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Arabia Felix.

By JONATHAN GORVETT.

IN DUBAI, I go to Deria and then first to Al Ras. There, at the back of the spice souk, the house of al-Oqaili is of coral and shell stone, sandalwood and straw – a womb-tomb of wooden logs, teak doors and windows.

Through its warren of rooms, a deep-shaded courtyard is where I find myself standing, half‑dazed in the long afternoon shadows. There is something about this rare, cool well of stopped time, tucked away from the bake of the streets and the slow boil of the Creek – a way to duck out of the souk’s crush, lose the 45°C heat.

Al-Oqaili – Mubarak bin Hamad bin Mubarak Al Manea al-Oqaili, to give him his full name – built this house back in 1923. A distinguished poet and advisor to sheikhs and emirs by the time he died in 1954, the house then crumbled, but was later rebuilt as a museum, back in 2012, and in one of the rooms, I notice the poet’s gun.

It is a small, ivory handled pistol, boxed in a mahogany and glass display case. Nearby, there is also a long letter to al-Oqaili, dated 1951, that bears the imperial stamp of the British Political Officer of the Trucial Coast, who likely deeply mistrusted al-Oqaili, an Arab nationalist. The letter is a warning to desist agitation and likely wasn’t the first such command, or the last.

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Because of his blindness, however, the British would not arrest al-Oqaili – or at least, that’s what it says in an explanatory panel. In his youth though, the poet had not been so fortunate, being born in 1890s in Al Ahsa, in what is now Saudi Arabia. Back then, that was an Ottoman province, where he was jailed repeatedly for much the same activity as he later pursued in Dubai.

Yet al-Oqaili later became more famous for his poetry than his political activism, writing both classical and Nabati poems – the latter a looser, more improvisational form written in vernacular Arabic.

In common with one major branch of this tradition, both styles were often deployed by al-Oqaili in praise of local rulers. He would not hold back, either. An ode he once wrote in praise of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, father of the current ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed, reads:

“Oh Rashid, is any glory left, or has it been completely taken by you?”

Al-Oqaili also wrote similar doggerel about Egypt’s pan-Arab president, Jamal Abdul Nasser, for whom he evidently had high hopes.

For now, though, I’m standing here in the silence, becoming a kind of exhausted space – all energy converted to mass. I sink down onto a small divan, the heat and partial relief of the courtyard generating this somehow compulsory, meditative state. Time slips off and sinks heavily away in the heat, sliding into the stifling outdoors of the Deira afternoon, leaving me in a limbo-land of steady fixation.

A TV screen in the corner cycles through a potted history of the house’s reconstruction, my eyes focused on it, seeing but not registering.

To have blundered into a deep well of non-cyclical time meant I had somehow contrived to leave the minutely divided and highly orchestrated data-scape of today’s Dubai.

This was quite an achievement, in retrospect. To have blundered into a deep well of non-cyclical time meant I had somehow contrived to leave the minutely divided and highly orchestrated data-scape of today’s Dubai. That’s no easy task. This is surely one of the most closely monitored cities on earth – at least, in the realm of the daily activities of its residents, if not when it comes to the colossal movements of wealth going through its financial district’s electronic portals.

Earlier that day, I had met with several execs from one of the most comprehensive of those electronic portals, too – Smart Dubai, the outfit bringing all this residential monitoring together. At their offices, a long way further down the Creek in Dubai Design City, there had been no receptionists, but instead a kind of giant iPhone in a lobby, asking me to tap on a series of icons until I got what I wanted. Naturally, I failed in the task, blundering about like a pensioner at a self-check-out in Tesco’s, finally to be assisted by a frustrated-looking, 20-something South Asian attendant.

A GOVERNMENT-BACKED entity, Smart Dubai’s aim is to amalgamate, crunch, process and possess every movement and desire into a single, all-imperial app called “DubaiNow”. When its work is done, one of the execs explained, you will be able to order a pizza, move house, get a passport, pay your gas, electricity and water bills (and traffic fines — the latter oddly hitched to the others like a kind of utility), turn your washing machine on and off from the other side of the city, and find the shortest route to the mall, all from one smartphone platform.

