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Libyan Writer Ghoma
الكاتب الليبي غومة

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Thursday, 4 February, 2010

'DEVELOPMENT' PEACOCKS: Skyscrapers in the Desert!

By: Ghoma

You neglect and belittle the desert,
The desert is not remote in southern tropics
The desert is not only around the corner,
The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,
The desert is in the heart of your brother.
                         T. S. Eliot, "Choruses from the Rock" (1938)

        As cross between Disney World, Las Vegas and Rodeo Drive, Dubai came close to the mythical shimmering city in the desert worthy of Arabian Nights lore. Artificiality is verywhere in its showy and vulgar imitation of anything American. The booming town is a locus to a gutless capitalism without brains or heart. A rubber-baron rush of the Wild West days! A speculative drive sanctioned by an Islamic Banking System, aimed literally the for sky.

        Thus Dubai, carried by real-estate exultations and skyscraper's ecstasy, has forgotten to ask what the fuss was all about. A real-estate bubble fizzled or a metaphor went sour ? If it were merely for a jack-in-the-box tower then all that bonanza was a waste. But if the shindig was meant more for the promises it carried, for the shape of things to come, then there's some room for debate. Indeed symbols that stood for drastic turns had not been necessarily of the time-shattering events. Emblems that endured and stayed engraved in historic memories were as products of will as they were of chance. What distinguished the germane from the fadish detritus were the promises more than the statitics obtained. It may turn out Dubai has some surprises in store, as to overcome its Disney-esque images and to transmogrify illusions into permanent realities. It's a big if ! in a country of tribes, mirages, and medievalistic culture. As modernity stands, Dubai has not even started yet. It takes more than signing some checks and inviting contractors to take advantage by dreaming big and furturistic, on behalf of a near comatose multitude, to create some make-believe Arabian Nights' shangari-la on the edge of the Empty Quarter!

        Celebrations were indeed rare if any in the battered and parched world of the Arabs. But when they come, they expose more emotion outbursts, cultural awkwardness, disheveled psychology, than about the secret and sudden outcropping of, to say it blantly, some pseudo-creative energy out of context or precedent. The hoopla amounted to that famous saying: the leash was more expensive than the saluki. A raket without precedent. For all their noises, the spectacles couldn't bridge the chasm separating ginuine outpourings of deeply felt sense of pride about the chutspa of daring, from, the sad thing to say, some stagy outbursts which had lacked the spontaneity of well-deserved achievement. Thus the feast's lack of meaningful substance just as the cause of the celebration was, a sheer concoction andf mere fabrication directed and managed by a new breed of slick-willies types -slick hired guns and glib salespeople- well-versed in the art of make-believe, organized and working on global scale. The flip-side to the global village is globalized speculation.

        As the New Year was setting in, the UAE were all abuzz. Not to send-off the departing year nor to salute the impending one. Not because, UAE's Large Hadron Collider has broken the previous record, nor Emirati physicists have finally cracked the still looked yet illusive sythesis, i.e. the Unified Theory of all, or their scientists and engineers have hit upon what makes the desert bloom cheaply and sustainably.None of these! What was then that has caused them such a frenzy? A tall glass-box in one of the hottest spots on earth. Financed by them and built by the knowledge of more than 60 consulting firms around the globe and the labor of more than12,000 south Asian workers. This gigantic vertical neighborhood, in excess of 12,000 residents, in a desert country without even a building code of its own -the UAE uses the British code as reference- to regulate design, construction and maybe also to run and keep the tall building itself. An interesting question perhaps to ask, if the British code lacked provisions for skyscrapers, according to which code then Dubai had built its tower, Chicago or New York? But most importantly how many Emirati, men and women, if any, had rolled up their sleeves and folded aside their robes to lend a hand, shaky as it may be, in this fantazy-like gurgantuan project? What experiences acquired and know-how accumulated by the citizens of that Beduin outpost to run and maintain the mirage-scaper, or to solve the plethora of problems still plaguing their forsaken hellish land? What was then all the boasting about?

        The desert's ironic twists had fused fate with fantasy, thus came out the mirage! While the Emirate's holding companies and its investment portofolios were melting by the minute, Dubai went into a trance of ecstasy. It overcame panic, the tragedy would have dealt it, in an unusual way, with firecracks! Let it burn, as Neron stood watching Rome in flames! If it'd to go, then as well it could do it in grand style. In fanfare and ruckus excitement! Whether the feast was enough catharsis or just another way to cover up the embarassment. Or, merely a badly chosen gesture to busy the sommlonet a bit from watching their dreams -out of voracious greed and utter incompetence- tumbling down in front of their eyes. What were these dreams? The dreams others had sold them: to a build a shining city on the hill for the whole region to admire and emulate . But, however, one looks at it, putting such a show for a glass-box in the desert was certainly out of step if not out of place too to merit even some considerations.

