Nietzsche once warned us that if a State ever delivered on the promise of a good life for the greatest number that “it would destroy the earth from which a man of great intellect, or any powerful individual grows”(145).1 Our gurus and pundits of the Cathedral worlds of neoliberalism hype up these new City-States arising out of the sea of a broken democracy and communism as if we were already living in the future. JP Morgan Chase and the Brookings Institution have teamed up to launch the five-year, $10 million Global Cities Initiative:
Brookings and JPMorgan Chase will co-host a series of domestic and global forums in collaboration with local, metropolitan area leaders to drive discussions, build consensus, and catalyze action about best practices and strategies for regional economic growth. Using Brookings’ data-driven analysis and original research, metropolitan leaders will evaluate their regional standings on crucial economic measures and be exposed to best policy and practice innovations from around the world.
The City of the future will be based on a corporate model. “The goal is not perfection in a single city, but more effective innovation and competition, so that the best cities prosper and other cities emulate them. There are enough mobile people that one city’s success won’t harm others; on the contrary, it is more likely to encourage existing cities to change, just as new market entrants force incumbents to improve. Sometimes, in order for evolution to do its best work, the individual components need some intelligent design.” (Urban Intelligent Design) Notice that migrant workers, and even the intellectual elite have become ‘mobile people’, and the now defunct comment on ‘evolution’ as a driver for economic change. And, even God gets his due: she allows the old conception of ‘intelligent design’ in through the back door.
As one pundit, Alan Berube, remarks: “The evolving idea of the “global city,” coined two decades ago by the sociologist Saskia Sassen, further demonstrates the city’s crucial position in global trade. Global trade is not pleasant; it is fiercely competitive, and policymakers must address the short-term costs that it routinely imposes on people and places.” (Return of the Trading City) Don’t you love these euphemisms: ‘short-term costs’, – military power, gun running, contraband and smuggling, slavery and human trafficking, money laundering and terror funding, etc. And, all this, handled with a smile by your friendly financial institution of choice in the free-zones of global trading paradises.
The contemporary city-state has flourished primarily in two regions: the Persian Gulf and Southeast Asia. The development of Hong Kong and Singapore provided a critical stage for Southeast Asia, which has been home to the world’s the greatest economic expansion. Hong Kong, now a quasi-independent part of China, competes with London’s West End as the world’s most expensive office market. The Persian (or, as some like to call it, Arabian) Gulf constitutes the other hot bed for 21st Century city-states. Over the past decade, a string of once obscure cities from Dubai and Abu Dhabi to Qatar and Bahrain have risen to positions of global significance. Qatar, a tiny emirate with roughly 1.7 million people, will host the 2022 World Cup–an announcement that surprised nearly everyone. Abu Dhabi, a desert metropolis of some 2 million people, is undergoing the largest cultural development project on the planet, financed by the emirate’s huge oil wealth. (A New Era For the City State?) As another pundit, Tim Jones, argues “Although today we only have a few sovereign city states left, namely Singapore, The Vatican and Monaco, we do have a number of urban areas that have a high degree of autonomy and essentially function as city states within the nations they belong to: Canberra, Vienna, Brussels, Geneva, Hamburg, Moscow, Brasilia and Buenos Aires all come to mind. By 2020 we can expect that, alongside a few select intergovernmental programmes and more regional economic partnerships, the catalysts for major change in the world will increasingly come from the 40 or so mega-cities that drive the global economy, are home to many of its population and set the future agenda” (Mega City States)
As a critic of this new trend, Ahmed Kanna, speaking of the City as Corporation, remarks “the landscape and urbanscape of the contemporary Emirati city is envisioned by rulers and urbanists, first and perhaps most importantly, as a visualized and imagistic city. This is also meant in at least two senses-the city must look a certain way (starchitecture, monuments, eye-catching buildings), and it must represent certain values (free-market globalization, a neoliberal kind of cosmopolitanism, family-state power).2 An enfolding of modernity onto postmodernity, a refractive city of images and simulation, that caters to the new executives of the global citizenry. Ahmed cites an Emirati political theorist, Abdul Khaleq Abdulla, on the Branded City:
The state as brand and the city as brand, just as with the branded commodity and the branded corporation, is a natural phenomenon, and does not diminish the standing of cities, the dignity of states, or the depth of civilizations and cultures…. There is no difference in the age of globalization between the commodity, the state, merchandising, the city, cultures, and services. All are equivalent … for the surface, in this day and age, is as important as content itself. (from a recent essay “Dubai: The Journey of an Arab City from Localism to Cosmopolitanism”)
Ahmed Kanna in response to the above asks hard questions of his adversary:
My argument is that when Shehab and people of a similar outlook speak about Dubai’s futurism and its post-national orientation, they are not rejecting local identities and traditions per se. They are reappropriating them and implicitly responding to the neoorthodox position. How did this understanding of the relationship between society, politics, and urban space emerge in the first place? How is it embedded in contemporary local structures of meaning, and how is it related to transnational historical and cultural processes? And what are the implications for contemporary Dubai urban space? (City as Corporation ibid.)
