Perspective: Dubai brings the East and the West into conversation in new and imaginative ways
How the city navigates the next decade may chart a future for not only the gulf, but the broader Middle East
The year is 1893, and Chicago’s bustling South Side is hosting something truly magical: North America’s most ambitious World’s Fair to date.
Some 200 exotic architectural specimens dot the shores of Jackson Park and extend 680 acres across the Midway stretch just south of the modern-day campus of the University of Chicago.
Within the fairgrounds visitors caught a glimpse of the future, even as the fair’s many spectacles underscored America’s own unresolved tensions.
For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there was the thrill of the Tabernacle Choir taking second place in the Eisteddfod choral competition in what was the choir’s first performance beyond America’s Intermountain West.
And yet, as scholar Terryl Givens points out, there was also the disappointment of the faith not receiving an invitation to participate in the first Parliament of the World’s Religions that is held in conjunction with the fair.
But throughout the exhibition America’s industrial and innovation muscles were flexed with machines and motors clanking and cranking to the delight of an international audience of millions.
Historians today look back at this fair as something of a snapshot of America’s emergent status on the world stage.
Last month, I witnessed the final days of Expo 2020, hosted in Dubai by the United Arab Emirates. Like Chicago a century ago, Expo 2020 (which was postponed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic) signaled its own kind of 21-century inflection point toward a more pluralistic future, not just for the UAE but for the region as a whole.
The Dubai expo occupied a full 1,000 acres and included the participation of 191 nations, including the United States. Some 24 million visitors came through its massive gateways to survey a global city in miniature built within one of the world’s most ambitious global hubs.
Perhaps more than any nation in the region, the UAE appreciates the need to imagine and build for a future beyond oil. Dubai lacks the oil resources of neighboring Abu Dhabi. It grasped earlier than most that it needed to transform to survive. After spending several days in Dubai, I can only describe the city as a coastal hybrid of Las Vegas, with less vice, and New York City.
Some may balk at comparisons to New York, but Dubai’s aims are only matched by its jaw-dropping $1 trillion sovereign wealth fund. But those with whom I spoke in Dubai casually toss around Hong Kong, Singapore or London as future competition.
But the speed of growth can seem dizzying at times.
Within the past year, the UAE announced its most extensive labor reform laws to date, which now require all migrant employees to be on fixed-year contracts, making it illegal for businesses to form any sort of quasi-permanent labor contract. In a city with the most high-rise cranes per capita and a desire to increasingly open itself to foreign investment, this is an important step for workers’ rights.
The UAE has also made efforts to increase female representation in government. In 2018, the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, and ruler of the Dubai emeriti, called a move to allocate 50% of seats of its Federal National Council to women “a great leap forward. … Women are half of our society: They should be represented as such.”
In a region facing the challenges of a changing world, including one with finite oil reserves, there’s a sense of momentum and vision often lacking in the West.
The more futuristic elements of Expo itself — for example, the UAE pavilion’s modern falcon-like design and its largest-in-the-world screen projection capabilities — mirror Dubai’s own eye-catching tourist attractions: indoor skiing, the cloud-piercing Burj Khalifa and its shiny new museum of the future (which aims to look forward rather than backward) project an eye toward where it sees itself in 20 years.
Over dinner with CNN business alum (now turned PR executive) John Defterios, he recalled reporting on Dubai when it first proposed dredging out a port.
He was skeptical it would ever happen.
Today, the port has a level of container traffic that puts it in competition with the top 10 ports in the world. And the city’s scrappy approach to attracting international banking and financial institutions has allowed it to steadily climb the list of top 20 global financial hubs, currently ranking 17 according to the most recent Global Financial Centers Index.
Dubai’s experiment is among the most fascinating on the world’s stage. The city is embracing a form of pluralism that makes some in the region uncomfortable. Dubai’s population is 85 % expatriate, while remaining a Muslim nation with Sharia law.
How it navigates the next decade may chart a future for not only the gulf, but the Middle East more broadly.
In his widely acclaimed book “Buddha in the Machine,” Yale scholar John Williams documents how visitors to the 1893 Chicago World Fair escaped the noise of the motors and machines by finding refuge in the Japanese pavilion with its serene Eastern aesthetic.
If there’s been a centurylong tension between the East and the West, Expo 2020 showcased a nation and a city that has become a live experiment in what happens when those worlds are brought into conversation in new and imaginative ways.