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Sign of the times— Dubai

Preface

Amid salacious headlines, a plummeting stock market and plunging property prices, Dubai seems well and truly stymied.

Property development

14 December 2009

Amid salacious headlines, a plummeting stock market and plunging property prices, Dubai seems well and truly stymied. So just when things couldn’t get any worse, visions of Dubai as a post-apocalyptic landscape have come true – in a new video game and a photographic exhibition, at least.

The emirate has experienced a global media meltdown following the recent announcement that Dubai World, the property division of the country, wanted a six-month delay on its debt repayments. The ambitious upstart has reacted badly to the way the crisis has been portrayed – ordering a blackout in the local media and the removal of British newspaper The Sunday Times from newsstands after it ran an illustration of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, sinking in a sea of debt.

Dubai has borrowed beyond its means to fund its building boom and, having grown too fast, is now getting its just deserts. Yet despite a never-ending stream of fat cat advisers and PR consultants, Dubai isn’t handling the situation well.

With an uncanny sense of timing, Californian software firm K2 is launching a computer game called Mystery World whose graphics echo some of the “worst-case” scenarios about Dubai’s future being portrayed in international newspapers.

A trailer for the game has appeared online, showing eerily realistic scenes of a deserted Dubai – complete with the Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest building, and its signature sail-shaped hotel, the Burj al-Arab, abandoned cars, damaged skyscrapers and bodies hanging from lampposts. A soldier can be seen surveying the city skyline that has been ravaged by some kind of man-made or natural disaster.

Such a portrait of Dubai is being rejected angrily by local teenagers, who have expressed mixed feelings about the game, telling a local newspaper: “This is a bad way to be entertained”. However, others point out that it will be great to see Dubai’s landmarks in a fantasy scenario, and to consider other cities that have been “destroyed” in films such as Independence Day and 2012 and have not been concerned. Perhaps it’s a compliment that Dubai is now being chosen as a science fiction setting?

Meanwhile, over at Dubai’s financial district, the DIFC – the hub of the city’s financial fricassee – a photographic gallery called The Empty Quarter (named after the UAE’s great sand desert) is showing an exhibition, Dubai Invasion, depicting a futuristic Dubai descended upon by Star Wars-style aliens. “I instantly knew that all the characters from the Star Wars galaxies would be at home here,” says photographer Cedric Delsaux, with a touch of irony.

Since the show’s opening, local newspapers have featured it alongside columns about the continued Dubai debt shenanigans. With screaming headlines, such as “The Empire Strikes Back!” local blogs have deemed the exhibition to be “quite cool”.

“This new world…” muses Delsaux, “is absolutely false, yet totally truthful in so far as it reveals the essentially retro-futuristic characteristic of modern urban spaces, which are simultaneously too early and far too late.” Whatever. For many, Dubai has long had an air of Blade Runner about it – particularly in the half-built areas – this show simply confirms it.

After all the media hoop-la, Dubai is now being invaded by another species: British tourists capitalising on the cheap hotel deals everywhere. It’s just as scary as anything Delsaux envisaged.

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