There were two sensations when EK433 touched down last Tuesday at Dubai. The first was that of relief. Over the years I've learned to tolerate flying, but it is an experience to be enjoyed inestimably more in the passing than in the performance. The second was that small thrill I feel each time I return to the Middle East.
That sensation was heightened by the anticipation that attaches to being somewhere new. Although I had been to the UAE before, I had not visited Dubai previously. As I think about it, that does appear odd. Dubai is well known to many Australians as a port of call, and it has developed as a major hub for people heading in all directions across the region. But for reasons best known to my travel agents, I always by-passed it when heading out this way. Hence I was happy for the opportunity afforded by a scheduled appointment to have a couple of days to look around.
How does one describe Dubai? Adjectives and similes must be multiplied. In some respects it feels like an arid version of Hong Kong. The skyline is said to resemble that of Chicago. Buildings and construction works abound. Who fills all these places? Can anything possibly be left over for Doha’s similar foray into futurism? There are some impressive and stylish works of architecture, but more generally in the extensive up-market, conspicuously consumerist and ostentatious parts of the city, it is as if Doctor Moreau has manipulated a monster hybrid by blending the gene pool of Disneyland with that of the Arabian Nights. Still it remains that in quieter parts and in the back streets, an array of unmistakable sights, smells and sounds reassure one that, whatever else Dubai may be, or imagine itself to be, it is an authentic Arab town. Alas, the germ from which all this has sprouted is to be seen only in sepia images on the walls of the municipal museum. However in Dubai, the Emirate Arab identity has not been lost with the long vanished fishing village, but rather has been transformed (at least on the surface) by a breathtaking experiment with the contemporary.
Some will argue that Dubai is more a global than regional phenomenon. In particular, they will point out that a great deal, if not nearly all, the sweat, ingenuity and sheer hard work of constructing, energising and sustaining this desert metropolis has been provided by imported cheap labour, particularly from the Indian subcontinent, and stimulated by the intellectual capital of the West. That hardly can be denied. But the fact that Dubai has imported the labour, skills and know-how required to make its transformation, does not make that transformation any less impressive. Neither should that consideration mitigate the profound local contribution—be it the impressive vision that drives this city, the money that has made such a transformation possible, and above all the aspirations which Dubai attempts to address.
Given these considerations, it seemed to me that Dubai may have something to say about the impact of higher education on Arab societies. I did not have the opportunity to visit any of the universities in Dubai, so I will not comment on how those institutions may (or may not) consider their role in terms of Arab perspectives on scholarship or on impacting the socio-economic, cultural and intellectual development of the Arab States. However, I did have the opportunity to discover something of interest in a shopping mall.