restaurant bar stares at you with vampiric hunger, and you wonder whether the local sin is as extravagant as the shopping…
Not all of this Thomas Friedmanesque wet dream has become reality yet, but indeed in Dubai there have been miracles of capitalist enterprise: artificial islands in the form of a palm leaf, indoor ski slopes and the project for the world’s tallest skyscraper. All this was an attempt to harness the power of capitalist competition to make this useless piece of desert, held in fiefdom by the Al-Maktoum Sheikhs since 1833 and never more than a minor slave trading Bedouin port(2), a place of prestige and wealth for the Arab aristocracy, one that would inspire other Arab rulers to live up to a new Renaissance of Arab culture. And indeed the project is one fitting of a second-rate Renaissance: it rests uncomfortably between the feudal and the capitalist in its vision, and suffers from the worst aspects of both while producing little than gaudy nonsense. Truly nothing is less efficient than the manner in which the Sheikh gave the $2 billion stipend of his Abu Dhabi supporters to four of his advisers and had them compete with each other for the greatest prestige in their development projects. Everyone with a lick of sense about economics knows that competition for prestige or status is inherently inefficient, since it is a zero-sum game: what the one gains, the other necessarily loses, and as a result the whole undertaking is an irrational waste.
Such a thing could of course be nothing more than the lurid and kitschy fantasies of an Arab aristocrat used to collecting expensive yachts and horses if it weren’t for the potential to create a real estate bubble. This is indeed what has happened, as the constant investment into new projects led to influx of ‘quick’ financial capital that sought to profit off the initially oil-fed boom, and the continuing generosity of Abu Dhabi helped keep it afloat. But all capitalist bubbles must burst, and this year it has been the turn of the real estate ones. Dubai has been the last to be hit so far, but it, too, could not escape this fate. The large investment conglomerate Dubai World has had to call for a six month moratorium on financing its multi-billion dollar debt, and the Sheikh has gotten rid of three of the four advisors mentioned and replaced them with his aristocratic family. Moreover, there has been rumbling in Abu Dhabi about the investments from there and as a result the Sheikh has been hasty to re-emphasize his connections with the loose confederacy of the United Arab Emirates, while the Abu Dhabi stock exchange has crashed by 8.3%.(3)
Good news for the slave workers of Dubai, who may now perhaps be freed of the debt peonage they are held in for want of work for them to do, and good news also for all who understand man’s dependency on a healthy metabolism with the environment. Good news for those who do not see wealth and size as a fitting substitute where good taste is lacking, and for those who would wish a better future onto the Arabic world than to function as a childish playground for spoiled patriarchs. Bad news however for the investors, for the hastily fleeing ex-pat businessmen, and for the ‘inspiring nature of capitalism’. For indeed, capitalism has done much here that the endless generations of nomadic robbers and slave traders in the subcontinent could not do, as Marx and Engels pointed out:
The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigour in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.
(4) Yet while the Sheikhs and Friedmans and Spikeds of this world are willing to triumphalize about this, they forget the necessary corollary that our friends also pointed out:
Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. For many a decade past the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeois and of its rule. It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them.
1) Mike Davis & Daniel Bertrand Monk, Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism (New York, NY 2007), p. 49.
2) Robert F. Worth & Heather Timmons, “Debt Crisis Tests Dubai’s Ruler”. New York Times (Dec. 3, 2009).
3) Vicky Francis, “Dubai’s Sheikhy foundations”. Spiked (Dec. 2, 2009). The idiotic triumphalists at Spiked incidentally have great trouble explaining away the obvious failures of the capitalist enthousiasm they worship.
4, 5) Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party [London 1848].