The Dubai-zation of Society: Can’t fight the power; just swipe your credit card instead

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“We live in the best democracy ever,” said a 19 year old from Dubai, where citizens never vote. In the same BBC series a 27-year UAE national said, “Everybody is happy, everything is going smoothly, and I don’t think we should jeopardize that to be a democratic country.”


“Dubaization” that’s what Ece Temelkuran, Turkish writer and political commentator, calls it: “As the streets get more conservative and less secure, the malls seem to feel like a parallel universe where everything is more hygienic and less tense. Malls allow people to disguise themselves as the rich, including the shopping assistants who mostly get the minimum wage. With the freedom to consume or to live the illusion of consumption, people feel “free”…A new human being is being created. Silent in awe of the endless display of commodities and suffering from addiction to bling-bling. Just like in Dubai.”


Democracy and consumerism are two of the major exports from the west, especially the US, to the rest of the world in the past few decades. While most countries are struggling with democracy, including the so-called well-established democracies; most people in almost all countries, including the authoritarian Middle-East, have started looking away from democracy and embraced consumerism as their new religion. Temelkuran thinks this is the bigger problem facing her country, Turkey, and, perhaps the rest of the world.


A decade ago the BBC News ran a series about young people in the Middle East and interviewed young people on their views about democratic reform in the city of Dubai. The story on the BBC News website was titled: “Few want vote in booming Dubai.” The authors wrote that ‘change, at least of the political variety, did not seem to be on the horizon.’


Dubai, one of the seven emirates in the UAE, is a mecca for shoppers from countries in the Middle East and South Asia. The Dubai Shopping Festival, held in January of every year, is one of the most well-known shopping fiestas in the world. As the brochure says: Apart from offering visitors from around the world with some mind-boggling and life changing moments, the festival also offers shoppers several million dollars worth of prize money, including luxury cars, gold and cash, apart from an extensive line-up of world-class events, all of which makes the festival more attractive. []


Dubai is held up by many of its residents as a model of how Arab culture can embrace 21st Century globalization without losing its traditional values.



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The Arab Youth Survey conducted by ASDA’A Burson – Marsteller, a public relations and communications firm, is touted as the largest survey of the Middle East’s largest demographic – young people. Conducted every year since 2008 it supposedly provides evidence-based insights into the hopes, concerns and aspirations of Arab youth. The 2016 survey found that five years after fighting for political reform during the Arab Spring, today most young Arabs prioritize stability over democracy. And the UAE continues to be viewed as a model country that is economically secure, and the most favored nation to live in and set up a business. (


In “Did Dubai Do It?” – a column in the New York Times (November 2014), Friedman asks a rhetorical question: Was Dubai – the crown jewel of the seven emirates of the UAE – responsible for the Arab awakening or what was popularly known as the Arab Spring?


Friedman feigns surprise: “Wait. How could it have? The U.A.E. and Dubai are absolute monarchies that tolerate no opposition or real freedom of the press?” Then he answers his own question: “It’s because Dubai, beyond the glitz, glass and real estate booms and busts, has become the Manhattan of the Arab world — a place where young Arabs from across the region can come to realize their full potential in arts, business, media, education and technology start-ups — with world-class companies — and in their own culture, their own language, their own religious milieu, their own food preferences, music and clothing.”

Dubai_ Palm Jumeira


However, Temelkuran warns: “When you take a closer look, it (the mushrooming of malls) is actually a very well formed social project to reform the individual into a being, who on his shoulders will carry the obedient consumption of a society with conservative values.”


In a more recent article in the BBC news online Christopher Davidson, Reader in Middle East Politics at Durham University and author of After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf monarchies writes that although the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is considered one of the most stable countries in the Middle East, with an international reputation as a business center and tourist destination; behind the glitz and glamour it tolerates no dissent.


Most movements for or within democracy are based on and stimulated by dissent. Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring movement was based on that. So what is it about young people who are willing to give up the right to dissent so they can freely shop for mobile phones and shoes? Is that the dream that Arab youth have for their lives – to simply buy things in a mall? Is that the choice they want to exercise? Or does aspiration and choice go beyond a shoe, a designer label, a phone to how one lives one’s life, how one’s society is governed?


As Friedman says: Young Arabs from other countries have come to the sad realization that they will never get to experience democracy in their country and so they tell themselves: “We could at least have Dubai.”

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Friedman essentially argues that the Arab youth do not much choice in the matter and therefore they are making the most of what is in their hands. Are Friedman’s mid-eastern youth simply being pragmatic in their choices the tradition of this all-American philosophy? Pragmatists contend that any idea or concept is best viewed in terms of its practical use and success. So if the notion of consumerism is seen as a more successful strategy to survive in today’s world – so be it. We will all live with a little bit of authoritarianism!

But don’t the origins of democracy lie in exactly the opposite impulse – to overthrow monarchs and kings and exert the voice and will of the people. But it seems in the 21st century, even Freidman’s USA wants a little bit of the dictator and authoritarian back in their lives. Perhaps the failure of our democratically elected politicians or just the seductive charm of consumerism? Or both.


In fact the more the disturbances and disruptions in democracy and political processes, the more people retreat into consumerism. The constant disturbances play into the hands of the consumerism. It helps the arms industry and the monarchy – these disturbances and riots are seen as trouble and impediments in daily life. The people look to escape into the embrace of consumerism. This craving for consumerism makes them clamor for stability




However, this deep fascination with consumerism may go beyond a pragmatic approach to life, beyond the difficulties of political disturbances.