“Our goal is to bring every aspect of a person’s daily journey into a single online space,” a young Smart Dubai PR rep tells me, confidently.

At the end of all this, too, you will also be asked to rate your consequent level of happiness.

This apparently runs through a series of emojis, from frowning and unhappy to smiling and happy, with your click instantly registered and processed. At the end of the day, the aggregate happiness of the population is then sent to the Ruler himself, Sheikh Mohammed, for him to gauge the relative contentment of his subjects.

“He can also access this data in real time,” the Smart Dubai guy says, allowing His Excellency to see if Citizen A really appreciated that pizza, or was disgruntled about the waiting times at a particular traffic light in Burj Dubai. Happily, that day, “Around 89 percent clicked on the smiling emoji,” the PR man says. “We’re hoping to average 95% by 2022.”

Happiness is indeed officially what it’s all about here. It is not only the explicit rationale for Smart Dubai, but also for the emirate’s overall development plans, as well as for every government department’s actions.

On a trip to the education ministry, for example, (labelled the ‘Knowledge and Human Development Authority’) I am told that happiness is more important than grades.

On a trip to the education ministry, (labelled the ‘Knowledge and Human Development Authority’ – the KHDA) I am told that happiness is more important than grades. The old idea of school as a place to learn facts has now been replaced by school as a place to enable future well-being in a world where, I’m told, those now beginning their education will likely find two-thirds of the jobs currently existing non-existent by the time they leave.

Inside the department, things do seem oddly play-like, too. A pair of doves fly freely around the reception area, where a mix of black abaya and non-abaya-clad mothers talk with mainly non-abaya clad employees, children playing about them. Meanwhile, white thaub-clad assistants bring trollies of coffee, dates and water around the giant open plan office. No one who works here has a job description, or is asked for a CV when they show up looking for something to do. “HR made everyone unhappy,” one employee explains, “so we got rid of it”.

As for the doves, I’m told, “It turned out one of our hires had trained as a vet, so she looks after them. As we don’t take CVs, we had no idea she had that skill, but it all worked out in the end,” my source explains with a five-star emoji smile.

Upstairs is a boxing ring and a running track, along with a small amphitheatre for department board meetings, which are open to anyone to attend.

“People just see what we’re doing and find something they’re interested in and work on that here – or at home, if they prefer,” my source adds.

Later, in something of a daze of future shock, I stumble out of the building, only to trigger a sudden alarm.

“Are you alright sir?” asks one of the thaub-clad ones, rushing to my side.

It seems I have exited the building through the Red Portal, rather than the Green one, which stands next to it in the lobby. Red means unhappy with the service I was given, Green happy. There appears genuine concern that I might be disgruntled. I explain that I am perfectly fine, and turn to leave, but am then advised that I must walk back through Green, turn with a flourish and then exit back out again.

There is general relief and smiles when I comply – although this time, it’s more of a three-and-a-half star emoji, a happy-ish wave goodbye from my hosts. I imagine Sheikh Mohammed himself watching on some giant screen as another smiley face pops up, but noting that the smile was perhaps not quite good enough this time.

Why? he maybe wonders. Why is he so unhappy?

It is easy to mock, while for sure, the KHDA’s creativity, innovation and working patterns probably sound like heaven to many a civil servant. ­But what does the happiness at which all this is aimed really consist of?

Oddly, one place that is explicitly not interested in answering that question is Smart Dubai. Instead, they explain that they are concentrating solely on “what is needed to facilitate residents’ expressible, measurable sense of happiness,” as a bushy-tailed young Smart Dubai exec tells me.

An ‘ABCD’ of needs underscores this: “Affective needs, basic needs, cognitive needs, deeper needs,” he says. I can’t help but recall William S. Burrough’s definition of evil as “the naked face of need”, but before I can throw that in, the Smart Dubai man has already moved on to the next steps.

“First, we make an assessment of where Dubai currently stands in residents’ perceptions,” he says.

This is done in terms of how close people feel they are to satisfying those ABCDs (the ‘Discovery’ phase). After that comes the ‘Change’ phase, then the ‘Educate’ phase, and then the ‘Measure’ phase – with the process then neatly returning to ‘Discovery’ to begin the next cycle of improvement – of measurable movement towards a sense of happiness.

