Monday, July 10, 2006

the West

How Western is Dubai? As part of the federation of the United Arab Emirates, it shares with the other emirates and other Gulf states a legacy of having been a protectorate of the United Kingdom until the UAE gained independence in 1971. A protectorate is defined as

...a relationship of protection and partial control assumed by a superior power over a dependent country or region.*

It is now a city-state dependent on trade, commerce, tourism, real estate and other industries closely allied with international and, to a major extent, Western interests.

Is the UAE today and Dubai with it a protectorate of the United States? There is a relationship of protection by a superior power, the United States. There is not, however, a relationship of partial control by that superior power.

These are a few of the underlying political and economic considerations one might start with when asking about the degree or extent of Western influence in Dubai. These, however, are not the sorts of things that manifest themselves in daily life.

For that we need to take a walk or a drive on the streets. How Western is Dubai then becomes a function of which part of the city you are in. If you are in Karama, then you’re more in India than in the West. If you are in Al Barsha’a or Mirdiff then you are in Arabic communities. But if you are in Jumeirah or the Dubai Marina then you will begin to sense that you have found the spot where East meets West.

Actually, whether or not Western, it is certainly modern, urban culture which is transforming not only the appearance of Dubai but also its soul. We’re not talking about McDonald’s and KFC, but the wholesale manufacture of large sub-urban communities, with names like the Hattons, the Springs, Arabian Ranches, and Discovery Gardens. Humongous shopping malls have become the latest apparition of the town center. And most of the iconic towers rising in and around the city have a plethora of American and European names on their roster of consultants and architects.

Dubai is clearly a mix of South Asian, Arabic and Western cultures, while the population is mostly South Asian and Arabic. The most notable contribution by the West is manifested in the proliferation of the English language. More than Arabic it is English that is the lingua-franca, but it is an English that derives not only from Great Britain, but in large measure from India too, while only recently from America.

On the face of it Dubai is Western in its values. Personal freedoms are respected. Freedom of dress, freedom of mobility and freedom of expression are all enjoyed, within limits. That being said, it is still a Muslim state with Muslim sensibilities and laws to enforce some of the religion’s more important dictums.

What matters really is where you are in Dubai, in order to make a determination of how Western it is. To be conscious of that is probably the most useful rule of thumb one can use whenever trying to decide what is appropriate and what is not—what is Western and what is traditional, Islamic or Asian.

*The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd edition.

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