City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism by Jim Krane

I did a book review for Executive Magazine on Jim Krane’s new book in Dubai. Due to space limitations the book review was edited down to size, below is the full version of my review that  gives a much better idea of what  the book is all about:

The first power plant was established in the Emirate of Dubai in 1961 when citizens of the small city-state still lived a life dominated by their desert environ. Fifty years later residents of Dubai consume more electricity per capita than any other person on the planet. Now the global financial crisis is slowing things down. The long time residents in Dubai, who did not lose their jobs, and Dubai citizens will no doubt be breathing a collective sigh of relief and undergoing a period of reflection.

What has just happened over the past fifty years in Dubai? Jim Krane, a journalist who was the AP’s Persian Gulf correspondent, in his new book, City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism, attempts to tell the story of Dubai and in doing so tries to make sense of the phenomena that is Dubai:

“Dubai is a city of incongruities. The roads are modern but the network is incoherent. The cars are advanced but driving is anarchic. Malls are rife but there is no art museum. The airport is world class, but education is substandard. An optimist would say that’s the essence of an emerging market, the reason Dubai crackles with opportunity. A realist would point to a government that preferred impulsive decisions to level-headed planning,” he writes.

City of Gold is a book that is steeped with the knowledge of someone who has spent a long time in and thinking about the economic phenomena that is Dubai and the oil rich Gulf at large. The economic success story of Dubai is there for all to see and Krane does an excellent job detailing it. Krane gives fascinating accounts of how the ideas for the Burj al Arab, the palm and the tallest building in the world the Burj Dubai Kahlife came to life. The style of the book is very journalistic, keen to allow both sides of the story to come out and to ensure that the people he interviews do most of the talking. The book is a whirlwind tour of all the different issues that have been in and out of the newspapers in recent times.

The book is mapped out into two halves: The first detailing the rapid rise of Dubai from its early history to the present day and its grasping of the capitalist system; the second half of the book deals with the arguments thrown against Dubai such as the labor abuses, the environmental degradation, the sex and slavery. However, this is a book that is written knowing that certain perspectives, such as the profile given of Sheikh Mohammed, have to be elevated and negative aspects need to be minimal. There is a reluctance by Krane to stick his neck out and delve into areas that may get it chopped off. Subsequently, the book contributes little new information or perspective into understanding Dubai.

A Liberal Dictatorship

In summing up the strange peculiarity that is Dubai, as a place that is strongly capitalist but also run by an autocratic regime, Krane summarizes that Dubai, “…enjoys broad social freedoms which substitute for its lack of political ones.” But Krane does not do well enough in convincing us why this is the case. Instead Krane does the unthinkable: he quotes British diplomat Anthony Harris. “People don’t want to replace tribal rule. It is my absolute conviction that they are happy with it.” Krane made it quite clear that the British government especially, has done more than anyone to keep the Maktoum family in power, what else would or could a British diplomat say? Instead Krane should be asking Emiratis or even different residents of Dubai to add to the official narrative. Do they enjoy “broad social freedoms” and if so have they have successfully substituted for Dubai’s lack of political freedoms. A fuller picture needs to be fleshed out in virtually all the topics that Krane approaches.

There is a general narrative in the book that takes the official line for granted. Questions are not asked hard enough. Do, or rather can, social freedoms substitute for political ones? Are they interchangeable? What do those living in Dubai think? Krane systematically fails to bring out fully what Emirati citizens and long term residents think, feel and express regarding their transformation from small scale traders to the capitalist elite. We know Dubai has been an economic success but has it been a social one?

Not asking these tricky questions fully and questioning assumed facts is where that City of Gold systematically fails. It is packed with superficial generalizations that lead to dubious conclusions and giant leaps of faith; sometimes of the worst order. When it comes to ‘Arabs’ Krane seems to patricianly revel in stereotypes: “Sheikh Rashid maintained a punishing work ethic in a region known for languor.” Describing Arabs as lazy is not something you expect a journalist who works for the Economist or the AP to fall into. Despite, the racist stereotyping that unfortunately slips into other places in the book there are redeeming features to this book. It is full of strong individual stories. Krane shines when he is talking about the various characters in the book or recounting narratives of how the Burj al Arab came about. His writing style is also highly readable.

In adding to our understanding of the hugely complex phenomena that is Dubai, Krane largely fails. But in explaining the landscape, how Dubai became an economic powerhouse and some of the fascinating stories that Dubai holds within it, Krane is excellent.

Knowledge

Where this book fails is also where Dubai has been most criticized: originality. “They [Dubai] haven’t produced anything useful for the human condition,” Krane quotes the Director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut Rami Khoury as stating. It is here where Dubai will really live or die, in terms of whether it can create the institutions that can really contribute something new. Can Dubai create knowledge as well as money? As Khoury says again to Krane when asked if Dubai can achieve the heights of Cordoba: “It’s noble to aim that high. But does he have the courage to go all the way? Cordoba needed creative and scientific talent. People were allowed to discuss ideas, do research, engage in debates. It’s not yet clear whether the leadership in Dubai is prepared to open the system to full use of intellectual and cultural talent.” Or will everything that is solid melt into air?

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