Mirrors in the Sky
Last week, in Dubai, the world watched as an eagle soared from top of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, rising head and shoulders above the surrounding skyscrapers and pointing bold and razor sharp into the clouds, as if to puncture the sky above. The view from the eagle’s eye, seen by all who fly beneath the shining buttresses or stand on the giants’ shoulders, is truly spectacular. It begins with the emerald green sea, broken by the quiet specks of resting ships or the white arrowheads of forging tankers. Isolated oil rigs and terraced islands, half-eaten or half-baked, rise from the sea, excavators and graders crawling around their rippled leaves for the next bite. Weaving lazily beside the coastline, the last remnants of the desert shelf, with a flurry of speckled life clinging to the rocks, plunges away in long brush strokes of deep blue.
Sweeping inland over the sandy plains, and the eagle surveys a geometric marvel. A whole kingdom of carefully crafted spiders’ webs and reassuringly consistent grids, all connected by thick arteries and meticulously calculated curvature. All seems to be in balance, with no corner tangled or clamouring for breath – drawn from the sky as if the god who scribbled the Nazca lines had replaced his youthful art with a refinement of geometry, order and organisation.
When the eagle lands, the view is no worse. The great Burj itself rises from an artificial lake, where thousands of fountains dance an exotic choreography on so vast a scale as to obscure the sleeping tower cranes and the night sky behind. The Burj’s pointed spear surges upwards, with the surrounding skyscrapers following as boldly as they may, willing distant cities to follow their path, their glass mirrors daring to reflect the future.
Dubai pushes the boundaries. It is an engineering and architectural marvel – a glorious testament to the best on a vast scale, the brightest of minds collaborating to break through the limits of human achievement. Of course, it is not perfect – there have been failings – a lack of public transport and connectivity for walkers and cyclists is one example, contributing to an isolated and miserable existence for some – but even that seems to be increasingly addressed with a forceful will.
Sweet and golden under the Arabian sun, those in need of money swarm to Dubai, flies to a global honey pot. Many are labourers, taxi drivers, tea boys, attracted by recruitment agencies to the promise of quick wins. Many are qualified experts, engineers, teachers or doctors, whose salaries can frequently be twice as much as they might receive at home. Others are executives, drawn to the honey pot for a richer taste of profit and power. Most have their reasons, some more pressing than others – but all start off hoping that a mouthful of honey will sweeten their lives.
But as flies have found since bees were born – honey can be sticky, hardened, even deadly. In Doha and Dubai, many find a bitter taste all too quickly. Rent is expensive, with few short-term contracts available, and employees are usually tied into long contracts, often with company loans to pay rental and living costs. Maybe you can’t cross the road where you want, maybe you use pills to keep awake at the wheel of your truck or through the long days at the office, maybe you miss your family, maybe, if you are one of the lucky few who can get a visa for them, there is no-where for them to play, maybe you can’t afford to go out, or maybe you are too tired to do anything.
And if you want to fly away, you may find your feet stuck. You cannot legally leave until your debts are paid, nor until your company provides you permission to leave. I have met many trapped this way, from qualified Europeans to West African taxi drivers, lured by the promise of a $1000 each month that turns out to be 1000 dirhams ($270) minus accommodation and fees.
Dubai marina has everything that the eagle’s eye promised – a creekside promenade under the blue glass skyscrapers, packed with lively restaurants and palatial penthouses, and emerging onto a golden sand beach. One on end, in front of the gantries and cranes of the industrial dock, the jet skis flip and dance in the waves. In the middle, the sunbathers throw Islamic caution to the wind in pursuit of image, some showing off their tanned legs and gym-toned bodies, others for whom simply being present is sufficient. Further to the north lie the exclusive hotels and villas of Jumeirah, where there may be flies may be trapped in a different way – by the taste of their gold, modern day King Midases, rendered unable by their own greed to swallow to a more frugal and accountable existence in their home country.
Three thousand miles away, in the oil-rich forests of Eastern Congo, I read of the bullying, intimidation, and infighting amongst official and unoffical factions scrabbling in the dirt for their slice of the oil pie. The situation is complicated: “You, Europeans, you have eaten all your animals, and now you ask us to turn our backs on money the country desperately needs, the people desperately need, to protect animals?”. But somehow, in Congo, at least people know about the dirt, live with it, work with it. In Dubai and Doha, perhaps the dirt is swept under, washed away, ignored as everyone looks up to the future – I find myself wondering what colour the sky mirrors would turn if they chose to reflect a little more.