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The Dark Side of Dubai: a hilarious must-read parody of the Dubai-bashing genre

A brilliant parody of the Dubai-bashing genre of article of which we’ve seen a spate recently in the US, UK and Australian media, has been published by The Independent called The Dark Side of Dubai by Johann Hari. (To save me linking to all the stories, see this accurate analysis of the process ‘reporters’ visiting Dubai appear to go through to produce the trash they’ve been publishing, by a reader, The Consultant, in the comments at Arabian Business.) A lot of people are getting very upset about this story. Not only Emiratis but expats who have lived in the UAE for a long time who know the place intimately, understand its complexities, and love it for all its flaws. Nobody’s dismissing the treatment and hardships experienced by foreign construction workers nor the challenges faced by those losing their jobs that are covered in the stories. They’re upset at the ongoing media attacks on Dubai (it’s truly baffling) and the lack of objectivity and balance in that media coverage, the publication of factual errors, exaggerations and even lies, and the racist tones running throughout much of the coverage. Dubai is not alone as a developing state and economy, nor is it the only state to experience recession.

Now don’t get me wrong, as someone who moved to the UAE in 1998, I also share their frustration but I don’t understand why people can’t see that ‘The Dark Side of Dubai’ is a parody. It’s so obvious. Just look at the melodramatic title of the story and the piece is jam-packed with over-used Dubai travel writing cliches (“One Thousand and One Arabian Lights”, “Dubai Disneyland”, “the architecture of the pharaohs as reimagined by Zsa-Zsa Gabor”, a “Neverland built on the Neverland”), gross exaggerations (every expat has maids and whole armies of staff, every expat is a CEO etc), and stereotypical characters (Western expat with a Range Rover, “Filipino girl behind the counter”, he meets the Emirati at Starbucks, everyone is drunk and partying all the time, blonde Dutch girl in hotpants… p-lease). It’s laden with so many historical and factual errors (“in the mid-18th century, a small village was built here.” He should have added ‘overnight’!), and racism (just read the thing), that it can’t possibly be presented as serious news commentary, certainly not something a high quality paper like The Independent would print as truth.

And it’s funny on so many levels. There’s a whole parody of the simplistic 90s anti-globalization rhetoric first year uni students might have referenced in a “Modernisation and Globalisation” class: the ‘East’ being consumed by the ‘West’ and its junk-food mega-brand pop culture with the references to Starbucks, Pizza Hutt, Nando’s… we should be shocked that the Emirati is wearing ‘Western clothes’ of blue jeans and a Ralph Lauren shirt – and that he drinks a Coke! C’mon, this is 2009! It has to be a joke. We all know globalization is far more complex than that and our understanding is far more nuanced now. I mean, he actually uses the term “third world”.

Still not convinced it’s a parody? If you were too gob-smacked to notice the dreadful writing the first time around, take another read. An example: “Thirty years ago, almost all of contemporary Dubai was desert, inhabited only by ‘cactuses’ and tumbleweed and scorpions.” And where was John Wayne? The set of a Hollywood Western comes to mind, right? When was the last time anyone saw native cacti in the Dubai emirate? That very sentence is a clue that this is a piece of fiction. And then there’s the surrealism: Hari taking notes in Harvey Nichols as he listens to a sales assistant telling him about a £20,000 taffeta dress! And the melodrama: “And I stop writing.” This is too funny. Perhaps it was an April Fools joke-story (like the Dubai double-decker boutique hotel bus announcement from Mr and Mrs Smith) and Hari missed the deadline? But I, for one, am hoping it’s a series.

Pictured? That’s me… looking for tumbleweeds and cactus. I know where to find scorpions.

*** If you see this story and pic other than Cool Travel Guide, it’s because the content has been STOLEN. It’s appearing on a number of sites without permission, but, trust me, invoices are on the way!

17 comments

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  1. Scott

    Well said.

    My immediate reaction was that this is the worst kind of journalism, because it’s half true, the problem being you’d never know which half unless you already knew.

    If he really uncovered so much crap* (and he indeed might have), why didn’t he confront the construction company, the developer, the company the runs the labor camp in question, the ministry of labor, etc? That would have been a great investigative piece.

    Instead, he visits the wretched hovel of one Sri Lankan, reports the worst of the stuff heard on the street (describing it as “an open secret”) and then meets Sultan Qassimi at the mall and confronts him with it. Sorry? The connection?

