Dubai, February 2017
“We need to do more for energy, more for gender equality, more for solid infrastructure.” Malta’s prime minister Joseph Muscat was speaking from the stage of the World Government Summit, a star-studded event with Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson among the entrepreneurs, economists and humanitarians in attendance.
While his statement drew applause from the 4000 attendees, it rang a little hollow. The summit was being held in Dubai, UAE, which its ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al Maktoum likes to call: “the city of a thousand and one lights”. And it is hard not to get impressed as you walk around the city, your gaze constantly drawn upward, as your mind attempts to take in the sheer size of everything.
But it’s a city with two sides. While the Western workers walk through glitzy malls, earn huge salaries and live in massive homes, the migrant labourers are being shuttled across the city in anonymous white busses. They have few rights and are paid very little, but have played a central role in enabling the city to literally rise from the sand over the past two decades.
Dubai holds an impressive number of records when it comes to consumption – it is one of the world’s largest producers of energy, and one of the highest consumers of energy as well. In only six years its energy consumption rose 73.8 percent per capita, while CO2 emissions rose 49.4 percent between 2004 and 2010.
On the last day of the World Government Summit, Sheikh Mohammed launched his Dubai 10X plan. The goal is to get 10 years ahead of all other cities in the world. In his speech, he talked about disruption, the future of governance, and radical change. They are all trendy topics, but will the Dubai of the future also have poorly-paid migrant workers living long distances from the buildings they help create? Can Dubai remain a tourist and business hub, lit by a thousand lights and one lights, and also address its wasteful energy use?
Pearls have been hunted for millennia, in the waters of the Persian Gulf off Dubai’s coast. And, perhaps, a pearl is an apt metaphor for what Sheikh Mohammed wants Dubai to become – a rare treasure in an inhospitable wilderness. But is a pearl still a pearl, if it’s covered in soot? M