Last week I was invited to Dubai to participate at a German-Arab Dialogue, organised by the German Foreign Ministry. As my life for the past year has fully belonged to betterplace.org, a not-for-profit marketplace for social initiative, I feel lucky to be still asked to contribute my anthropological perspective to such official gatherings were anthropologists (at least in the German speaking world) are rarely present.
The topic of the gathering was cultural globalisation, especially how it is affecting the Arab region and whether Dubai’s „higher, bigger, better“ brand, including signature architecture and the promise of a five-star lifestyle seeking to eliminate real world condition, is a valid model for the region to aspire to. (One of the Dialogue participants, Prof. Ali A. Alraouf has called this process Dubanization and described how other Arab cities – in the UAE (such as the new museum buildings in Abu Dhabi), in Bahrain (Durrat Al Bahrain), Saudia Arabia (King Abdullah Economic City) or Egypt (Serrenia) – are emulating the Dubai model.) Yet, with the economic crisis hitting the region, this process will probably drastically slow down or even come to a stopp – indicating the volatility of a development model utterly based on growth (Dubai has the worst ecological footprint of all cities worldwide).
A number of things struck me during our four day stay. Firstly, the immense diversity of voices. Set up as a German-Arab dialogue, there was no unity of voices, neither within the Arab nor the German delegation. The scholars, journalists and politicans from the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Palestine, Egypt or Syria came not only from vastly different national perspectives, but many were obviously fully feldged cosmopolitans, having studied in the U.K. (as one of the highly articulate young Emerati representatives), or living abroad (such as my co-Berliner, the Palestinian author Hassan Khader, who explicitly refused to be identified in broad categories such as “Arab“ or „Western“ intellectual). They all confirmed once more, that categories constantly used in the media, such as „Arabs“ or „Muslims“, are by themselves rather meaningless. And dangerous, as they promote the idea that seperate civilizations exist. (There is a good recent article by Olivier Roy in the NYT, urging Obama to be a „post-civilizational president“ and not following through with his idea of convening a conference of Muslim leaders around the world within his first year in office).
The voices of the German participants were also highly heterogenous. Some of them displayed an only thinly disguised disdain for the host city, bemoaning its artificiality and consumption-orientedness, while others showed a great curiousity about the future of the „Dubai experiment“.
In many of these discussions, I felt that anthropology really had something to offer: first of all, we can ground highly abstract and vague statements, for example about „the loss of cultural identity“ (a big topic in the Dubai-media, as only approx. 15% of the population is of „local“ Emirati origin and has citizenship, leading to an “I love the Emirates” campaign) or cultural homogenization and Americanization by introducing concrete examples and case-studies. For someone who knows the ethnographic literature about globalisation, it is surprising, how old insights such as the one, that global goods and ideas are appropriated and acquire diverse meanings locally, are still seen as provocative. (I received highly emotional responses after bringing up James Watsons book on McDonalds in East Asia. And, many thanks to you, Lisa, for supplying me with additional material on the use of “tradition” in the region).
In a similar vain, the anthropological research which shows migrant workers (in Dubai alone there are about 500.000 low-paid workers, mainly from South Asia) to be not only victims, but strategic, transnational actors, challenged the notion of some of my conference collegues, who thought the fate of 1960s turkish „guest workers“ in Germany paralleled those of contemporary construction workers in Dubai. (That the latters situation is far from good can be seen in Hadi Ghaemi’s report Building Towers, Cheating Workers. Still, stereotypical ideas about poor and passive workers, who are little better than slaves don’t do justice to them either.)
What especially provoked me were the statements critizising Dubais lack of „authenticity“ and its superficial preoccupation with consumption. The disdain for commodification among many conference participants (regardless of origin) was so great, that many refused to visit one of the many shopping malls, while at the same time bemoaning that they didn’t see any public places for people to get together. My suggestion, that shopping malls might be just those places (and that people did many things there besides shopping), was met with scepticism.
Looking at Dubai, I was reminded of my research with Pál in China. Here we had encountered, again and again, the idea that commodification was good and new was better than old. In the city of Songpan (in northern Sichuan), we witnessed how the organically grown town was being demolished to be replaced by a new „old city“, with a large parking lot for tour buses, illuminated, blue plastic palm trees etc. in order to appeal to Chinese mass tourists, according to whom only places which have been „developed“ are worth a visit.
Thus in my talk I argued for a fresh look at Dubais attitude to commodification and authenticity. Regarding the latter, we need to question the relevance of this concept which originated in 19. Century Western Europe, at a time when the status of elites was threatened by industrialisation, i.e. the fact that suddenly many goods previously limited to the upper classes, were now mass-produced and available to a wide range of social classes. „Authenticity“ was introduced to establish new distinctions between the elite and the rest. Why should a concept, so particular to a time and social scene, be used unreflexively amongst contemporary intellectuals to judge a place like Dubai? For me it makes much more sense to use an alternative definition of authenticity, one firstly coined (I believe) by Danny Miller: let’s think of authenticity not as something to do with origin, but with results! Thus, an authentic practice would be one, which is successfully appropriated by the population in question. But what does „successfully appropriated“ mean? How about: something is successfully appropriated when it offers an answer to relevant questions a society asks itself? Or even loftier: when it increases the range of options for people, to lead the kind of life which they themselves deem good, just and beautiful. According to this new definition the experiment that is Dubai – from the perspective of city planning, life-style and citizenship – may well turn out to be authentic.