    My fave: Johann Hari going up to Emiratis in the mall and trying to interview them about Dubai. Can you imagine popping out of the tube in London, going up to a random British person and asking them (in another language, no less), “So what’s your position on this whole GREAT BRITAIN thing?”

    * Sometimes literal crap, like the turd that floats by in the Gulf. HUH?

  2. TeeBee

    Keep telling yourself that if it makes you feel better.

    Granted that the article often drifts into hyperbole, but he’s done his research and the quotes ring true. And granted that much of this has been said before, but that doesn’t mean he’s not right.

    This is what the outside world is starting to say about Dubai. You do sound a little like you’re in denial.

  3. Sandy O'Sullivan

    Jesus, it’s brilliant. Or wait, what’s the opposite of brilliant?

    I think this whole thing has been bubbling forever with Dubai. The West seems to want it to fail, and the root of it all is clearly the concept that dumb success cannot be sustained, as though the people in Dubai aren’t working pretty hard like everywhere else.

    And of course there’s the racism. It’s shrouded (actually not so much here) in a few layers, but there it is in the end explaining (because I actually really need an English newspaper explaining colonialism to me) in great detail the horror of living, working or visiting Dubai. Remarkable.

    And politicians big-noting themselves is not a phenomenon unique to Dubai – seriously they should come to Brisbane where our creepy Mayor, Campbell Newman sets out media releases every other day talking about ‘his tunnels’ (it’s not a euphemism, he sees himself as responsible for constructing the entire infrastructure of Brisbane).

    Thanks though for giving it the weight it deserves here… I think really we do have to mock this stuff for them to truly get it. But the British Press will always be the first to attempt to manage the world into its own world view, they do it all the bloody time, and this is just a little, poorly constructed example. It’s actually fairly embarrassing. I do understand though that the UK is losing a fair bit of actual land mass every year, so they may well be trying to destabilize Dubai in the hope of finding a new home in a wee while.

    Very funny, very annoying and very embarrassing stuff!

  4. Sandy O'Sullivan

    The problem TeeBee is that it isn’t the outside world doing this, it’s the British Press. Almost all of the stories out there can be sourced back to the UK, and it’s typical. The UK does it with all things Australian too… it’s an absolute imperialist moment that just constantly becomes perpetuated in the press for some strange reason. The best examples I can give are around the treatment of Indigenous people in Australia (I am an Indigenous Australian, so I know a thing or two about it all) and where there is a moment of truth in their reporting, it becomes distorted from an incredibly complex issue into an outrageously oversimplified moment with both villians and victims cast, neither of whom have an opportunity for redemption, management or address… and this is so ridiculously reminiscent of it.

  5. DaddyBird

    Well, the ‘cactus’ line, for one, did make me laugh. But overall, if it was supposed to be a parody it didn’t succeed any better than it did as a balanced investigative report!

    And Sultan Al Qassemi certainly doesn’t seem to be laughing. http://tinyurl.com/dgcnqv

    Whether parody or report, it failed not because it erred factually, but because it was mean-spirited and one-sided.

    Certainly some expats have found trouble here, but it is very hard to sympathize with those that came here, spent all their money foolishly and then blame Dubai for the consequences. Such behavior would get them in trouble anywhere else as well- just as having sex on a public beach would- and perhaps with even worse consequences.

    The plight of construction workers in Dubai- as well as a great many other low-payed workers- is well worthy of investigation and revelation, but doing so in a bitter and accusative manner will just be more likely to put the powers-that-be in a defensive stance than encourage them to make changes. Stated well, the story is powerful enough without added vitriol.

    There are plenty of targets that are ripe for parody in Dubai, as well as for criticism; but making one’s own bias or shrill tone the main feature of the story won’t succeed in either case.

    And I all too often find myself in rows when I have the temerity to suggest to others that perhaps Dubai *isn’t* the worst place on Earth. So, if one attempts humor when addressing the subject of Dubai and it’s shortcomings, a broader application is appreciated.

    But then, the ‘cactus’ and ‘Mickey Mouse’ references *are* pretty broad, aren’t they? ;-)

  6. Terence Carter

    ‘TeeBee’, have you heard of journalistic balance? It’s this funny old fashioned concept, look it up.
    While it was probably the longest ‘opinion’ piece I’ve ever read in a newspaper, it’s also the worst written, the guy is a hack of the lamest kind.
    Lara is certainly not in denial about anything to do with Dubai and as we haven’t been there in months we’re pretty aware of what other people are saying about it — it’s just that they keep getting FACTS wrong and facts (as well as balance) used to matter. The questions lara is framing are not about Dubai itself, it’s about the ‘reporting’.

