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Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success

Christopher Davidson's study of Dubai aims to evenhandedly tackle the city's history, politics, security, economics, and society. The city's rulers were so unhappy about the subjects discussed that they initially attempted to ban it. So why did I not lap it up?

The book comprises of eight disjointed chapters. Each of them could work as a standalone text, but together, they give the impression that the author did not quite pick a topic for his book. The first four deal with Dubai's roots. They are occasionally dry, with the author making little effort to differentiate for readers various sheikhs with long and similar names. But they provide a fair deal of background about the city's origins, and how it came to be a laissez-faire commercial center. The fifth, which talks about the ruling bargain, is actually fairly good.

Sadly, the author loses the plot while talking about contemporary Dubai in the last three chapters. In some cases, he is just lazy about updating things, like when he claims Dubai Festival City will host the Global Village. (This was the original plan in 2001, but the complex opened last year and does nothing of the sort, something the author of a book published in 2008 should have noticed.) Sometimes he should be paying more attention, like when he claims Dubai shop signs are almost all in English because there is no legal requirement to display names in Arabic. (Untrue, and he should know better from having lived there.) And oftentimes, I wonder where he gets his information, such as when he claims Terminal 2 of the airport was built before Terminal 1. (I can remember when the plot that houses Terminal 2 was vacant, and besides, there is a reason for the numbering.) The sheer number of errors I caught while reading made me question the veracity of the history he had laid out in the preceding chapters.

Additionally, while I understand the need to protect one's sources, it is disheartening to see every interesting or controversial piece of information footnoted 'Personal interviews,' with no further information provided. Not good for establishing credibility, that. Repeatedly printing figures at odds with established ones and describing them as 'Author's estimates' is even worse.

But I think the aspect of the book which most annoyed me was the author's poor grasp of economics. At one point, he uses outdated figures to suggest the country was risking its stability by not trading with its neighbors, and that trade with faraway countries was a bad thing. As if the city is going to grow its economy rapidly by buying dates from Bahrain and selling the latter pearls. In any case, of Dubai's ten largest export and re-export partners last year, only two apiece are more than a three-hour flight away.

I'd strongly recommend a book that covers Dubai well. But this isn't it.

Posted by dubaiwalla at September 15, 2008 11:27 AM
Filed Under: 18th - 20th century , Economics , Gulf , MENA History

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Dear DW,

Which book(s) on Dubai and/or the UAE would you recommend?


Posted by: MSK* at October 2, 2008 03:14 AM

Sadly, the books I've read on the country that I've enjoyed are all out of date now (Gregory Gause's Oil Monarchies being the best example). But I do now of at least two good books that are likely to be published in the next year or so, and would be happy to review them when they are printed.

Posted by: dubaiwalla [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 2, 2008 10:16 AM

I always thought the Terminals swapped, and what we now think of as the minor Terminal 2 was the original Terminal (not then called 1 because there was no 2).

Posted by: secretdubai at October 14, 2008 07:08 PM

Terminal 2 opened in 1998. Terminal 1 has been around for as long as the airport, although it used to be a lot smaller.

Posted by: dubaiwalla [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 14, 2008 11:52 PM

Aha. Well that's one piece of supposed Dubai trivia out the window then.

Posted by: secretdubai at October 15, 2008 07:55 PM

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