The future City-State will be shaped by a ‘graduated sovereignty’ as Ahmed puts it:
Abdulla sees in Dubai the manifestation of the central principles neoliberal and postmodern urbanism, such as commodified and spectacular landscapes, the marketing of city image, and the centrality of foreign investment, Abdulla’s essay provides a good summary of the ideology of the Maktoum and other well-connected and politically powerful family corporations, such as Majid Al Futtaim (MAF). The chiefs of these corporations subscribe to the city-corporation principles of commodification, labor exploitation, and the withering of the state, and their employees are trained to internalize these values. (ibid. City as Corporation)
Marxism as capitalism. The final turn in the screw of economic triumph over democracy and communism. “The neoliberal ethos of Dubai’s major holding corporations and of the flexible citizens recruited to management positions within these corporations is ambivalently situated between notions of authentic Arab identity, a variation on the neoorthodox ideology, and an explicit ethnic pluralism, which I call a “post-purist” orientation” (Kindle Locations 1948-1950). He continues centering in on the Maktoum parastatals and MAF firms saying “to both their management and their employees these organizations embody the values sketched in theories such as that of the city-corporation-they reflect neoliberalism both in the negative sense, the alleged liberation of the market from state intervention and from politics, and in the positive and active sense, as a space of individual creativity and the creation of novel identities as well as of progress beyond the rentier mentality assumed to be characteristic of most other Emiratis” (Kindle Locations 2002-2003).
Employees in many of these firms argued that working for the mother company was a progressive mission or calling. The process of working for these larger corporations is a process of enlightenment, they suggested. Moreover, especially for women, neoliberal and local ethical worlds align with particular resonance. The simultaneous emphases on individual responsibility and commitment to something like a modernizing, national struggle offers a resolution of the conflict between Dubai’s particular contemporary economic trajectory, on the one side, and the temptations for libertinism and anti-social behaviors, on the other side. This subjective sense of participating in a greater calling, something that may be unpalatable to the masses outside the enclave, as well as of being, as Nadia suggests, temperamentally unique and therefore capable of being so educated, are traits shared by Dubai’s flexible citizens. (Kindle Locations 2040-2045).
This is the Cathedral vision of the perfect City State, citizens compliant and happy, fully aware of their involvement in the ideological underpinnings of their slavery the flexible citizens of the future who exist now relish in their dark enlightenment. As Ahmaed Kanna relates it “for these flexible citizens, being a good neoliberal and national subject means seeing oneself as a sort of creative artist of identity, extracting useful and (allegedly) progressive aspects of ascriptive identity and reframing them through neoliberal values of entrepreneurialism, individualism, and cultural flexibility” (Kindle Locations 2049-2050).