    Who are you anyway? And why do you not have the backbone to use your real name?

  7. Lara Dunston

    Hi Scott

    Thanks, but very well said, yourself! Ha! Ha! Very funny! Totally agree with you.

    I’m an Australian, and we’ve been back in Oz writing a couple of books since August, have travelled all over, and while we’ve fallen in love all over again with the place in some ways (the landscapes, flora and fauna, and the Aboriginal culture, mainly) there are a lot of things that astonish and horrify us and make us ashamed to be Australians – the way the Aboriginal people live in outback Australia for one (the appalling living conditions, poor health, lack of education, lack of employment opportunities) – it’s *exactly* as you’d find in a Third World country. Indeed, most Australians pretend ‘the problem’ doesn’t exist. The racism in towns in appalling. I could write a similar over-the-top essay myself – and add a whole host of social problems – the violence and crime you read about in urban areas, especially Sydney and Melbourne, on a daily basis, the urban vs rural divide, the third world technology (mobile phone access and broadband don’t exist outside cities and towns), etc, etc.

    But do you see the Johann Hari’s writing about Australia. Or the US? My god, where would you start with the US? If he took the same approach, Hari could write an encyclopedia. I find the Dubai attacks baffling, I truly do.

  8. Lara Dunston

    Tee Bee

    I’ll publish your comment this time, but if you return here please either use a Blogger ID so I can see your profile or use your name as Sandy has below. I don’t normally publish Anonymous comments.

    The article is all hyperbole, and he’s not done his research. As a professional writer, if I looked at that piece as an editor should it would be covered with questions. I won’t repeat what I’ve said above, but the factual errors alone demonstrate he hasn’t done enough research, not to mention the lack of balance and objectivity – if you don’t have those then it’s not journalism and it shouldn’t be published in a paper like The Independent which has standards and codes of conduct journalists should follow – even with commentary – and they’ve been so badly breached here that I can only think it’s parody. Look, I love The Independent, I’ve been commissioned by them a number of times, and The Independent has standards and ethics. I’m astonished they’ve set them aside in this case.

    What the heck is the ‘outside world’? I don’t know where you live or how much you travel but that’s an odd way to think. You’re suggesting it’s Dubai and then the world – what a bizarre way of thinking. Dubai is one of the most multicultural places in the world I know with one of the most widely-travelled populations I know. Dubai – and the world – is far more fluid, mobile and decentred than you suggest.

    My guess is that you’re referring the media in the UK, US and Australia, as I’ve suggested in my post. If you also did a search on Cool Travel Guide you’d see that I critiqued the media’s shallow coverage of Dubai long ago, so nothing is ‘starting’ now. It started long ago.

    Terence and I even wrote around 5 years ago in our Lonely Planet Dubai city guide that Dubai was a love it or hate it destination. Many places are. New York is one. London is another. It’s just rare that the travel media or any media write about the downsides of those cities in the way they do about Dubai. Sultan Sooud Al Qassimi has done a good job using London as a case study here: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/sultan-sooud-al-gassemi-if-you-think-dubai-is-bad-just-look-at-your-own-country-1666748.html so I won’t repeat what he has.

    I’m not in denial about anything. I moved to the UAE in 1998, but while I consider it my base I’ve actually been on the road travelling the world on writing assignments for the last 3 years, calling into Dubai every few months. I’ve lived in many other cities, in Europe and South America, and have travelled in Asia and Africa, so I know how Dubai shapes up compared to other destinations.

    If you read my post properly you would see that I said I am not denying the situation of construction workers in Dubai. I know only too well how they live. One of my Emirati women media students made an award-winning documentary about their plight in 2000 when she went onto construction sites and into their homes. I worked closely with her on that. The documentary screened at foreign film festivals and won awards. I would like to see intelligent, thoughtful Emirati women like my graduates get interviewed for a change.

    If you read my post properly you would see that what I take issue with is the abandonment of journalistic standards to such an extent that the piece reads like a parody. That’s the issue here for me and that’s the extent of the interest of Cool Travel Guide on this topic.

  9. Lara Dunston

    Hi Sandy and Daddy Bird

    You both make brilliant points – and I do mean ‘brilliant’.

    Thank you for reading, and thank you for your intelligent and insightful responses. Which is why I don’t understand why it is so hard for ‘journalists’ such as Hari then?

    Thanks for your comments!

    Terence

    Thanks for your support. I’m going to add a message re Anonymous posting to the comments tool I think.