To help the process run smoothly and on track, “Happiness Champions” have been appointed to each government entity, “guiding happiness initiatives”, the Smart Dubai exec says, with a “Happiness Maturity Model” adopted to index happiness scores and show progress – or, presumably, regression. It is not stated in Smart Dubai’s literature, however, what penalties might await failure to mature one’s happiness, or, indeed, what powers the Happiness Champion might have if targets of contentment are not met – a big, frowny face, or something worse?

Whatever the case, ratings are the crucial component – the gasoline in the tank. The KHDA, for example, conducts well-being surveys of all its schools. In 2020, the Authority asked some 102,854 students to rate a variety of factors, in order to determine where they are exactly on the smiley scale. Satisfaction levels, interestingly, were a touch higher during that pandemic year (80.5% on average across ages and genders) than they had been back in non-pandemic 2018 (78.95%), when full surveys started.

Curious, one might think – and indeed, a reminder that the whole ratings business cannot help but cause a surge of unease for anyone who has had the misfortune of being hounded for reviews by Airbnb, booking.com, amazon and the like – which is probably almost everyone, by now. Like Soviet Gosplan economists receiving news of yet another bumper harvest – even in the middle of a famine – it is always another triumphant year, with progress on every front.

Yet, as Shoshana Zuboff points out in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,1 this largely bogus data has nonetheless become absolutely vital to the profit and power of those currently tugging at your sleeve.  This is not, however, particularly so that they can then adjust the particular service to take account of your criticisms, nor is it so much to use your five-star emoji enthusiasm as ‘proof’ of yet another dubious concept. Both of those are part of the survey’s value, but its main business is not to assess the service/product/Uber driver etc. in question, but rather, to assess you, the reviewer.

Finding out exactly what it is that you like or don’t like, that you do or don’t do during your “day’s journey” and how that made you feel (on a rating of one-to-five stars) enables companies to further commercialise every aspect of your life, crunching big data to target advertising directly at your particular ABCD of needs.

That personal, behavioural information is the real gold dust that corporates – and governments – will pay for, crunching it in immense databases and subjecting it to a range of fiendish algorithms.

That personal, behavioural information is the real gold dust that corporates – and governments – will pay for, crunching it in immense databases and subjecting it to a range of fiendish algorithms. Yet, while this data is thus an immensely valuable commodity, most people will give it away for free. Indeed, most of us are unable to recognise that our data even is a tradable commodity. Online services thus hand out beads in return for whole islands – worthless virtual stars, medals, balloons, ‘super-host’ status and so on – always in return for more free information, more intrusion and ultimately, as Google also demonstrates, super profits.

In Dubai, and the UAE more generally, a further aspect to this consists of the fact that the largest corporations and the government are essentially the same thing. The boards of all the big enterprises – typically in oil and gas, construction and real estate – also consist of the same people who constitute the ruling families of the “government”. The monarchical nature of the state – a ruling family supported by wider clan and tribal alliances – also provides a convenient match in attitudes and outlooks with the corporate, its power struggles taking place far away from any public participation, behind board room doors or, out here, palace walls.

Add into this mix, too, that a staggering 95 percent of the population in Dubai are expatriates, and Smart Dubai’s surveillance and management of spaces, streets and behaviours is also necessarily largely management and surveillance of outsiders by that seamless, corporate-government, or government-corporate. While this management of space long pre-dates Smart Dubai – long being a vital part of the segregation and identity politics at the base of all current Gulf societies – big data gives this ‘tradition’ huge new opportunities.

Indeed, executives from one software outfit I met were clearly excited by the level of technology they were able to play with. This was despite some reservations about “Big Brother”, or indeed, over the need for such systems at all in a city long noted for its extremely low crime rates.

“They can even stop crimes before they happen, soon,” said one, a Pakistani expat, echoing the claim of Brigadier Khalid Nasser Al Razouqi, head of Dubai Police’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) Department. He claimed at a 2018 Interpol conference that his police stations would be replaced by “robots, driverless vehicles and AI systems” by 2031, with these able to “predict crimes and traffic accidents”.

