Dubai’s wealth came quickly, and it got a little carried away: artificial islands, gaudy hotels and pointy skyscrapers, spectacular or tasteless as they are, according to your viewpoint. But at first, wealth brought amenities we take for granted: running water, electricity, roads. Dubai’s first electric lights were hooked up in the Sixties. It put in taps and telephones around the same time.
When the Emir of Qatar married a Dubai princess, the dowry was to pay for the city’s first tarmac road; a year later, he paid for a bridge connecting the emirate’s two halves. He probably felt sorry for his backward neighbour, which had just been taken over by his eccentric new father-in-law, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum.
The sheikh’s eccentricity was shown in his determination that though he had seen nothing of the world, the world ought to know all about Dubai. He wanted the city’s name to be on everyone’s lips and he has certainly had his way.
In the late Forties, Dubai had suffered an extended famine in which people had eaten locusts, leaves and lizards in order to survive. Yet within a few years, Sheikh Rashid had ordered the Middle East’s biggest port, its tallest skyscraper and its largest airport.
The rest is – well, not quite history because we can’t be sure how it will all turn out. By the time Sheikh Rashid died in 1991, Dubai was a commercial powerhouse, its port the most important in the Middle East. His successor, Sheikh Mohammed, extended his father’s methods, demanding ever more fantastical – some might say fanatical – monuments.
Krane is even-handed between Dubai’s critics, who point to its appalling treatment of the workers who have built the place, often lured from Indian and Bangladeshi villages on the promise of wages they do not receive, and supporters, who stand amazed at its progress, its (relative) liberalism and its energy.
“Here the sheikh simply says, ‘That flyover isn’t big enough. Knock it down and double it’, which is great,” gushes a former British ambassador. “In Britain, the planning committee would discover that some rare bat is living in a tree nearby and the whole thing would be scrapped.”
That’s true enough: the United Arab Emirates’ flora and fauna – coral reefs, rare kingfishers and oryx, mangrove swamps – are disappearing under the tide of concrete and car emissions. “The UAE acts like a spoiled child,” says Habiba al-Marashi, an environmental activist. “It’s like these brat children,” she says. “They go into the playroom and mess it up.” If anything, I would have liked to have seen Krane explore this theme further. “A government that prefers impulsive decisions to level-headed planning,” is his hesitant description.
Dubai won’t collapse. British writers may find it boorish compared with Hampstead but, as Krane suggests, for Iraqis, Palestinians, Lebanese and Iranians its attractions are viewed rather differently. It may not, though, become much more humane in its ambitions or methods. At a recent meet-and-greet, Sheikh Mohammed was asked whether he thought he had made any mistakes. He thought for a while and looked offended. He couldn’t think of any.