  10. AngelaCorrias

    Sandy, you couldn’t explain the British press in a better way: it’s an imperialist moment, it has been for ages and they somehow can’t give it up. The reason is not strange though, the press is becoming more and more a propaganda tool, unfortunately also the papers that seem more ctitical, in a more subtle way than it used to be, certainly more sophisticated, but the same goals. I’ve studied journalism in Italy and during my university years all I could hear was the myth of the independence of the British press. After living in London for two years I had plenty of time to understand that it was only a myth, indeed.
    Lara, I like the Independent too, or I used to, at least. You have been able to see the flaws of that article because it describes a country and a reality you know very well, the same has happened to me for an article the Independent published about Italy, which was absurd, not objective and unbelievable distorted. I now look at the Independent with very different eyes. Never like in these situations we understand how dangerous are publications that follow a political agenda more than journalistic integrity.

  11. Rupert Neil Bumfrey

    Oh folks, are we not taking this so seriously, that we are starting to lose sight of the trees?

    Dubai is a success, a developing success, with warts and all.

    Just view today’s National article:
    http://www.thenational.ae/article/20090411/WEEKENDER/893397609/1005 where my posted comment has yet to be approved!

    But for a flavour of deprecating Brit’ behaviour, here is a quote:
    “Personally, I absolutely love the place, but then I like all that over-the-top stuff – the idea you build a ski-slope in the desert just appeals to me. But we have a free press and, though people in Dubai might not like it, Hari’s piece was beautifully written and well-researched and sourced.”

    As said by Roger Alton, Editor of The Independent.

  12. Terence Carter

    Yes indeed, Mr Alton is right in a way, the writing in that story is actually quite ‘fantastic’. I particularly love the observation that Dubai’s Pizza Hut’s look just like the ones in London. Brilliant. Who would have thought that? He should be up for some more journalism awards after that classic observation. And to think that he met the most eloquent Pizza Hut employee ever on his way out of town – when he’s already decided he can’t stand Dubai – simply defies the odds. He’s quite the investigative journalist managing to get just the perfect quote to suit his agenda avery time. Remarkable. Love to see his notebook.

    Anyone who has a reasonable media education and knows Dubai sees this as an unbalanced hatchet job at best. Like you say Rupert, Dubai certainly has its warts, but really this has all gone too far. Hopefully the ridiculous reporting will last as long as ‘Cool Britannia’ did.

    Roger Alton’s backhanded compliments might have been funny for him to pen, but guess where guys like him want to head when they lose their high-powered media jobs and can’t find another? You guessed it.

  13. Erica

    Now I get why you were disappointed by it, Lara. I obviously didn’t pay attention to the details when reading/skimming through the article but were disturbed by the circumstances surrounding the people in the story – which I assumed were true.

  14. Lara Dunston

    Hi Erica

    No problem. And don’t get me wrong, I am sure some of the stories are true – yes, many of the construction workers do live in deplorable conditions and work for little money, and some of their companies take their passports away – this is true of some companies, not all – and I think this is completely wrong and the government should not be allowing them to do this.

    However, what I object to is that Hari only presents these bad stories – he doesn’t present any of the good stories – so it’s not objective or balanced at all. He also doesn’t confront the management of the particular construction company nor a government representative, as a good investigative reporter would. So he obviously has an agenda.

    And to someone who lives there, it reads like he’s exaggerating things – the dialogue is just so bad and the characters are just so stereotypical. They don’t see real. I know these people. I’ve lived there for 11 years. I’ve met all of these kinds of people, but I’ve also met hundreds of other different types of people, none of which he represents here.

    And the woman sleeping in the Land Rover… I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be harsh, but what she and her husband did was stupid. Most people would go to the HR/finance people before resigning and sit down and say “Okay, so much money will I get exactly?” and then figure out how they can pay off their debts before resigning, and not resign until they have cleared their debts. It’s just a sensible thing to do. I think they’re the kind of people who would get themselves into trouble wherever they lived.

    Also, if he has a brain tumor, she could have gone to see one of the Sheikhs at their majlis – all Sheikhs have nightly majlis’ where anybody can go and explain problems and make complaints – just like they can go to an MP’s office – and she should have explained. I’m sure they would have pardoned a man with a brain tumor. There are also a lot of organizations, local and foreign-managed, a lot of women’s groups especially, who would have looked after her. One Dubai-based woman who runs a women’s website has also written a letter to Hari to try and find out her details so they can help. Let’s see if he provides them, because many people are doubting this woman even exists.

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