THE members of the upper echelons on Netflix’s new show Dubai Bling are Arabs. These are, per the rules of Emirati society, not the actual upper echelon — those would be the royals or the royal adjacent. They are those who must work for their money — wealthy realtors and businessmen, a DJ, a radio ‘personality’, the young widow of an old Saudi magnate and so on. They come from places like Lebanon or Egypt — better than South Asians per the Emirati scheme of value but less than even the lowest Emirati aristocrat.
An Indian businessman and a social media influencer are thrown in. When it comes to the wife of the DJ it seems that she is not held in very high regard by most of the cast.
The genre of the society ladies that lunch and create reality television gold is now advanced in age — The Real Housewives of Orange County which began in 2006 has spawned every possible iteration that could be thought of. Now influencers have emerged on the scene, offering self-produced reality television that attracts millions of viewers from across the world.
The cost of production has become so low and has been so internationalised by the likes of various streaming services that niche shows — and Dubai Bling would be a good example of this — are relatively easy to produce.
The storylines of most episodes seem to be set by the producers that focus on things such as spats over loyalty and betrayed secrets and shifting alliances. The setting, which is an artificially contrived metropolis where most brown people are relegated to a near slave-like existence, some with better amenities than others — seems particularly appropriate for the content.
There are some differences, however, and they are quite telling. In one episode of the show, an Arab character (dubbed the ‘Queen of Versace’) quibbles with the Indian influencer Farhana Bodi over not wanting to be her ‘content’. The quip along with the other snubs that Bodi endures at the beginning of the series appear to establish the caste system of the city-state and thus the show.
The sum of this city’s life is the consumption of goods and the show of money. The wealthy buy apartments at the Burj and the less wealthy a single Chanel purse and a few bottles of perfume.
Naturally, the wealthiest and the Arabs are at the top of Bling’s hierarchy: this happens to be the young widow of a Saudi billionaire Waleed Juffali — perhaps just one of several. Being a young widow is the second tragedy to have befallen Loujain, who was abandoned at a young age by her mother — a person she seems to try and fail to connect with at various points in the series.
LJ endures some failed dates in various episodes. Pakistanis will be happy to know that she is going out with Pakistani model Hasnain Lehri. It is too bad that this recent development took place after the show had already filmed the first season.
There are a few interesting glimpses into Dubai life in the show. Unlike Housewives and other similar shows, there seems to be a bit of desperation in the characters’ attempts to remain within the little ‘circle’ they have created. The need to belong seems to control not simply daily dramas, it appears to also control careers and thus futures. The DJ has to be nice to the power realtor and the influencer has to bow to the widow with a fortune.
Appearances matter expectedly but they matter most to those with careers like the radio talk show host. In Dubai Bling, this is a Lebanese-Australian man with an exaggerated Aussie accent and a Mexican wife who used to be his office manager. The accent — and the suggestion that he may actually be white — appears to matter a lot.
Dubai Bling reveals a lot about Dubai that its creators likely did not consider. Most of the action takes place in private environments, homes and offices, which is bizarre for a series with the name of a city in the title. The sum of this city’s life is the consumption of goods and the show of money. The wealthy buy apartments at the Burj and the less wealthy — Pakistanis for instance — a single Chanel purse and a few bottles of perfume. Everyone, however, is showing down those they perceive to be below themselves on the social hierarchical ladder.
It is also interesting to see that while consumption habits and lifestyles are changing in the Western world (societal trends are defined by a more health-conscious way of life and less flashy choices), Dubai remains stuck in the year 2000. Americans have stopped going to malls as the goal of a life less centred on consumption becomes more popular (shopping can also happen on your laptop and the goods can be delivered to your door). Huge numbers of malls lie vacant, the lights still blinking on out-of-fashion chain restaurants.
The anti-capitalist vibe is not ascendant but there is some embarrassment around acts of flagrant consumption in a world at war or facing threats from climate change. Some of these malls, it is rumoured, will be converted into indoor parks.
In Dubai, however, things remain stuck in a time zone where ‘fossil fuel’ is not a dirty word. This enables a strange kind of nostalgia of its own — one where tall buildings were supremely impressive and where consuming obscene quantities of designer goods was not a character flaw. Over in Dubai, the desi workers keep things looking good, the children fed and the hedges clipped. The sheer artifice of the place is job security for the invisible lot that never appear on Dubai Bling — the ones that earn money catering to the whims of the rich so that they can send money home to this poor country. One unexpected reassurance that comes out of Dubai Bling is just how impossible it would be for this ‘jewel of the Middle East’ to survive without the labour of South Asia, and for that we can be thankful.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, November 30th, 2022