Looking for Mammon in the Muslim World

Overexpansion and Oases
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Jan. 11 2007 1:04 PM

Looking for Mammon in the Muslim World

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I was walking into the Fairmont Hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road—planning to view an art exhibition of Arabic calligraphy—when, a few steps into the lobby, I got flagged down by a woman in a business suit. "Are you here for the press conference?" she asked me.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Well, no, to be honest. But what self-respecting journalist turns down a press conference that falls in his lap? Moments later, the woman was ushering me into a function room filled with TV cameras and notebook-flipping journalists. I grabbed a pen and a pad of paper from the table by the entrance, found a seat near the front, and settled in to figure out what the hell I was reporting on.

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Turns out it was the announcement of a major business deal. A deal involving a vitally important resource here in Dubai. No, not oil. Water.

According to the suits up on stage (they represented a private equity firm and a water-supply company—both based in the United Arab Emirates), there is a potential water crisis looming in this region. The scare stat: MENA (the Middle East and North Africa) contains 5 percent of the Earth's population, but only 1 percent of its accessible fresh water. The equation is particularly grim in Dubai, where the population is exploding in the middle of a desert. An estimated $117 billion will be invested in water supply over the next decade—mostly in desalinization projects. An executive from the water company explained that "it's the vision of Sheik Mohammed to make Dubai a world center for desalinization excellence."

When the Q&A session began, I made my exit and headed to the calligraphy exhibit. (Which was mind-blowing, by the way. If you have a moment, check out the work of Mouneer Al-Shaarani.) But given the dire forecasts I'd just been listening to, I couldn't stop thinking about Dubai's insane growth. Is there any way this pace is sustainable?

There's ongoing construction literally everywhere you go. Neighborhoods are being invented from thin air. New buildings sit eerily empty, with no inhabitants. By day, you can see which towers are missing plates of glass at random intervals. (They look like badly pixilating LCD screens.) One street has a row of skyscrapers without tops. (These look like deadheaded flowers in a window box.)

I am firmly convinced that a real-estate crash is due. The rate of expansion just doesn't make sense and seems driven more by the royal family's fantasies (they're the money behind much of the construction and harebrained theme-park-type ideas) than by a genuine level of demand. Besides, there's no price-boosting shortage of land here—there's just more empty sand waiting beyond the city's edge.

Meanwhile, the traffic grows unbearable. (As a Pakistani cab driver told me: "Traffic! Every people is headache!") The foreign labor force gets exploited. (Flyers taped to the side of phone booths advertise for "Filipina bed-spacers." I thought this sounded racy, until it was explained to me that it refers to women working coordinated shifts so they can use the same bed.) The expansion rolls on, with little indication of a prudent central plan or a grand design.

One day, I was walking with a friend when—glancing around at the honking traffic, the construction cranes, the rebar, and the miserable, hot dust—my usually upbeat pal suddenly spoke from a deep chasm of ennui. "I want to call in the airstrike," he said.

Of course, we instantly saw the inappropriateness of this, on all sorts of levels (and here I should admit I'd had similar thoughts). But we couldn't shake our basic disgust with Dubai. Which suggested it was time for a break.

So, we rented a car and hit the open road. After 20 minutes of driving, the city faded out and the desert began. After an hour, we pulled over at a rest stop. It was like we were in Lawrence of Arabia—if Lawrence had a rental car. There was nothing here but a lonely power line and a few brave outcroppings of scrub.

Eventually, we reached our destination: an ancient oasis in the town of Al-Ain, at the Oman border. As the guidebook notes, this trip once required a five-day camel trek. Now it's a 90-minute scurry in a Honda Civic. (Soon, no doubt, the relatively nearby Rub' Al Khali—the vast Saudi desert known as the "Empty Quarter," in my view perhaps the most romantically desolate place left on Earth—will be tamed by paved highway and power lines, too. Progress sort of sucks sometimes.)

We parked the car and took a walking path into the heart of the oasis. It was the precise opposite of downtown Dubai. A lush forest, thick with date palms. Leaves rustling in a gentle breeze. Precious shade now suddenly abundant. It's not difficult to imagine the joyous miracle this would have seemed to a thirsty Bedouin coming in from the desert. No desalinization machines necessary here.

Granted, there is a Pizza Hut a few hundred yards away, which does dampen the natural wonder of it all. But Al-Ain is a delightful little town. No skyscrapers. No cranes. No expats in pinstripe suits. Instead, there's an outdoor market where people sell goats from the backs of pickup trucks.

On the heels of a week in Dubai, it's a true oasis, in every sense.

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