Dubai in the British Media Crosshairs

Dubai in the British Media Crosshairs

A significant section of the response to Dubai’s financial troubles has been formulaic, drawing on cliché informed by a narrative sustained at quite a remove from Dubai itself. There is also a more literate tack taken by some writers, which harks back to the aging conception of the Middle East in the Western classical imagination more than it draws on current, informative terminology. Some of the coverage is overtly contradictory, notes Guy Gabriel.

The Dubai World request for a repayment moratorium on 26 November 2009 has been a big story in the British media. Normally, a conglomerate seeking to restructure its commercial debt – which is what sparked the flurry of interest in Dubai – is a business story, but on this occasion it has extended significantly into other sections of the media, as though to many it is indicative of a broader, more obscured reality to be uncovered.
 several UK

On the surface of it, British exposure to Dubai World’s debts could account for much of the interest; after all, several UK banks are creditors, although many business commentators have noted that the sums of money involved are small compared to losses made elsewhere in the financial world during the turmoil. Some are even concerned that the British taxpayer will have to pick up the bill, though there is inconsistency about the size of the liabilities.

But a lot of comment has been of the kind you would not find in the business pages, and in fact is of the kind that could be found at regular intervals throughout the year in the media: Dubai has been a target, particularly in the British media, for some time, something which has become more pronounced since the credit crunch and subsequent financial turmoil.

One such early piece, "Why I’d rather die than visit Dubai," by Sathnam Sangera in the Times (2 December 2008), caught the eye of United Arab Emirates residents because it was a very strong broadside, written without visiting Dubai itself.

Many of the ideas contained in this report also appeared in an article by the author, published in The National (United Arab Emirates) on 11 December 2009, available here.

Britain & Dubai

There is a particular Dubai narrative that is projected and sustained in Britain. The behaviour – but also perceived behaviour – of the well-heeled expat community, and tourists, has long been of interest to the media, and the cultural exposure gained through such links is greater than many think.

However, this is generally one-way traffic, punctuated by a number of landmark events or facts – such as Michelle Palmer and Vince Acors’s tryst on the beach, exorbitantly luxurious hotels, mistreated construction workers on ambitious developments, and more recently, a general sense that cracks are showing.

In reality, of course, such things – whatever their accuracy – only contribute in some measure to a representative picture of somewhere, not constitute it entirely, but it is common media practice to paint a picture using landmark events and facts which will speak to the majority of readers.

In the case of Dubai, this results in the idea that the emirate is chiefly a combination of Western money and Western cultural norms via a process of joining a selected number of dots.

Thus, we read mostly about ambitious construction projects and all-you-can-eat-and-drink brunches – with the occasional intervention of an authoritative legal system – and very little about Dubai outside this Western conception, which is given little context other than host to a globalised, immigrant population.


Following the announcement of the request for the debt standstill, there was an immediate slew of critical coverage that tapped into this pre-existing conception of Dubai, but which subsided as the business press produced a more composed analysis, while other sections of the media lost their initial interest.

A significant section of the response to Dubai’s financial troubles has been formulaic, drawing on cliché informed by a narrative sustained at quite a remove from Dubai itself.

Although there are a number of Western correspondents resident in Dubai to cover the region, their contributions tend to pale a bit next to the more bombastic exposés written by a small number of journalists who have visited briefly in the past, and some who have not.

To be fair, not all coverage fits these descriptions, and there is no question that Dubai is a legitimate target of interest and criticism. However, the most convincing journalism features fresh research with a demonstrable proximity to the subject matter, and it is a straightforward observation that Dubai does not always attract this.

Celebrity Bandwagon & Schadenfreude

Other writers have taken Dubai to task, having barely mentioned the emirate before in their journalist careers. One, whose usual metier involves "writing mainly, but not exclusively on family matters and women’s issues," produced 1,000 words on why "if Dubai was a person it would be Katie Price" (Janice Turner, Times, 28 November).

The more usual comparisons involving Dubai made by journalists are to Las Vegas, perhaps Hong Kong, occasionally to the dimensions of Kent to give a clue to its size – but very rarely to something quite so subjective as a person.

This epitomises Dubai’s commonly expressed celebrity angle: you will often read that David Beckham, Brad Pitt and a host of Premiership footballers own a property on the Jumeirah Palm, which, the article adds, is struggling to complete the project.

A general context of discussing such stars in any section of the media is ‘more money than sense,’ and so in the same vein, some of the most frequently heard words to describe Dubai are ‘brash’, ‘glitzy’ and ‘glamour.’ The combination of these factors often results in a tone of schadenfreude, with some adopting the sentiment that Dubai was "an accident waiting to happen" (Jeremy Warner, Daily Telegraph, 28 November).

One example of this is Lisa Minot, travel editor of the Sun, who opined (27 November 2009):

"It was a bubble waiting to burst. For all the glitz and glamour, something about Dubai made me feel distinctly uncomfortable…"

But such omniscience is not quite accurate. When she visited Dubai over three years earlier (24 June 2006), she wrote that "it’s not difficult to see why Dubai is such a hit with the Brits…You’re sure to score a hit with this holiday winner!"

Fear & Contradiction

Some of the immediate coverage featured headlines that played on the fear angle, predicting "financial Armageddon," (James Palumbo, Daily Mail, 28 November) and warning "dismiss this new crisis at your peril" (Alex Brummer, Mail, 28 November).