After hundreds of interviews with various citizens Ahmed Kanna relates a darker picture, one that on the surface showed nothing but the fantasy life of these new flexible citizens, but that underneath the surface his interactions with this world “was significantly restricted in interactions with Emiratis”. Because the interviewees provided a formal image of their neoliberal commitment he felt that there was a specific linguistic structure tied to an ideal type of self, a kind of ethnically post-purist Emirati neoliberal self. He continues:
Since flexible citizens likely perceived the neoliberal discursive field to be one that I shared, in spite of my own anti-neoliberal politics, which I tended not to discuss with interlocutors, these interlocutors felt comfortable enough to present one version of what I believe to be a self with which they strongly identified. However, although the flexible citizen identity is likely performative (as are the other identities discussed in this book) and only one part of self-fashioning among these interlocutors, it is not insincere or neatly distinguishable from what interlocutors might really feel. For these flexible citizens, the Maktoum-centered image of futuristic, global Dubai of the turn of the twenty-first century was (and seems to remain) a powerful summarizing symbol of aspiration and modernity (Kindle Locations 2137-2148).
Ahmed reminds us that argument he has presented in this book has been that in the connection between local agents of urbanism and global experts, such as starchitects, there is a concealed if often unwitting political project that buttresses both the monopolist agenda of local elites on Dubai space and memory and the elitist agendas of global urbanists. (Kindle Locations 2839-2841) He also reminds us that a counter-argument could be made:
A counterargument can be made against this thesis, specifically, that when Koolhaas, Gehry, and others refer to Dubai and other cities as “blank slates,” when they refer to “context,” they are in fact talking about architectural idiom and not about the society as a whole. These architects’ interventions are architectural, this counterargument would go, because architecture is concerned with aesthetico-formal, not social and political, questions. It is unfair to critique the political naivety of star architects, because political and social questions are extrinsic to architecture. (Kindle Locations 2841-2844).
He mentions Rem Koolhaas as one of the principle architects, who in an interview said this:
Perhaps the most interesting things we discovered (for us at least, and at that point it showed our ignorance) is that the number of expats are, for instance, 30 percent in Abu Dhabi and 80 percent in Dubai. How was it that, at the moment when the West is struggling with multiculturalism, in the supposedly intolerant Islamic world, this kind of sharing societies works there? We don’t hold any illusions about who those immigrants are, why they are here. It is probably undeniably true that there is an element of exploitation, but we decided to look at these worlds as prototypes of the new Islamic world in which the coexistence of many cultures is an ongoing experiment and probably an ultimately positive experiment. (Kindle Locations 2865-2869).
Like a character from one of J.G. Ballard’s novels Rem Koolhaas experiments with a psychopathic architecture of dream and desire building prototypes of the post-Islamic society where multiculturalism is the order of the day and social exclusion is whisked under the weary eye as just ‘short-term costs’. Yet, amid the splendor of the neoliberal artifact in the sublime desert all is not as it seems, the underbelly of collapse is in the air. Ahmed relates the layoff of hundreds and thousands of workers, migrants from other countries that have little are no voice in the matter, have lost their jobs without pay and been deported back to their homelands penniless and destitute. As one worker said: “They just called us to the head office and fired us,” a cook reported about the Dubai Marina mass sacking. One journalist, citing a stereotypical Western media image of “Dubai’s collapse,” brilliantly captured both the structural vulnerability and discursive invisibility of non-Western, working-class foreigners:
Reports of hundreds of cars left abandoned at the airport with keys in the ignition and maxed-out credit cards strewn in the glove compartment have become a popular anecdote for the Western expatriates forced to return home after losing their jobs or being made redundant. But for the thousands of blue-collar workers, going home is not that simple and often means a waste of lives savings and the prospect of severe poverty. (Kindle Locations 2900-2903)
1. Friedrich Nietzsche. Human All To Human (Collected Works 1992)
2. Ahmed Kanna. Dubai, the City as Corporation (Kindle Locations 1859-1861). Kindle Edition.