        Though, the glass-box has some staggering statics to its side, still the merit and the benefit accrued were not in the Emirates but rather where it was originated, conceieved and put together. The Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) of Chicago, has once more proved bold enough to deserve its mantle of worthy name. The firm's architects and engineers should have been the ones who mounted the feast for their daring achievements. It's true the Emirats had forked out the dough which has put the whole thing in motion and motivated the creative minds to work. Dubai should deserve the merit of signing the checks! But whether the act of signing was enough to deserve what the Emirats have made of it is a matter only the pundits will care to discuss. The hesitation and the doubt were due to the fact the Emirates' wealth was not straightly gained in the old-fashioned way, that's, through toil and hard work. But rather was obtained mostly by the mere fact of having slept on top of huge deposits of fossilized orgnic matter for millennia without count. If the oil was found and abstracted, the thanks for the efforts and know-how should go to the same folks who have just built the priapic emblem to perhaps record their daring to have faced the desert and subdued it. Or maybe just to add one more tale of 'Yankee Ingenuity' to the Arabian Nights.

        Aside from splitting the logic of who merits more the guy with the money or the guy (and the gal) with brains, the big question remains: How and which way to approach development. If the Indian way, of selling well-trained and well-qualified labor to mature economies cheaply is still questionable if it will ever lead to the country's full industrialization. The doubt is mostly around whether starting from the service sector a country can still reach down to the rest of the economy. It 's never been tried or happened before. If that's so, then, What about when the starting sector was the more rarefied and speculative of all sectors, the financial sector? Starting from finance and going down to the bowels of the economy must be more complicated for a retarded country even to entertain. Would, could, the Emirati citizen be much more amenable to training as a finance-wizard than as a technician, an engineer or a scientist? And if so, then, when these wizards take hold, who will then be the toiling brawns the industry feeds on and needs be? Will the toiling masses be the same imported chattel that had built the tower the Emirats are so much proud of? What kind of country then will these Emirats be, if they cannot even clean their garbage? Can and will the conscience of the civilized workld tolerate, the coming back or the litteral repetition of the plantation economy –of the 16th and up to beginning of the 20th centuries?

        Akin to certain traits of human characters in their resistance to mutation, must be the truism which says: No pain no gain. It still remains open to debate, at the level of nations, whether a rentier-state can use its revenues to buy development. Unless by development is meant merely the sparking and lustrous exteriors of glass-towers and ribbons of highways connecting them, and not the deep stirrings in the human constitution of the country's inhabitants, that would turn them from mere zombies to full-blown citizens. A country can buy the material manifestations of others' civilization but it's doubtful whether it could do the same for the motivations and energy that produced them. For buildings and machines were around since the Greeks and Romans brought them to the area but remained always an imported and strange relics implanted outside of thieir environments. Greek cities and Roman garrisons scattered in the length and width of the Middle East have remained exceptions never to be integrated into the organic body of their hinterlands. Perhaps Dubai has just added one more western inspired garrison to the many petrofied ruins.

        The petro-dollar states, the Arabstans, seem to have buoght blindly into the fad policies of financial speculations and its tangibles, real-estate . In post-industrial societies, perhaps the newly found tools of 'financial engineering' serve their temporary purposes, but what purposes the non-indutrialized countries serve when they're still in the tribal stage? Perhaps they give illusions of wealth to virtual development? The stage of financial speculation may well turns out to be no different than the stages of poetic swoons before it, in its elusive promises to nirvana. Finance like poetry, in their immaterialities edging on the Platonic realm, are in dire need to be brought down into the world of tangible and concrete ricks and mortars. Biut if the wizardry of finance remains aloof, its effects have not percolating down into the everyday collective know-how, then it may as well turns to another curse. It will strengthen the grip of the predators in their incesant search for ways: how to re-circulate the petro-dollars back to their original sources. The shimmering sparks of high-rise office buildings are the latest . These may indeed give both local and neighboring countries the soothing feelings of having achieved something. Yet their attractive fantasia may lead also to complicitly colluding with in making the false (fantases) as true goals. Thus Dubai may become contagious, and its tall buildings will soon be replicated –already a Saudi billioniere intends to build a Kilometer-high skyscraper in Jeddah!

        Perhaps it's time to revise some of those old believes, held since the so-called "age of awakening," and which said: it's possible to modernize and yet remain medievalistic. But tribes, superstitions, and the like were and still are anathemas to the modern conception of the world. Unless and until the multitude in petro- and non-petro-states get to recognize this fact straight no amount of money or expertise are going to buy them progress or to take them out of the slumb in which they're in to their pates.


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