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Xmas and the city

January 03, 2013

ONLY a Russian deputy foreign minister could insult with such diplomatic finesse, and leave no bruises.

“You send delegations from Pakistan every few months to us. From your National Defence University, your National Management College, from your government think tanks…,” he said as an opening swipe. “Do you people learn nothing at all?” I gave the only answer possible: “I understand Your Excellency’s impatience. It must be exasperating to host so many delegations from us. The truth is that Russia is developing at such a dynamic pace that unless we visit you every six months, we can never keep up with your progress….”

That same logic could apply to Dubai. It needs to be revisited every six months. Otherwise one will miss witnessing its dramatic transformation from the chrysalis of a tiny sandy sheikhdom into an iridescent butterfly, a commercial paradise.

The similarity between two archetypal city-states — 16th-century Venice and 21st-century Dubai — goes beyond the obvious.

Venice has its Lido, Dubai its Creek; Venice its natural canals and graceful gondolas, Dubai its expensively dredged water-channels with sputtering public abras and sleek private yachts.

The doge and his court have a parallel in Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid’s affluent and civic-minded Medicis. Dubai’s skyline looks like a tantalising display of Venice’s Murano glass — elaborate, expensive and fragile. A year or so ago, Dubai was thought to be bankrupt and needed a bail-out by neighbouring Abu Dhabi. Now, yesterday’s banker once again casts envious looks at his erstwhile client.

Is there a singular reason for Dubai’s economic recovery? None that cannot be explained by conventional economics. Will Dubai continue to grow upwards and heavenwards, like its spectacular shimmering stalagmite — the Burj Al Khalifa? Why not?

Dubai’s wealth remains as diverse as the composition of its population. Its trade comes from all over the globe. Activity reaches a crescendo in the winter months. A Gulf winter is the short respite between the rigours of two unrelenting Khaleej summers. Through very skilful marketing, though, Dubai has used its benign winter weather to sell itself as a holiday haven to Europeans, Russians and East Coast Americans, desperate to defrost and if possible to celebrate a non-denominational Xmas.

Some years ago, there was a sign outside empty British churches that read: “CH—CH’ means nothing if UR not in it”. Christmas in Dubai is Xmas without Jesus Christ in it. To visit any shopping mall in Dubai in the shopping days leading up to the 25th of December is to become aware that Christ has been air-brushed out of ‘-----mas’ and substituted by the image of a jovial euro Santa Claus.

The journey to Bethlehem, the search for a room at an inn, and the miraculous birth in a grubby manger would seem to have no place or relevance in Christian tradition anymore. Santa Claus, his attendant elves, and Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer have become the latest symbols of a forgotten Nativity.

Any modern Joseph in search of a room would find a bed in Dubai as precious and overpriced as it was 2012 years ago, despite the almost limitless new hotels and apartment blocks springing up every month, filling the sparse waste that once existed between Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

In Dubai, as in other Muslim countries in the Gulf, Christians appear to worship not in churches but at shopping malls not dissimilar to cathedrals. Designer boutiques located off each central nave are their chapels, celebrity-sponsored perfumes their holy water, and the wafer of communion has assumed the shape of a plastic credit card.

All the traditional appurtenances have been glocalised. No one sees anything incongruous in seeing artificial conifers or pine trees, their boughs weighed down by un-melting snow, or Keralese Santas surrounded by Filipino elves, or a Santa underwater replete with oxygen tanks, goggles and a soggy beard competing with exotic tropical fish for the attention of jaded shoppers.

Care is taken not to exclude non-Christians from being part of the festive ritual. Interestingly, while prayer areas within the shopping malls are unobtrusive and discreetly located, at specified times, the azan replaces the carols or pop hits being piped through the public address system, but it does little to deplete the crowds. Shoppers do not need a periodical call to spend.

Outside, the design of mosques dotted throughout the various suburbs of Dubai and of Abu Dhabi have been standardised. At first glance, they appear to be similar — the domes, the pointed minarets, the non-figurative decoration and the quality, sandstone finish — and then, one looks more closely and can identify the differences wrought by municipal architects. Each municipality like a sect within a common religion has adopted its own approach to Islam.

Dubai’s challenge to Samuel Huntington’s theory of the clash of civilisations is most apparent in its Jumeirah beach residences. There, in a narrow cavern, flanked by walls of luxury hotels and shopping malls, holidaymakers from either side of the religious divide sit together and savour every sort of international cuisine — Italian, French, Russian, Gujarati, Lebanese. For entertainment, they can watch a ceaseless cavalcade of young locals cruise past in their designer cars, their engines purring sensuously. Throughout the night, the single road becomes a motorised catwalk.

One is tempted to ask, if God had intended to invent Dubai, why did He bother to create such a disorderly world?

The writer is an author.