Dubai – City-State of the Future: Globalism, Plutocracy and Social Exclusion

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.

12 thoughts on “Dubai – City-State of the Future: Globalism, Plutocracy and Social Exclusion

  1. scary monsters, I’m a big fan of much of the work of Richard Sennett but his later work with Sassen always strikes me as Utopian in the neverneverland sense:


    • The best argument for Yemen is Armenia (1915 – 1923).

      Dubai under Absolute Monarchy and a Federation of loose State-Dictatorships over Yemen and the civil-war of Democracy in a North/South bicameralism?

      So let me get this straight: America (U.S.A.) plan one: Absolute Monarchy and Federation of States under Corporate Governance Model? Or, is this the parody of a parody? What’s plan two from the Sith faction? The Jedi Council isn’t too happy with plan one…


    • Juicy… I like it when he earmarked the term an ‘aristocracy of the knowing’, the conception of a community of intelligence at the heart of British (and one could bring in US Intelligence, Israeli, etc.) Society that is privileged and regarded as the core for all decision. And, that such privilege can lead to bad ends, such as the War in Iraq in which the false knowledge of WMD’s through disinformation lead to such decisions for all countries involved. Scary stuff… of course, he’s critical, yet he is himself a part of that liberal establishment as much as he is a critic. One must remember that, too.


  2. My sense of the rough consensus out here on the dark side, is that comparatively functional foreign societies need to be ideologically defended from Cathedral interference to whatever extent possible. There’s no legitimate case to be made against any high-exit society, especially not a small one. Those who don’t like them should leave. (Of course, and on the contrary, people flood in, as they always have — these tiny fragments of counter-demotic order are refuges.)

    Not that we expect such defenses to succeed. Democratic evangelists won’t be satisfied until they’ve destroyed the last instance of productive, low time-preference order order on earth, and only frantic empowered mobs remain.

    There’s a deal to be made (although it won’t be). Why not incrementally fractionate the earth on the basis of ideological affinity, and let different patches do their own thing? Ditch all universalist scolding, and concentrate on making whatever it is you want to do work, along with those who share similar social ideals? Give everyone an ‘out’, in both — or all — directions, so that the reigning soft totalitarian globalism can be retired? We only need a few geographical crumbs to move forward with our agenda — with Kong Kong and Singapore as models. What are you demanding?


    • Personally I’m not demanding anything: for me, personally, life is not fair, the logic of things will play out according to very simple rules that bifurcate into what you see all around you. As for power and influence: the enforcers, if you will, will do what they’ve always done – they negotiate through peace or war for as much as they can get away with (or what those who are too weak to resist will allow). It has and always will come down to: more than, less than, or equal to. It seems that we are at the moment moving into a new era of aristocratic regimes based on the prestige of knowledge rather than force (although the threat of armed war will always be there as a regional control mechanism).

      Yet, only those societies that allow for enough freedom of thought to have real creativity and inventiveness – that allow for an openness, and sharing within these aristocratic regimes of knowledge, regimes based if not on trust, then at least on a logics of competitive gaming, an algorithmic of contingency and real change that offers the spark that lights the mind. All others will either continue to use invasive arts of piracy and theft, spying and surveillance based on the older regimes of mistrust and fatalism, stasis and security.

      Yes, it is going to be a world quite different than what we would want in the Utopian formations: but ours is not a utopian world, and the logic of worlds is quite different than we suppose. Yet, without some form of cooperation among all disparate people of the earth we will end in an atomistic war of all against all… and, this, we can all agree is not the way to go. So time will tell what compromises will win out… but compromise will bring whatever new balance we need: but it is striking the right balance that is most difficult.

      The battle for the remaining resources of this already depleted industrial and post-Fordist civilization in both its West and East forms seems to preclude a fractionating out of the earth based on ideological affiliations. Resources reside in all regions, and seem to be the reason for the great battles of the earth we see around us. Any new model would have to be based not of ideological affiliation but on resource allocation and access, an economic model that finally overthrows all ideological bullshit, that being religion as much as other and older forms of theological traditions…

      Obviously cities such as Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, New York, and 70 or so other cities as the major and minor hubs in the network of technocapitalist globalism as it seems to be playing itself out… and, as climatology, biotechnology, nanotechnology, bioinformatics, and genomics all begin to come to the forefront in the 21st Century we’ll see a whole new list of interactions needed within these free-zones (are decriminalized zones of open trade: almost libertarian and anarchist intent, but controlled by absolute power structures… strange bedfellows, indeed).

      Do I like what I see… no, but I do see it coming at us, and am unwilling to pretend otherwise, or live in the illusions that will only bring us more suffering. We have to open our eyes to the world that is being created, and to the forces that are apparently shaping our socio-cultural worlds. We just need to be able to have some leverage in the steering mechanisms…. if there is going to be a transitional space of performance then let’s at least do this smart, allow for a smooth formation that will keep death and destruction at a minimum, and allow for the sustainability of the planetary resources both organic and inorganic without depleting them beyond habitability. A compromise, of course, but I see no alternative without causing more bloodshed and suffering…


      • heh, I’m just waiting for the water wars here in the US to get some real momentum, may even be the next not so civil war, and what about subsidized federal insurances for weather related disasters, anyone who thinks they will be safe in citadels and or ivory towers are just not in touch with the times.


      • Haha… there is no place to hide, even for the rich… it’s all or nothing now, everyone is implicated in this catastrophe in the making!


  3. “Yet, without some form of cooperation among all disparate people of the earth we will end in an atomistic war of all against all… and, this, we can all agree is not the way to go.”

    You presuppose the possibility of cooperation. That is the Left foundation. It’s not shared by the Right, where the possibility of cooperation is derived from a prior convergence. Unless people or groups are disciplined by reality (competition), such that their ‘realisms’ converge, it is pointless to expect them to work together towards common goals. They have no common goals. So if solidarity is used to soften hard lessons in realism, it makes the possibility of effective cooperation ever more remote.


    • Then let’s shift it to ‘collaboration’ which fits into those ‘short-term costs’ theories the Right likes so well… so that through a collaborative effort we work together to confront these realisms that are accelerating at us like a train without headlights. I would throw out common and goals, since both of these seem to imply teleological affiliations of ideological compatibility. Even the notion of solidarity is remote. What we seek is to sustain a collaborative effort that lessens the impact on labor and value at the same time.


  4. This is the Cathedral vision of the perfect City State

    Is this true, though? It seems to me that many in the Cathedral would happily co-sign on much of your analysis. What’s the evidence to suggest that Dubal really is the utopia envisioned by Harvard and the NYT?


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