Saturday, February 7, 2009

Whither The Roots of Dubai?

People find all sorts of reasons to love and hate New York city. I too have a list of things I would want to see different in the Big Apple (affordable parking for one). But I marvel at the inspiration and courage that God endowed certain people with to build those bridges and tunnels. Really, think about it. There must have been skeptics and doomsdayers when plans were laid to build under-water highways in what became Holland and Lincoln tunnels? Or to stretch that vast span across the Hudson called The George Washington Bridge? Surely some of the very people behind those ideas must have faced self-doubt? Yet the enterprising human spirit overcame skepticism and doubt and we have the vast, bold statement of human will and ingenuity in block after neat block of steel and glass rising to meet the sky.

I drag New York City in to all of this to make the point that I am, to a fault, a fan of the human spirit of adventure and enterprise.

Yet, despite a dozen trips to Dubai in the last 18 years, and despite sitting through countless infomercials on the Emirate, my take on Dubai ranges from skepticism to nausea.

Don't get me wrong, I admire Sheikh Mohammed's courage. Without doubt, his plan/goal to do something bold to inspire the current generation of Emaratis, perhaps all Arabs, perhaps all Muslims, is admirable. And on that, I will always pray that God may bless us with more people who have such courage. But I will also pray that the courage and desire to do something big should direct as much effort to deepening of the roots (for they provide stability) as to shooting branches, leaves and flowers (for they draw attention and create buzz).

As of now, I feel Dubai is giant tree with lots of branches, leaves and flowers but no roots. It's all held into the ground by some silly super-glue. If you've read Ayn Rand's Atlast Shrugged, you might remember the giant oak tree in the Taggart family's backyard was knocked down by a storm. Remember Eddie Willers' shock when he saw that the tree trunk had been hollow and its roots had rotted away? Dubai is posing to be an oak tree that hasn't taken the time to grow roots and I find that unsettling.

To that extent, I think Sheikh Mohammed is more of a Donald Trump (ouch, I know, sorry!) than a George Washington or Mu'adh Ibn Jabal. Despite the court and cloak of a nation builder, possibly even the zeal and earnest desire to be a nation builder, he's as close as the real world gets to a builder of sand castles.

It is easier to criticize than be the one doing something...and I write this acutely aware of that. But really, isn't nation building a more serious business? Doesn't it need a lot of ground-work, hard work, difficult work in advance of rolling out the catwalks for Armani and Prada?

How do I explain my dissimilar takes on New York and Dubai? First, there is something daringly original and creative about New York. It's hard to admire an imitator. Further, New York had an organic growth. New York had a parallel "human resource" development around it. New York addresses more than just the superficial, thrill & frill needs of the men and women who built it.

Nearly everything newsworthy Dubai is doing must seem superficial to non-Muslims and either makrooh or downright haram to Muslims. Artificial islands? Skiing in the desert? The Qur'anic word lahw comes to mind. The American city Las Vegas comes to mind. Very few American heroes have come from Vegas. Many serious-minded Americans go to see the neighboring Hoover dam and the Grand Canyon instead of the lights and shows of Sin City (believe me, really! :) ).

I don't write all this to deride Dubai. I hope I am wrong - I remain a well-wisher. I hope they have focused on the roots and I just haven't seen them. If you have, please take a minute to point them out to me.

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