Saturday, 28 April 2018

Dubai and The Impossibility of Urban Doom; or, Why Gentrification is Impossible in the UAE

On 28 November 2015, an article published in the Financial Times claimed that gentrification was a “latecomer” to Dubai. The piece, which would have benefitted from greater research, angling, and critical thought, reported on Dubai’s gentrification phenomenon — that emerged after the 2008 financial crash, hence ‘late’ — which converted older, ‘gritty’ neighborhoods, such as Satwa and Karama, into creative and leisure spaces. The crux of the short article was that these new urban typologies stand in contrast to the city’s corporate, fast-paced urban culture; and that was about it.

On the ground, in Dubai, however, there is a more nuanced interpretation to how inhabitants are contextualizing the term in their surroundings. They are associating gentrification with several developments occurring in Dubai and Sharjah’s older urban spaces, that have been appropriated into newer, slicker versions of themselves, or development projects that have overhauled what used to be there into leisure, residential, and retail experiences, usually, outdoor malls lined with expensive restaurants/cafes, novelty/concept stores, boutique hotels, and green space.

In light of these urban changes, some inhabitants have expressed grief over the loss of these older neighborhoods, as it demonstrates the city’s favoritism for neoliberal affluence and causes the displacement of residents, who are from poor and middle-income classes, or from older generations, and from specific racial and professional backgrounds: Asian, and manual/clerical, respectively. They explain that these districts are realized, not only through changes in surface and income-level, but, expressed through changes in ‘feeling’ and social characteristic. Consequently, what this development works to reinforce is the overwhelming melancholy of living in the UAE’s cities that continually adapt landmarks and communities, along with their extant social memories and interpersonal relations, in favor of new, hip, and polished societies and businesses.

Now, this form of redevelopment exists in the UAE, but diagnosing it as gentrification is clumsy, misinformed, and convenient, because the UAE’s built landscape cannot be comprehended through available models. The inhabitation of the UAE’s landscape requires, and continues to demand, an inventive imagination and occupation, so, when the urban landscape is addressed, an equivalent qualitative standard must be employed.

First, what inhabitants are witnessing in the UAE is the aesthetics of the gentrification mode and not the actual process. The gentrification mode can be best described as ‘performative living’, an international urban polity that expresses itself through consumer choice, such as bespoke lifestyle, health, and fitness products and services. The gentrification process, meanwhile, is a western metric, that is specific to some locations and their political imaginaries. Diagnosed in late 60s London and later in New York, it was theorized because of economic shifts, from manufacturing to service and creative-knowledge industries, which led to functional rearrangements in the local real-estate market, especially in the urban center, coupled with new consumer, ideological attitudes, such as DIY philosophies, environmentalism, and interracial social integration.

The UAE’s contemporary situation, meanwhile, emerged with the globalized tertiary-sector economy, and did not experience a de-industrial transitional society, as other places had. The gentrification critique, however, assumes that this socio-economic transition is inherent to the impacted district’s social history, which, in the UAE’s case, is not plausible. Rather, the connection of Western style gentrification to the UAE reveals the ongoing and wide-reaching affliction of its imagined postcolonial condition, which insists upon the superiority and unity the West, and the UAE’s aspiration towards it, as well as the conception of the West as a locked present that has exported some of its consumer freedoms, and liberal psyche, to the UAE.

The Western-centrism of gentrification is implied in its ideological construction, too, which portrays it as a conflict between deregulated property-led investor capital and the positivist politics of the welfare state and civic nationalism. The UAE’s apparatus, however, does not operate from the Atlantic mantra of civic freedoms and liberties, instead, it advocates for consumerist emancipation, industrial education, and secular, tolerant, de-politicized cosmopolitan subjects. As in, the built landscape is an embrace of capitalist ways of being, not an opposition to it, which, yet again, suggests that the transposal of gentrification is an awkward one.

This economic framework of the country, moreover, does not operate unknowingly on an imported people through subterfuge and trickery, as some media figures and social critics like to posit, but a trade-off performed for offshored social, economic, and political aims. Therefore, a better way to frame local gentrification is to not look for it in the built landscapes of the UAE, but to think about how a similar process might occur in the place one left from, or the place one might migrate to after their lived experience in the UAE, given the high rate of remittances, materials, and aspirations exported out of the Gulf; it is people who gentrify, and not some external cultural and economic force.

Third, gentrification processes assume that urban settlement is permanent and that population is intergenerational. Apart from the Emirati population, most UAE residents are born elsewhere and projected to die elsewhere as well. The process also assumes that intergenerational gaps are synonymous with changes in domestic behaviour, and that people express these changes through inter-urban or inter-nation relocation (gentrifiers tend to be the young who flee their parents, and their own, suburbanization). In the UAE, the demographic system is very dynamic and migration flows are very accelerated, composed mostly of singles and bachelors/ettes who arrive from other countries on 2–3 year work contracts. The gentrification model, then, is limited as it cannot account for the kafala system, and mass-transnational relocation processes, such as those prevalent in the UAE, as well as living structures bound to the duration of an employment contract.

Fourth, land in the UAE is not distributed on principles of georgism, wherein value generated from land is shared equally by all of its inhabitants, which gentrification bases its economic thinking on. Land in the UAE is an absolute structure that is strategically donated and gifted. Therefore, developers in the UAE, especially locally-based ones, are not real-estate offices in the classic sense of the profession because they are not businesses justified by a supply/demand chain solely; or, at least developers accused of gentrification are not, such as, Meeras and Al Serkal Avenue in Dubai, and Shurooq and Sharjah Art Foundation in Sharjah. They are bureaucracies, and allies of the State, who do not face the fear of immediate bankruptcy.

Urban development and public work programmes, meanwhile, are mandated by a centralized governmental system, through a variety of direct and indirect ways, mostly through the promises of architectural renders — a perfected tabula rasa model, in which the ‘barren’ landscape awaits the imposition of capital on its surfaces. Therefore, land value is not calculated for proximity to agricultural crops, or inherited from accumulated infrastructural, real-estate, or informational value (except for strategic port routes and oil-field sites). Rather, most of the UAE’s built landscape is made, narrated, and imagined into a financial reality; like it is all over the metropolitan world.

Fundamentally, what the UAE’s environmental and urban mentality reveals, historically and presently, is that it is a mobile, almost piratical, entity that does not cultivate, legally or otherwise, systems for settler sedimentation, thereby making gentrification, and other urban models, inapplicable. The use of gentrification locally, especially to distinguish between the ‘gentrified’ and ‘displaced’, is not attentive or considerate of inhabitants’ relation to their immediate surroundings and sense of ‘here’-ness, as living in the UAE is a multiversal experience, rather than a singular, fixed one.

In consideration of these itinerant dynamics, price and space in the UAE must change to indicate to its inhabitants the prospect of becoming the gentry, otherwise, the purpose of relocating to, and populating, the UAE is made obsolete. The place’s economic logic and emotional landscape practices income desirability, not only the collection of income, and so to perpetuate this desire, urban space must continually reinvent itself to keep people longing and to keep people working.

No comments:

Post a Comment