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Metropolis: Two decades of dubai

August 23, 2015

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Beautiful highrises of glass, steel and chrome
Beautiful highrises of glass, steel and chrome

It used to be ‘live in Beirut’ for many decades, during the time when that city was the major international hub of the Arab world. If you wanted to have your corporate presence in the region, whether your field was finance and banking, publishing (The Reader’s Digest Arabic edition was published from Beirut), logistical operations, entertainment or intrigues, Beirut was the place to be. Sometimes, the areas of interest overlapped: Kim Philby, a senior British spy, worked under the cover of Middle East correspondent for The Observer and The Economist in Beirut before he defected to the Soviet Union in 1963.

During World War II, it was an important transit point and supply centre for military forces coming from the East, including the subcontinent, and heading to Europe, or vice versa.

After the outbreak of the long civil war in 1975, Beirut lost its international popularity and status to Bahrain, particularly in the financial and banking sectors.


A small tribal village evolved into a modern global city in shockingly little time


Due to its relatively liberal polcies, Bahrain also served as an entertainment district for the neighbouring Saudis and others. Then in the mid 1990s, with increasing political and religious unrest in Bahrain, the UAE (and particularly Dubai) began to gain more international importance. Now the UAE is the undisputed business hub of the region, and is also considered a prime tourist spot to boot.

Thanks to its secure and peaceful environment (reported human-right violations and discriminatory rules for legal dependants of expatriates working in UAE, notwithstanding), it has also become the second, and in some cases first, home for many of the so-called Pakistani ‘elite’. Dubai is all that Beirut was, plus more.

A tiny country of about eight million people, UAE is inhabited by roughly 80 per cent foreigners who manage the day-to-day affairs for the 20pc Emiratis. Its largest city, Dubai, which depends on imported drinking water and food, has small oil reserves but still prospers largely due to foreign investments, commerce and tourism. Even before its emergence on the world stage, Dubai had been a long established smugglers paradise with an estimated $2 to $10 billion illegal trade annually. This wasn’t illegal according to Dubai laws, but illegal for most of the neighbouring countries which were the final destinations of suppliers. The Christian Science Monitor called it “the new Casablanca” for drawing spies and arms dealers of all kinds. It has also reportedly been a favourite Iranian conduit for its nuclear programme and housed 8,000 Iranian private companies according to one estimate; some of them acting as fronts for the Iranian government.

During my recent visit to Dubai, I had to spend considerable time and effort in locating the streets and landmarks I had become familiar with in the 1990s and in 2008. The Dubai I knew was partly overshadowed by — and mostly buried under — some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, subway train network, and shopping malls spread over acres.

However, the seedy district in Deira (with its streetwalkers) still survives with bars and clubs catering for various nationalities separately, like Indian, Pakistani, Iranian, Sudanese etc., according to their respective resources and tastes.

A bewildering maze of underpasses and flyovers
A bewildering maze of underpasses and flyovers

And all this happens under the watchful eye of the state. I can’t vouch for the veracity of this story, but a driver of a major cab company told me that sensors are installed under taxi seats which register the number of passengers riding during a journey, and that an automatic sound system switches on to record the conversation inside the cab during the ride, which the driver cannot control.

Wading through the modern concrete jungle, it was refreshing to discover Dubai Museum, Kinokunya bookstore, and the Grand mosque of Abu Dhabi less than two hours drive away.

Frankly speaking, there isn’t a lot of history in UAE or Dubai, beyond small tribal societies who lived near the coast and quarrelled among themselves before discovering oil and Western patronage, eventually transforming the desert into a spectacular world-class destination. Nevertheless, the presentation of whatever there had been is impressively displayed in the multi-story underground Dubai Museum and is certainly worth a visit. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica:

“Historically the domain of individual Arab clans and families, the region now comprising the emirates also has been influenced by Persian culture owing to its close proximity to Iran, and its porous maritime borders have for centuries invited migrants and traders from elsewhere...

The settlement of Dubai town is known from 1799. The sheikh (Arabic: shaykh) of the emirate, then a minor, signed the British-sponsored General Treaty of Peace (1820), but the area was seemingly dependent on Abu Dhabi until 1833. In that year, a group of Āl bū Falāsāh clansmen of the Banī Yās, chiefly pearl fishers, left Abu Dhabi in a rivalry dispute and took over Dubai town without resistance. From then on,

Dubai became, by local standards, a powerful state and was frequently at odds with its former rulers. The Qawāsim pirates tried to take control of it, but its rulers retained their independence by playing the neighbouring sheikhdoms against each other.

The Dubai Museum
The Dubai Museum

Together with the rest of the original Trucial States, the emirate signed with Britain a maritime truce in 1835 and the Perpetual Maritime Truce in 1853. Its foreign relations were placed under British control by the Exclusive Agreement of 1892. When Britain finally left the Persian Gulf in 1971, Dubai was a prominent founding member of the United Arab Emirates. Until the 1930s pearl exports was the main trade. The oil exploration began in 1966.”

I have had the opportunity of visiting many bookstores in dozens of countries. However, a visit to Kinokunya in the Dubai Mall had a sobering effect. Even with the experience of owning a bookshop in Karachi, it made me feel as if for the first time in my life I was in a real and proper bookstore. In a massive round shaped hall, it seemed that almost any book you could think of was available there in English, Arabic and other major languages. The store even had various editions of Tin Tin, by Herge’, one of the most popular comic series of 20th century for collectors, and a whole section for children. Not only the works of award-winning authors (Noble laureates, Bookers prize-winners, etc.) occupied respectable space in the store alongside the latest bestsellers, but the shortlisted authors for such awards were also allocated a generous display, including the English translations of our Intizar Hussain among others. Spending time in Kinokunya was an exhilarating experience.

From a distance, it reminded me of the Taj Mahal, at close quarters it refreshed the memory of Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, and those others I saw in Isfahan, Iran. Opened in 2007, the Sheikh Zayed Mosque was designed by Yusef Abdelki. Mughal, Moorish and Persian influences are discernible in the design and construction of the mosque. Some of the most dazzling features include the marble mosaic work on its floors and walls, chandeliers, the harmonious exclusive carpet motifs and its ablution facilities in the basement.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Emir of Abu Dhabi and president of the United Arab Emirates who conceived the mosque project, died in 2004 and is buried in the courtyard of the grand mosque.

Although Dubai may never qualify for the title of ‘Paris of the East’ as Beirut did, Dubai’s multidimensional significance today cannot be underestimated.

So, next time you find yourself among the glittering sights and sounds of Dubai, make time from window-shopping — it is one of the most expensive cities in the region — and visit some inspiring lan marks it has to offer.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 23rd, 2015

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