The city of tomorrow

If it sounds too good to be true, maybe it is

I hadn’t expected much coming out of college. I knew that recessions were not kind to the young and inexperienced, so I was surprised when I received an offer from the Boston Consulting Group to work as a business consultant in Dubai.

It seemed too good to be true — what did a business strategy firm need with a 22-year old nuclear engineer? — but the compensation was too much for me to harbor any serious second thoughts. Adding up the salary offer, signing bonus, housing allowance, performance bonus, and profit sharing, I could easily make $200,000 in my first year, topped off with a gold-plated benefits package.

I’d long given up my rebellious streak, but it was still a source of pride to outdo my parents. In a single stroke, I would surpass their highest combined income — what better proof of one’s independence could there be than that? Getting the job was not just a relief from the uncertainty of life after graduation. This was it. This was adulthood. This was everything I’d worked so hard for at MIT. I couldn’t be happier.

A short year later however, the dream job was gone.

The Dubai economy, advertised to me in interviews as recession-proof, was racked by a credit crisis that revealed deeper, arguably insurmountable, structural problems. My foreign adventure ended abruptly with a paroxysm of self-doubt and despair. In returning to the United States, I returned to all the feelings of uncertainty that came with graduation; I was right back to where I was before I had begun my job search, complete with the inescapable anxiety that comes from not knowing what you want to do in life. Seven months in the Middle East had taught me only one lesson: Even in the best of circumstances, business consulting can be a morally ambiguous and soul-crushing profession.

Now back in Boston, I find it hard to complain about how things turned out. I still may not know what I want to do in life, but I learned a little more about the world. I paid off $61,000 of student loans. I continue to get to waste my weekends on idle adventures with friends. When I am honest with myself, I must admit this was more than I had expected. Yet at the same time, what I am left with is little consolation when I think of how close I was to being set for life. Sometimes I lay awake at night and wonder... what happened?

The city of yesterday and tomorrow, today!

I arrived in Dubai in June, 2009. If there is an urban analogue to shock and awe military campaigns, Dubai is it. Giant malls, grand hotels, towering skyscrapers, indoor ski slopes, islands shaped like palm trees; to be poetic about it, what the mind imagines, the Emiratis built. The skyline is amazing. The food is wonderful. The elevator close door buttons actually close the doors when you press them. Nothing is old, everything is new. After a life of living exclusively in buildings several decades older than myself, I was finally in the city of the future.

Within a couple weeks, the favorable first impressions faded into a less attractive picture. While the winter is cooler, summer temperatures commonly reach to 110 degrees and, factoring in the high humidity, feel closer to 140 degrees. The ocean is like bath water and provides no respite from the heat. There are no names for the streets, no up-to-date maps online, and the cabbies, themselves fresh expats from less developed countries, do not know their way around. The commercial banking system is terrible. The laws are strange and the bureaucracy inept. There is silt and dust everywhere. English is common, but not as common as Bad English (Bad English is a language very similar to English, but with the added grammatical rule that speakers must repeat every sentence three times). If one is determined to do so, it is not hard to have a terrible time in Dubai.

As a city, the novelty of Dubai fades quickly. Outside of one or two unique attractions, like wadi bashing or the gold souk, Dubai does not have much to offer in the way of touristy things. One quickly bores of roaming the countless malls, each filled with the same stores and sights as the last. Despite its headline-stealing architectural accomplishments, after a few hours of exploration one gets the feeling that Dubai is not so much a city as a giant sprawling suburb, an insipid tessellation of apartment buildings, shopping centers, restaurants, and office parks, plopped unceremoniously into a barren desert.

As a culture, Dubai’s novelty is more durable. The city is a melting pot, borrowing heavily from British, Arab, and South Asian influences, but also adding in pieces from elsewhere around the world. The cultural plenty affords an opportunity to cherry pick the best bits (like chicken tikka masala) and avoid the mediocre elements (like watching cricket). But along with this diversity comes a curious sort of contradiction, as if one were viewing the frayed edges where two cultures failed to mesh. The posted signs plaintively urging western women to wear more modest clothing and the advertisements on the sides of mass-produced soda cups at franchised fast food joints (one such cup suggesting, in the ultimate of anatopisms, that hen-pecked Emirati men should relax from their female-dominated households by indulging in a snack on their bike ride to work), imply that on some level, the mixing cultures failed to find common ground.

At one restaurant I found, the managers had put up a flat screen TV that played, on loop, the concert of some teen idol boy band I’d never heard of. Emirati women, bundled up head to toe in their black burkas, would walk by, giggle, and goggle at the hip gyrations of these half-naked, off-key westerners. If you had a taste for irony and were lucky, you might eat lunch during one of the five daily calls to prayer, and could listen bemusedly as the tinny adhan fought to be heard over the sex-filled pop music. Were these merely growing pains, or a battle for the city’s soul?

Ultimately, my most enduring impression of Dubai is not what it has accomplished, but what it failed to accomplish. Caught offguard by the global recession, Dubai’s haphazard expansion has been frozen in mid-stride for all the world to gawk at, like rubberneckers at a traffic accident. Its unfinished metro system, a patch-work solution to an awkward, poorly planned network of roads, connects partially built apartments to idle construction sites. What had been a miraculous boom story now looks like a particularly ugly form of “hurry up and wait.”

To the optimistic, the inchoate nature of Dubai’s sprawl might suggest the possibility of some later, more mature period of development during which the mistakes made during the early days of reckless development can be put to right. But for me it was eerie to look upon a city that is incomplete. The windowless, unfinished skyscrapers, with their threads of rebar jutting out, evoke the thought of destruction, rather than construction. The still, abandoned cranes and the anemic flows of traffic highlight the troubles the city faces rather than its potential. Were it not for the youth of the city, who seem to take great pains to draw obscenities and genitalia on every dust covered surface of every abandoned car and storefront, one might easily mistake Dubai a casualty of some sort of apocalyptic alien invasion or neutron bombing, not the victim of a sharp recession and sudden depopulation.

There are several words that can be used to describe Dubai. It is magnificent, mundane, interesting, diverse, conflicted, and hot. But if I were limited to only one, it was disturbing.

This is the first in a four-part series on the author’s experience as a consultant in Dubai.