It was my most treasured gift, The World Book Encyclopaedia. As a child in 1992, I seemingly couldn’t wait for the Internet to arrive so I brought it forward. The world at my fingerprints, anything I wanted to know right there on my bookshelf. I remember picking up Book E and turning to the entry on El Dorado.
It read the name of a fictitious kingdom of enormous wealth in the New World. Explorers, it said, searched for this kingdom, but never found it. It finally ended with a short sentence on how the term has become common for any legendary place of untold riches.
I recall that story as I read articles in the past few weeks by journalists who descended on Dubai from the West to report on the demise of this global trading hub reminding me of the Arabic saying, when the camel falls, the knives are out. Some harsh articles have been written including one by Germaine Greer, a journalist in Britain’s The Guardian who admittedly spent a precious four hours on an open tour bus and found my city to be “with neither charm nor character.”
At least, one might say, she had bothered to visit all when reading what Daniel Pipes had to write recently, “a Ponzi scheme among the nations” he called us. Compare this with what Andy Ram, the Israeli tennis player and more importantly someone who actually spent some time in my country had to say to the Jerusalem Post: “It was an amazing experience, which I won’t forget for the rest of my life” adding that he had plans of returning next year. In fact, the paper noted that Ram didn’t have a bad word to say about his time in the United Arab Emirates, an Arab and Muslim state.
One might be consumed by all the negative coverage that Dubai has been receiving; a few of us might even fall victim to it. First of all, there is no denying a global financial crisis that is unlike anything witnessed since the 1930’s and naturally the more globalised a city is the more affected it would be; hence Dubai’s position.
Second, as a journalist I can safely say that in our industry, bad news is good news. Just look at Africa, the often-ignored continent that only warrants attention when there is a crisis to report.
In the Middle East, Dubai stands as a beacon of development, a city that refused to be dragged down by hopelessness that plagues its neighbourhood. For where there was once an endless expanse of sand lie thriving communities, ports, media and financial centres. A city that constantly reminds us even in the worst of times that peaceful coexistence is possible. Even at the height of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, citizens from both warring nations would continue to trade and socialise in Dubai. The same logic applies to Indians and Pakistanis, many of whom are colleagues at work and even life partners in marriage, setting a positive example for their compatriots back home.
For in Dubai, divisions fall and unity abounds. I come across Sunnis and Shias who otherwise reside in mutual suspicions in Iraq; Christian sects stand united where they fall divided in Lebanon; Jews and Arabs break down barriers where a hateful wall separates them in the Holy Land. The story of Dubai isn’t to be found on Mr. Pipes’ computer screen in Philadelphia, nor on a four-hour bus ride zooming across town in a hurry. It is the story of people from 180 nationalities, some of them faring better than others, some millionaires and some blue collar workers, neurosurgeons and nurses, architects and engineers, rich and poor, dark skinned and Caucasian, not just surviving, but thriving in harmony.
Thomas Friedman recently wrote in the New York Times about America that “at no time in the last 50 years have we ever felt weaker, and at no time in the last 50 years has the world ever seen us as more important. ”
I strongly believe that the same statement applies to Dubai. For if Dubai, the beacon of hope for millions in a most sensitive part of the world we call the Middle East, is jeered rather than cheered as it pulls itself together to stand up straight, facing the sun and its destiny, what hope is there for the rest of the region? I find it bewildering how a few short weeks after President Barack Obama was elected on the premise of hope after financial turbulence hit his country, these very same media outlets that endorsed him fail to see Dubai’s identical message of hope in a region that so desperately needs it.
My desire for more knowledge as a child about El Dorado was never fulfilled, and hopefully never will. A city of enormous wealth in the New World where fortunes are made and legends abound? I didn’t have to leave Dubai to find it. All I had to do was look out my window.
This article was originally published in Khaleej Times on March 9, 2009.