Indeed, in 2019, local papers claimed that in 2018, Dubai police had arrested “550 criminals” thanks to “AI”. Facial recognition systems are built into police cars, which can scan passers-by as they cruise along, as well as access all the data from traffic cameras and satellites – the same data Smart Dubai also accumulates and crunches.

Yet, as my Pakistani expat conceded, “There’s a really low crime rate anyway. Traffic violations, mostly” (all of which can now be paid off via a single app, of course). While exact figures are not often released, the number of ‘disturbing crimes’ in the whole of 2017 was just 25 in an emirate of three million people – a number that had fallen to just one in the first nine months of 2018, a feat attributed, naturally, to the deployment of AI.

In puzzling contrast, though, Dubai is also increasingly notorious as a place where international criminals seem to end up, often largely unmolested.

Recent examples include Daniel Kinnahan, the alleged Irish gang boss and Dubai resident who has relaunched himself as a boxing promoter from the emirate. Another is Sedat Peker, the alleged Turkish gangster who recently attracted some 60 million Turks to his YouTube broadcasts from Dubai, in which he apparently implicated senior Turkish politicians in murder and mayhem.2

It’s not really about the crime, in other words, but about the surveillance – the control, the instrumentalization and commercialisation of that “day’s journey”.

FOR NOW, THOUGH, I’m back at al-Oqaili’s house, in the deep, shaded cool of the shell and coral-stone, sandalwood and straw.

The materials here are ‘authentic’, in that they are the ones traditionally used on both sides of the Gulf to construct the houses of the comparatively wealthy.

Yet, the house itself – and the Iranian souk around it – may well not have looked like this at all in al-Oqaili’s day — or have even been in this exact spot.

Indeed, a widespread development in the Gulf states over the last few decades has been the creation of new ‘authentic’ districts, the most famous being the Souk Waqif in Doha, Qatar, where an entire neighbourhood of newly imagined ‘traditional’ market buildings was laid over a scrappy, largely 1970s-built South Asian market area.

Dubai’s equivalent is the Al Fahidi district, on the opposite bank of the Creek from al-Oqaili’s house. There, warrens of new-old buildings present the illusion of an older culture, now being offered as a commodity for touristic consumption. Akin to the UK Royal Family – Prince Charles was indeed one of the main movers behind Al Fahidi’s construction – the district promises emersion in a time of tradition and nobility that is perceived as having long disappeared elsewhere, yet has somehow been re-conjured here (without the slaves or grinding poverty, naturally). As too with the Windsors, this theme-park representationalism is also far from trivial. It speaks to a need to create the impression of something having long ago existed in order – its advocates might argue – to establish some current sense of identity and continuity.

Identity with whom and continuity with what are, of course, major questions, which Emirati poets (and others) often struggle with today. This is a country where poetry continues to be a major cultural pillar, too, recited on TV and at slams in Dubai Media City cafes. The wrong answer can also add up to a jail term, as imprisoned poet Ahmet Mansoor might testify. He has been in jail since 2017 after tweeting criticism of the UAE government. His phone – and his wife’s – were hacked by one of Smart Dubai’s more lethal associates, Dark Matter, the Emirati ‘cybersecurity firm’ whose version of surveillance capitalism very much stresses the first part of that phrase. They famously hire former US NSA contractors to hack the computers of local oppositionists and foreign journalists and take a very great interest in every aspect of their ‘daily journey’.

Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed, is also a poet, famously taking to Nabati verse to subtly signal his objections to the recent Emirati blockade of Qatar. He is perhaps more famous now, though, for his use of verse to attack his wives and daughters, particularly the ones who run off.

Your eyes contain affection, coyness and delight/But at times I glimpse through them a touch of reproach, says one of his most recent efforts.

No shit.

Al-Oqaili, however, would surely have recognised much of Sheikh Mohammed’s poetry and would probably have composed the odd paean to the Sheikh himself, had he been around nowadays. Subversive, challenging work this isn’t – or wasn’t, or really, couldn’t be, at least of the local leaderships. It was work designed to fit a customary need for a sense of identity with the past and its representational culture – in the Habermasian sense – even back in the early decades of the twentieth century. Its verses’ concerns are largely lineage and the reinforcing of aristocratic rule. Indeed, right there in the entrance to al-Oqaili’s house, the first thing the visitor sees is a presentation of al-Oqaili’s place in the Al Manea tribal identity parade.

