DUBAI. Undoubtedly one of the most fascinating places on the planet. And for all the same reasons one of the most repugnant.
Ten years ago, if you’d even heard of the place you probably wouldn’t have been able to place it on the map. You’d almost certainly have had no image of it in your mind’s eye.
The shiny high-rise city centre, the extravagant, spectacular skyscrapers, the world’s glitziest marina were not there then.
Today they stand for modernity as Manhattan once did. But if the towers of Manhattan in the 1920s were the summit of capitalism triumphant, those of Dubai in 2009 are the pinnacle of its decadence.
At 2,684ft, the Burj Dubai is – of course – the world’s highest man-made structure.
It’s not beautiful, or even particularly striking to look at, unlike some of those it dwarfs around it. Just big. Full of look-at-me arrogance. Merely show-off rich.
The perfect symbol, in fact, of all that modern Dubai represents. Right down to the huge number of immigrant workers who have built it.
And the grim poverty and dire working conditions in which they’ve done it.
For that’s what Dubai is really about. Not just the fabulous new wealth that has attracted pop stars, top tennis and motor-racing events, but the bitter exploitation that has made it all possible.
When Pink, whose songs reveal a real social conscience, played in Dubai, I wonder what thought she gave to the thousands of the city’s inhabitants who couldn’t have afforded a ticket if they’d saved for a year.
And was Elton John’s concert there a flag flown against the repression of homosexuality? Or was it about the money?
The theory of evolution is considered taboo in Dubai. Strange, considering how quickly and dramatically the city state itself has evolved.
Alcohol is also taboo there. Officially. Which is also odd in a place recently dubbed partying capital of the world.
Of course, it’s not the locals doing the partying. And it’s not most of the resident immigrants, either, who account for 84 per cent of the population.
Some of those have been drawn there by the opportunities for fast living, fast cars and glamour. Some no doubt have been satisfied by all that.
But most have been drawn there, predominantly from south Asia, by the promise of an escape from poverty. And found themselves in a worse poverty trap than they have left.
A mostly male world of long working hours, nights on crowded floors and little prospect of ever earning enough for the flight home.
While around the corner a patch of desert is watered to host the world’s richest golf tournament.
What was the European Order of Merit has become the Race to Dubai. Which just about says it all.
What was a noble sport has become an undignified scramble for dosh.
And talking of noble sports… Though you won’t yet find Dubai, or anywhere near it, among the world’s Test-playing nations, the International Cricket Council has moved there from London.
Horse-racing and heavy metal have sprung up there. It’s a place where Kylie Minogue, The Jonas Brothers and investment banking all belong in the same sentence.
Where the fabulously rich and wealthy gather – in flagrant disregard for the city’s Muslim traditions – to be fabulously decadent.
Decadence. Defined in my dictionary as “moral degeneration or decay”. Often considered to be what ushered in the fall of the Roman empire.
Or, from Wikipedia: “Decadent societies are often prosperous but usually have severe social and economic inequality, to such a degree that the upper class becomes either complacent or greedy, while the lower classes become hopeless and apathetic.”
Which sounds like Dubai, except that it’s not all home-grown. This small spot on the Arabian peninsula has become a magnet for the greedy upper and hopeless lower classes of a wider world.
A desert meeting-point of rich West and poor East. A place with no more obvious reason to exist than Las Vegas.
Both are frontier gambling towns. Where Vegas is built on roulette wheels and slot-machines, Dubai places its chips on the world’s stock exchanges.
It’s tempting to see Dubai’s decadence as a focus of capitalism’s dying throes.
And those glittering towers are certainly a crystalline encrustation of the world’s banking system, now tottering.
But it’s more complicated than that. Because Dubai, where much of the wealth and all of the law-making are in the hands of one family, is the place where capitalism meets feudalism.
Those workers existing in medieval poverty are living in a medieval system.
In their way, Dubai’s towers are like the cathedrals and mosques of the medieval world. Except that they stand to the glory not of God or Allah but of Mammon.
The colossal Burj Dubai is due to be officially opened a month from today. Not great timing, as it turns out.
I can’t find it in me to be sorry about the imminent collapse of the Dubai economy – though I fear for the trapped migrant workers.
What the effects of the giant’s fall will be everywhere else may be another matter.