Like many rulers before him, Sheikh Zayed of the United Arab Emirates had a dream about his city, Abu Dhabi. The dream, now in detailed architectural models in a permanent exhibit, is well on its way to becoming a reality. ‘The shape of our city will change within the next 12 years,’ we are told by our young Indian (but born in the Emirates) guide. ‘We’re aiming to finish both phases of the project by 2020.’
The ‘project’ will include branches of the Sorbonne, the Louvre and the Guggenheim – as well as a cultural centre, a maritime museum and sundry pavilions of art and culture. ‘Abu Dhabi will become the cultural capital of the world. We’re aiming to diversify our income source – oil – and bring in tourism. And to think that only 30 or so years ago,’ she tells us, ‘all of it looked like this!’ She points disparagingly to a rough, rocky fort, a stunning desert landscape, men riding on camels.
But why would tourists, I wonder, fly to the Gulf to seek out what is becoming increasingly common in their own cities: luxury shopping malls, four-star hotels, bright lights and glitzy entertainment? It’s true there’s an ocean view from the tall buildings in Abu Dhabi. But apart from a few tourists at seaside hotels I didn’t see many people on the beaches.
Time was when cities looked different: Delhi was distinct from Dubai, New York was different from London, and Kathmandu had its own special allure. But with continuous rural to urban migration (often a consequence of globalization) and with relentless urbanization, cities across the world are beginning to look the same. In Abu Dhabi I tried – without success – to purchase something ‘local’, something to remember the place by. Other than dates from local date palms, there was little to be found.
But local culture is more than just local products. It’s also about jobs, about ways of living. Most cities in the world have a subterranean life. I was in Paris a while ago with a young domestic worker who was travelling abroad for the first time. At one point she turned to me and asked: ‘They spend so much on illuminating the Eiffel Tower, why can’t they use some of that money for these poor people who are freezing on the streets?’ A good question. But there are few homeless in the central tourist districts of most modern cities. Municipal officials are adept at hiding the seamier side of life behind a façade of museums, shops and theatres.
Abu Dhabi is different. You don’t see poor people at all on the streets. I’m not even sure there are any local poor. But you do see a huge workforce of Pakistanis, Indians and Filipinos, all working hard to keep the infrastructure intact. ‘I’m from Kerala,’ my taxi driver tells me. ‘ I left home 20 years ago when I was a mere boy. I’ve forgotten what fields, trees, the village well, look like. I’m too busy making money.’
Equally important – and this is something I’ve heard spoken of in my own city, Delhi, and in many others in India – urbanization brings a kind of anonymity. You may like ‘hanging out’ with your compatriots or people from your home, says my Keralan friend. But in the city a person sitting next to you in a restaurant, or a client riding in your taxi, does not know whether you are Muslim or Christian, high caste or low caste.
But why would tourists, I wonder, fly to the Gulf to seek out what is becoming increasingly common in their own cities: luxury shopping malls, four-star hotels, bright lights and glitzy entertainment?
What about the pressure on services and resources, I ask him, the huge environmental cost of keeping cities going? ‘I used to worry about that,’ he tells me, ‘but after so many years I’m used to the air conditioning. So I think when I go home I’ll just take some air conditioners with me to cool my house.’
Is the city the landscape of the future? Will the rural world entirely disappear? In Indian cities the locals often grumble about cows on the streets disrupting traffic ‘as if they owned the place’. Visitors find this amusing, even charming. And yet it wasn’t so long ago that the cows did own the place. Where there are now roads, there were fields and the cows walked around freely.
I’m reluctant to plead for a return to village life – even though many urbanites romanticize the notion, it’s completely impractical for most of us city dwellers. Besides, many rural people want to escape the countryside as soon as possible. But I worry about the direction in which our cities are heading. It’s true that they offer jobs, opportunity, anonymity and dreams – which can sometimes even translate into reality. But it’s also true that they are cruel, wasteful, superficial and harsh.
Perhaps it’s because they’re all these things, and more, that cities have for so long preoccupied great writers. Some of the world’s most compelling literature has been rooted in the complex reality of city life. I can’t help wondering, as I walk along Abu Dhabi’s wide avenues and through its shopping malls, what the definitive book about this city will be like.