The Times was able to fit in the "West", "fears" and "terrorist threat" all in the headline and first sentence of an article (David Robertson, 27 November). That initial excitability had later downgraded the assessment to "crisis of confidence" (Robertson, Times, 3 December).

In fact, the sense of fear that has driven some of the coverage is overtly contradictory. The Times noted in a headline on 28 November that "Banks rebound as Dubai fears subside," yet the same day, the newspaper’s Irish edition headlined "Dubai fears increase."

Dark Side of Dubai

Over the past year or two, more British newspapers than not have run ‘dark side of Dubai’ style exposés. Notably, the same writers produced similar pieces a day or two after the debt standstill request was announced on 26 November 2009. Examples include:

– Johann Hari in the Independent, 7 April 2009: "The Dark Side of Dubai," which was followed up with "A Morally Bankrupt Dictatorship Built by Slave Labour."

– Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, 20 March 2009: "The Soaring Folly of Dubai," which was followed up with "Dubai: A City Built on Sand," and "When this Gaseous Burp Explodes in the Desert Air, we’ll Still have the Burj Dubai." (Both appeared on the Guardian website, not in the print edition.) Notably, this makes three strongly negative articles in nine months.

– Rod Liddle in the Sunday Times, 12 July 2009: "Sordid Reality Behind Dubai’s Gilded Facade," which was followed up with "The Joke’s on us as Bling Central Loses its Sparkle."

These sorts of articles have a number of common characteristics. Essentially, they are all a broad condemnation comprising a number of salient points: the working conditions of imported labour; environmental concerns; the treatment of various Britons fallen foul of United Arab Emirates law for what are perceived to be minor crimes; and the general wastefulness of its inhabitants, particularly in the context of the global economic downturn.

The research visits appear to have been brief, generally less than a week, and contempt is also extended towards British visitors and residents.

Despite various stories of down-on-their-luck expats deep in debt, of cars being abandoned at the airport because repayments have become too much to handle, and so on, there are many in Dubai who are perceived to be having their cake and eating it at the expense of others.

Nonetheless, you do see better- and locally informed articles by Dubai residents. A few are written by authors of books on the emirate, and a number are by other residents writing under pseudonyms – but again, bombast is more memorable than balance.


It has been noticeable how across a variety of newspapers, a narrow stock of imagery has supplied descriptions. Dubai is frequently described as a monument to various things, most commonly ‘vanity / greed / hubris,’ or any combination thereof (Oliver Harvey, Sun, 7 December; Jon Henly, Guardian, 3 December; Richard Williams, Guardian, 1 December; Jeremy Warner, Daily Telegraph, 28 November; Jane Fryer, Daily Mail, 27 November).

Janice Turner in the Times described Dubai, somewhat opaquely, as a monument to "the cartoonish simplicity of male desire" (28 November).

There is also a more literate tack taken by some writers, which harks back to the aging conception of the Middle East in the Western classical imagination more than it draws on current, informative terminology.

Ozymandias, as Ramses II, the third Pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt, is known in the Greek sources, was the title of a Percy Bysshe Shelley sonnet of the Romantic period ruminating on the decline of empire, and has been referenced a number of times in recent coverage (Richard Williams, Guardian, 1 December; Rhys Blakely, Times, 28 November; editorial, Independent, 28 November).

As such, the poem of Ozymandias is not an obvious analogy for debt restructuring, while others less versed in the classics suggest a ‘last days of Rome’ feel to Dubai (Oliver Harvey, Sun, 7 December; John Arlidge and Jenny Davey, Sunday Times, 6 December; Hugh Tomlinson and James Mclean, Times, 5 December).

To bring this ‘imminent decline’ theme fully up to date, the headline "The Party’s Over" has been seen more than once this year (Carl Mortished, Times, 26 November, Paul Lewis, Guardian, 14 February).

However, the most common imagery to describe the problems faced by the emirate, as conceived by many journalists, is informed by the region’s geophysical constituency. There are numerous examples of analogies and metaphors involving sand and the desert:

– "built on shifting sands" (Robert Fisk, Independent, 11 December; editorial, Mirror, 28 November; editorial, Independent, 28 November)

– "head in the sand" (John Arlidge and Jenny Davey, Sunday Times, 6 December; Damian Reece, Telegraph, 1 December)

– "desert storm" (Nick Hasell, Times, 10 December; John Arlidge and Jenny Davey, Sunday Times, 6 December; Jeremy Warner, Telegraph, 1 December; Steve Hawkes, Vince Soodin and Richard White, Sun, 27 November)

– "just deserts" (John Arlidge and Jenny Davey, Sunday Times, 6 December; Jon Henly, Guardian, 3 December; John Arlidge and Sean O’Driscoll, Sunday Times, 29 November)

– "mirages" (inter alia: John Arlidge and Jenny Davey, Sunday Times, 6 December; Paul Kelso, Telegraph, 2 December; Karl West, Mail, 2 December; Carl Mortished, Times, 2 December; Peter Cunliffe, Daily Express, 1 December; David Teather, Observer, 29 November)

Cut & Paste

Some journalists have cut and pasted from previous articles they have written. One article by Jane Fryer in the Daily Mail in April 2006 described labourers who worked "12-hour shifts in blistering 45C heat, risking injury and death, to build this gleaming, marble-clad, tax-free city of dreams."

She used similar language three and a half years later (27 November 2009): "12-hour shifts in the blistering 45c heat, risking their lives to build this glistening city of dreams."

The issue is not whether Fryer had a point, but whether she had thought about it in the past three and a half years; this is not campaigning journalism.

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