Sitting in that shaded inner well of his house, too, I can’t help recalling the extreme contrast between this and the tossing away of CVs at the KHDA, where a conscious decision has been taken to eliminate all pasts in order to meet the future and ensure ‘happiness’. That both approaches are followed here, with both bearing the official stamp of government-corporate approval, illustrates one of the continuing conundrums (and fascinations) of the Gulf states.

In Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf,3 Miriam Cooke sees the current phase of this apparent dichotomy as a period of something like parallel play — of the “tribal” and the “modern” co-existing in the same place, without mixing. This takes place in a space she calls the barzakh. This is after a reference in the Koran – Surah al-Rahmaan 55:19-20 – to a place off the coast of Bahrain, where some remarkable undersea freshwater springs exist. There, salt and fresh water are both present, without mixing – a reference interpreted by some as symbolising the impenetrable barrier between life and death, this world and the next.

The barzakh – or “isthmus” – was also central to the twelfth-century Andalusian Sufi theologian and philosopher, Ibn Arabi. For him, this was the realm of the “imaginal” – a word not meaning “imaginary”, or still less, “fantasy”, but a kind of space of inner exploration, enabling the perception of higher realities.

Whether a stroll through the half-empty apartment blocks of Dubai Marina, or along the baking, cement-dust-coloured beaches of Palm Jumeirah enables such a transcendence is highly debatable, however. In this Fatah Morgana of concrete and steel towers, the only visible inhabitants are often sweating South Asian labourers or bright pink Westerners, like me, scurrying from air conditioning unit to air conditioning unit.

For Justin Thomas, however, in his Psychological Well-being in the Gulf States: the New Arabia Felix, the apparent dichotomy of tribal and modern shows states in which “traditional social structures and other conservative forces” are skilfully directing, managing and “perhaps moderating” the process of globalisation in their territories.4

After meeting Smart Dubai, however, one might counter by saying that instead, the technologies and techniques – and huge wealth – made available by globalisation are being used here to direct, manage and perhaps moderate, perhaps enhance the continuing political and economic dominance of those traditional and conservative forces. Backing them up in this are the huge forces of international capital, too, whose weird interdependence with the Gulf aristocracies is most vividly displayed any lunchtime here in the Dubai International Finance Centre, an enormous outstation of the City of London. Running under English law, its bars and restaurants fill up at mid-day with folk who often literally just got off a plane from London City Airport.

There is something about replacing police with robots, too, or indeed, replacing the state itself with electronic surveillance and ‘happiness coordinators’ that might also seem additionally attractive in a state lacking the simple numbers of citizens to fulfil the normal functions of governance, leaving it currently dependent on armies of foreign labourers. Replace those and the problem of aristocratic governance itself posed by Jürgen Habermas – the way the single, overwhelming ‘representational’ culture of the aristocracy gets inevitably challenged by the multiple voices of merchants, then capitalists – might just go away. The ruler becomes granter of all wishes, fulfiller of all your ABCD of needs – controller not only of all he surveys, but of all surveys.

Perhaps. Clearly Habermas is on many minds here, though. He was even awarded the AED1 million Sheikh Zayed Book Award back in May this year, a prize the 91-year old German philosopher and sociologist then returned, saying he had disagreements with the “existing political system” in the UAE.

This was deeply regretted by the awards panel – presumably, with a very, very frowny smile.


Jonathan Gorvett is a journalist and writer who has spent many years as an international correspondent, with a particular focus on the Middle and Near East. He currently resides on Cyprus.

  1. Zuboff, S. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Palgrave
  2. Peker was finally brought in for questioning by Dubai police on June 13, 2021, after more than a month of YouTube video releases. He was released after a few hours, maintaining that his appearance had been voluntary and not a detention.
  3. Cooke, M, Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf, University of California Press (2014)
  4. Thomas, J. Psychological Well-being in the Gulf States: The New Arabia Felix, p. 4, Palgrave Macmillan (2013)
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