The Magazine

What to Do in Riyadh

You're only two hours from the Emirates--get on a plane.

Dec 10, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 13 • By LEE WOLOSKY and MAX BOOT
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While there is undoubtedly jihadist sentiment in the UAE, as in all other Muslim (and, for that matter, non-Muslim) countries, what is notable is how far this small state has managed to move beyond many of the pathologies that mar its neighbors. Dubai, in particular, is open for business in a way that can be said of no other Arab city save Beirut--and it doesn't have Lebanon's political instability to contend with. The Maktoum family, which has ruled this emirate since 1833, has driven breakneck economic growth over the past decade that has led to a large influx of foreign capital, workers, and visitors.

Of the UAE's total population of 4.4 million, only 800,000 are natives and citizens. Fully 50 percent of the population is composed of South Asians, many of them manual laborers who work for as little as $2.50 an hour and live in Dickensian "work camps" run by their employers. Other expatriates are higher-paid managers and professionals lured from all over Europe, Asia, North America, and the Middle East to run an ever-growing number of companies. The attractions are good pay, lots of jobs, and no income tax.

Emirati men still dress in flowing white robes, and many women still cover their hair if not their faces. But it's also common to see European women (including a growing number of Russian prostitutes) parading around in high-cut skirts and low-cut blouses. And even many of the black-clad women wear jeans and high heels that peek out from under their black gowns. In some other predominantly Muslim cities such behavior could provoke a lashing; in Dubai no one bats an eyelash. Liquor is readily available in bars and restaurants across the city. The party doesn't even have to stop during Ramadan.

This social and economic freedom doesn't extend to the political sphere. The UAE is still very much an absolute monarchy run with a firm hand by its ruling families. That said, the de facto level of tolerance is high, and the country is as close to a meritocracy as you can find in this kind of a system. The people wielding the country's day-to-day economic and political power are in many instances the best-and-the-brightest nonroyals drawn from Harvard, Oxford, and Georgetown. In some ways, Dubai is reminiscent of Hong Kong in the days of British rule, when it was remarkably free without being democratic.

Abu Dhabi is more conservative than Dubai, its neighbor a two-hour drive away. You see more burkhas in Abu Dhabi and fewer miniskirts. Overall, it is much less bustling, but that is changing. The two cities have a historic rivalry, and Abu Dhabi's rulers, the Nahyan, are determined to keep up with the Maktoum of Dubai, who have traditionally been seen as their younger brothers. (A Nahyan is by custom president of the entire country; a Maktoum the vice president and prime minister.)

Dubai built a world-class air carrier, Emirates Airlines; Abu Dhabi responded by starting its own luxury carrier, Etihad. Dubai built a Formula One racetrack; Abu Dhabi built one of its own, and for good measure added a Ferrari theme park. (Abu Dhabi owns 5 percent of the Italian automaker.) Dubai built a spate of luxury hotels; Abu Dhabi responded with what is reportedly the world's most expensive hotel--the $3 billion Emirates Palace, constructed in an Arabian Nights motif with endless marble corridors and gold-leaf domes. Dubai became a tourist center with attractions such as its beaches and indoor ski slope; Abu Dhabi responded by setting in motion a cultural district on its Saadiyat Island (the "Island of Happiness") that will include branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums. The buildings are being constructed by Frank Gehry and other famous architects, and they will be the drawing cards for a mixed-use area that will house 150,000 people. The island development is scheduled to be completed by 2018 at a cost of $27 billion.

It's hard not to be both impressed and amused by such relentless ambition. Everything in the UAE is touted as bigger and better than anything else in the world--and frequently it lives up to the hype. It's as if John D. Rockefeller, Leona Helmsley, and P.T. Barnum had been reincarnated in Arab dress and given limitless political as well as economic power to make their wildest dreams a reality. Property developers in the UAE don't have to worry about pesky zoning boards or "NIMBY" syndrome. Anything can be built to the nth degree as long as it has the support of the rulers.