Hello Dubai by Joe Bennett

The Blurb On The Back:

Skiing, sand and shopping in the world’s weirdest city.

When Joe Bennett was at school he hadn’t heard of Dubai.  If you’d asked him where it was he would have guessed Africa.  Or perhaps India, or Asia, or even Europe.  And he wouldn’t have been far wrong, because Dubai isn’t far from anywhere.

Once nothing more than a hot little port on the Arabian Gulf, Dubai transformed seemingly overnight into a hub of global trade and global finance.  And it made this transformation peaceably; bringing Muslim and Christian worlds together without succumbing to the wars and terrorism that blight the region.  Dubai seemed like a model for the way ahead.

But when the economic crisis put the wind up global capitalism, Dubai came to be seen as the emblem of a rotten world.  Dubai was brash.  Dubai was cruel.  Dubai was exploitative.  Dubai was a speculative bubble.  Dubai, in short, was plain bloody horrible.

Leaving the comfort of his armchair, Joe Bennett embarks on a quest to discover just what (and where) Dubai really is.  Can it go on?  Has it sold itself to the corporate dollar?  Is it anything more than a mall in the desert?  Will the sands return?

Absurdly funny, wise and witty, Hello Dubai is another wonderful journey from the author of A Land Of Two Halves, Mustn’t Grumble and Where Underpants Come From.

You can order HELLO DUBAI by Joe Bennett from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster for the review copy of this book.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Joe Bennett is a newspaper columnist and travel writer.  Here he visits Dubai to discover what draws people to seek their fortune, how Dubai and the UAE have developed and their potential future.  It’s strong on the country’s history and unflinching about its government and the racism of some western ex pats but despite his efforts, he doesn’t get close to the underclass of workers who sustain it and is quite patronising in his assumptions.

I picked this book up because I lived in Abu Dhabi for a few months in 2000/2001 for work and was a frequent visitor to Dubai before its real estate development went into over-drive and it became the tourist destination that it now is.  I’ve been back several times in the intervening years, have worked for companies with business interests out there and have friends who work out there still, so am always interested in reading what people think of the place and the direction it’s headed in.

First published in 2010, this book was written in the fall out from the 2007/2008 financial crisis, which had seen Dubai default on a considerable amount of debt and have to restructure its finances, which in turn drew the world’s attention to the construction book that had taken place and how its development was achieved.  Bennett touches on this throughout the book, drawing out the relationship between Dubai and Abu Dhabi (which helped the refinancing but in return demanded certain concessions, which is why the Burj Dubai got renamed the Burj Khalifa after Abu Dhabi’s monarch) and also the relationship between the Emirates more generally.  In fact, I would have liked to see more of this because Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah have all launched tourist pushes in the last 10 years, increasing development as they try to suck visitors away from Dubai.  

Even Abu Dhabi has gotten on the tourist train in recent years, encouraging the development of theme parks and resorts and for me one of the big weaknesses of the book is Bennett’s decision not to visit Abu Dhabi (he chooses to go to Al Ain instead) because he assumes that it’s just a carbon copy of Dubai.  Given that he earlier says that Abu Dhabi has viewed Dubai as a testing lab, using it to trial things that it can then do better itself, I think it would have been interesting for him to follow that through to see if it’s reflected in practice and what impact that in turn had on Bennett’s view of the country and where it is heading.  

Bennett was clearly only in the city for a few weeks and I am impressed that he took the trouble to visit the other Emirates because they are often forgotten when considering the country.  He is very good in running through the nation’s history (and in particular, Britain’s support for some of the sheikhs) and draws on Wilfred Thesiger’s work on the region to draw comparisons between the modern and historical country.  Bennett is also clear headed when talking about the ruling families and their autocratic regimes, pointing out that they have maintained stability since the country’s formation even as he points out all of the negatives associated with the same.  

He certainly draws out the fact that there there are 3 tiers in terms of how people are treated in the Emirates – the Emiratis sitting at the top, then the white western workers and then everyone else.  The way he describes the privileged lifestyles of the western ex-pats he meets (who live in large mansions, have servants and drive very fancy cars) makes it clear what draws them out there and sustains them but while he also makes the point that many Filipino, Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi workers are similarly drawn out for the same wage-related reason, I think he could have done more in terms of depicting the exploitation that they face, notably the removal of their passports as a condition of employment and then the wage theft that goes on.  

Bennett seems to take the view that this is just a “normal” risk and that it doesn’t stop people from those countries from trying to make their fortune but I think that essentially reads as an excuse for exploitation.  It would have been interesting had Bennett actually been able to speak with some of these workers to discover why they have come and what their situations are but while he manages to engage with some more colourful workers, his attempts to engage with the true underclass are limited to trying to play cricket and I did wonder why he didn’t try to make contact with any of the workers groups out there to see if they could help.  In a similar vein, I also have to say that I found his descriptions of the Filipino and Indian/Pakistani workers to be really patronising at times to a point where it began to leave a nasty taste.  Similarly, he talks about some of the prostitutes he encounters out there and his account of being in a bar where a person he identifies as a trans woman is performing on stage is incredibly offensive given his determination to ridicule and misgender her at every opportunity.

Speaking of racism and prejudice, there’s a lot of this on display from the westerners he stays with and talks to with the South Africans mentioned really doing their country proud for the sheer nastiness they display.  A scene near the beginning of the book where Bennett describes the white men waiting for the black bartenders to open for orders in a golf club is unpleasant and revealing and it would have been interesting had Bennett drawn this out more because I do wonder if it’s actually as much a part of the lure of the region as the tax free income.

What does come across in the book is the opportunities and lifestyle that exist for people who are willing to get comfortable with the restrictions within the country and the fact that their visas can be cancelled at a finger click if they step out of line.  What also comes across is how much has been achieved in such a short time and while Bennett’s conclusion is that this is what trade and business lead to and Dubai is in essence merely the end result of global business and the desire for consumption.  I don’t disagree with that but I think it misses the fact that while Bennett can talk about the Dubai leadership looking to its future, there’s also a desperation about that future because while the city does walk the tightrope between west and east, the balancing act cannot last forever.  

The recent COVID-19 pandemic (which admittedly could not have been in the contemplation of Bennett when this book was written) shows what happens when you switch your economy from being dependent on fossil fuel to being dependent on tourism, with the authorities so desperate to get visitors over and spending that they turned to influencers to try and bring them in.  Although construction at the Palm Deira has resumed, it is at a much slower rate than before and is more focused on the ultra high end luxury market, which puts it at the whim of fickle billionaires.  On that basis, I’d actually be interested to read an update of this book to see Bennett revisit the city and see what he thinks of it now.

Ultimately, I don’t think that this is a bad book – certainly it makes more of an attempt to depict the country than others have done – but I don’t think you really get a good sense of the place as a whole from it or the hold it has on its poorer inhabitants.  

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