Democracy in America (in two volumes: 1835 and 1840) published after French diplomat and historian, Alexis Tocqueville’s travels in the United States in 1931, argued  that social mobility is one of the necessary conditions of stability in democracies.


However, what happens when social mobility breaks down?


One of the large problems facing the world today is inequality. As less than 1% of the population control much of the world’s resources. With economic recessionary conditions spreading all around the world, and nearly 50% joblessness among youth in many countries, are our youth essentially telling us that they do not sense any social mobility in the societies they inhabit?


Are they telling us that the only feeling of social mobility one gets is when one walks inside a mall and imagines oneself in those different clothes and shoes and accessories? One feels like someone else – feels like he has climbed the social ladder, become someone different.


Temelkuran writes: “… Like the other shopping malls in other parts of the planet, they create a new stereotype. A person floating in between the shops. A breed not necessarily consuming but filling his or her time -their life itself, so to speak- contemplating consumption. Since the majority of society is incapable of consuming the goods available for sale in the shopping malls, they just go there to see people consuming and be “there”, close to the warmth of prosperity. Especially youngsters, boys and girls from poor neighborhoods of the cities, form groups to organize daily touristic visits to the glittering life of the upper class.”


With exposure to social media and the internet, youth from countries in the Middle-east look at so-called mature democracies such as the USA, they either find a circus of democracy being played out on the media, a chasm of miscommunication that exists between the supporters of the two parties in that country, they find that people are angry at politicians for not delivering on promises. They look at Europe and find the right wing dominating the debates and the polls. They look at Brexit and take lessons from the anger of the voters. They look at large democracies such as India and find corruption and chaos. They find that the very few rich families are getting richer and the middle class and poor getting nowhere. They find young students with huge, unpayable loans and no jobs or in underpaid ones.


Even if these youth want democracy, they start questioning the merits of having such a system in their own country. Places like Dubai seem stable. They at least allow youth to imagine social mobility in the confines of an air-conditioned mall, get closer to all that modern society has to offer – through consumerism. Dubai offers the chance to access those choices under the stable hand of its monarch.


It is not Dubai that causes Tahrir Square and Arab Spring type revolutions as Freidman would argue. It is the failure of democracies in the West and other places, the seeming failure of this experiment or revolution called democracy that causes Dubai.


Both – democracy and consumerism – have been refined and honed in the West. In that sense both are exports from the West to the Middle-East and other parts of Asia, Africa and the central and south Americas. As the people of these regions look at both they tend to gravitate towards consumerism. Is it because they feel consumerism gives them more versus the democratic process? Democracy, after all, is about “one person one vote;” but, consumerism is all about “one person – multiple credit cards.”


Last vote book cover


However, democracy is not just about voting. Philip Coggan in his book “The Last Vote” describes the harsh and dangerous historical path towards one person-one vote. All those battles for justice and equality – ordinary people killed in South and Central America, the suffragette movement, the civil rights movement in the US, struggles in Asia and Africa. All for naught. Does the rise of “Dubai-style democracy” signal a betrayal of all those who were killed, jailed, shot, disappeared, teargassed, caned so we could have the right to speak up and be heard.


The author also writes in the column Buttonwood in The Economist: “Democracy is not just about voting; it is about a system that guarantees individual rights, the independence of the courts, the freedom of the press and so on. Britain was a reasonably liberal place in the 19th century even before democracy was enacted; Karl Marx could sit, unmolested, in the reading room of the British Museum and plot the overthrow of the system.”


This freedom to dissent, freedom to disagree, freedom to plot and overthrow without the fear of getting locked up is what underlies democracy. However, most youth seem not to want this freedom.


Does Dubaization or the rise of Dubai democracy mean that things have changed? Democracy is no longer the desired dream. sThe notion of what it means to be free or what freedom means has changed. People’s values and beliefs have changed. Change is the only constant, as history tells us, and the practical amongst us advise us to accept this new change – towards consumerism over democracy. Live with it, accept it.


What happened to the dream of MLK where he thought of democracy as the fight for rights and the right to fight the power?


In an episode of a television series ‘The Carmichael Show,’ the character (acted by comedian David Alan Grier) who plays the father wonders aloud what Martin Luther King Jr (MLK) would be doing today if he hadn’t been assassinated; and imagines MLK reduced to doing mattress commercials: “I had a dream … and you can, too, on a new Tempur-Pedic queen size memory foam mattress.”

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That’s just the way it is. Or is that just the way we want it?




© The Essayist, 2016




  • Ece Temelkuran. ‘Dubaization’ versus… what?
  • Heather Sharp. Few want vote in booming Dubai. BBC News, Dubai; 29 July 2005.
  • Arab Youth Survey. ASDA’A Burson – Marsteller.
  • Christopher Davidson. Wealthy and stable UAE keeps the lid on dissent. Viewpoint. BBC News, 15 April 2015.
  • Thomas L. Friedman. Did Dubai Do It? The Opinion Pages, New York Times; Nov 18, 2014
  • Economics and democracy: The last vote. By BUTTONWOOD; Nov 4th 2016.
  • The Last Vote, by Philip Coggan.


Images from:

  • Women shopping.
  • Arab family shopping Dubai Shopping Festival.
  • Logo with shopping bag.
  • Two couples – Four persons with shopping bags.
  • Couple staring at.


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