Often when I find myself in a faraway land I stop to take a minute, perhaps seated on a dock surrounded by the sounds and smells of fishermen and their craft or lounging unseen against an old wall beside a fruit stand to contemplate, filling if only for a moment the shoes of Marco Polo, of Amerigo Vespucci or Alexander Gordon Laing. To see things through eyes fresh; to experience the unknown, un-judging. That is hard these days, in a world become smaller and where our “cyber interactions (have…) wrought a more claustrophobic and ferociously contested world.” Places we know only enough about to sanction our deeply held misconceptions of the way things ‘should be’ as they blind us to the way they are changing, and what they are becoming. “…a world in which territory still matters, and where every crisis interacts with every other as never before.”
We like to think that things abide; it gives us a sense of comfort and constancy. We are surprised when we return from a long trip abroad to discover that our children have grown. We are amazed at a new shopping mall erected beside our house during our sojourns; the replacement of our favorite taco joint with a sushi franchise – unfamiliar neighborhoods and streets where before there was only desert. Worse perhaps, more disturbing is the transience which is not progress. Yes, we stare as tourists at the ruins of the Parthenon in Greece and the Mosque of the Booksellers in Marrakesh as comforting reminders of past greatness but long after time wiped away the sharp edges of catastrophe, of empire fallen and tragedy un-averted, leaving us with a warm glossed over golden memory. “Wasn’t it always like that?” we ask naively even as we watch while in Venezuela mechanical escalators over which flowed the tide of human prosperity seize up and rust over, elegant atriums that once held stalls of colorful candies fill with water and snakes. As empty outlets over which can still be read the famous names are now become empty except for the cries of new-born poor and the barefoot echoes of idle children at play.
The world is changing – Westphalia is ending. Our maps are being redrawn, as we return to the age of the city-state. “…because of the erosion of both hard boundaries and cultural differences, the map will manifest a continuity of subtle gradations…” as Robert Kaplan eloquently states. These gradations represent a hard nexus where political will meets governmental control and economic opportunity. The seats of empire – large and small – these days protect only their elites who dwell in relative luxury, citizens of Elysium. Radiating out from these nuclei are the places where people live as the inverse of epicenter, one which preserves the center but exudes destruction in incremental waves of neglect farther afield; heralding a new instability. These new city-states mirror the ancient nations they could not safeguard. Karachi and Lagos and Mexico City; Kinshasa and Abidjan and Dhaka – chaotic and violent and ungoverned, ceding control as they have successively to the hinterlands as they desperately seek to stem the tide of anarchy in their ever-spreading fringes. Abandoning the interior – and what about the people? Because they are still there – though they are rarely considered anymore. People who roam the borderless worlds, to traffic in illicit goods or join one of the myriad jihadi or gang operations to safeguard their lives and give themselves a future – such as it will be. “…loose molecules in a very unstable social fluid, a fluid that was clearly on the verge of igniting…” And who wants to be around when it goes? That combustible compound saturating the ungoverned spaces in between, somehow distending them; volatility moving as osmosis infecting once stable lands; making them explosive.
And it’s happening all over – empty villages for sale in Spain; makeshift camp towns on the English Channel where you are more likely to hear Arabic or Somali than English or French. Whole countries emptying out – able bodied fleeing to search for opportunity leaving behind a panicked aristocracy, crusted and brittle. Rusted out factory towns in Iowa – new ghost towns emerging to squat beside the old ones in Nevada and Oklahoma and Kansas – remains of the past in a world that is moving on. Slower in some places – faster in others; California’s accelerating decline juxtaposed against sanctuary states free of the folly – like Arizona and Texas – but for how long?
Dubai of course belongs to one of the ‘special status’ city-states in the new world order. Like Hong Kong and Singapore – and perhaps Reykjavik – Dubai is fortunate to be free of home-grown poor. It is small, newly constructed. Fresh perhaps. To be sure, there are imported poor – Pakistani cab drivers and Philippino retail workers and Indian construction workers – but they are not the concern of the Emirates. They are disposable, as the rigorous health screening before issuing worker visas shows; and they are there of their own volition and hold no claim on the attentions of the Sheikh. This is not a criticism – nations have enough trouble with their domestic concerns to be saddled with the weight of others; that is after all the beauty of sovereignty as a two way street, a right and a responsibility that suffers no foolishness. The stakes are too high.
All these considerations are existentially political. Dubai might be able to escape – small populations and privileged geography married to good ideas and the willingness to compromise, to make deals, to have grown-up discussions with people who are different as each seeks their own selfish interest, for them and their people clear-eyed and cold. But in Turkey, in Iran and in South Africa and in Venezuela – where resentment feeds ideology as those with equal claim to protection battle each other on the streets and across borders that have become like cheesecloth, no longer seeming to either contain or protect but only accentuate that for which they no longer serve. Or Europe, which has pushed its ‘social democracy’ to the limits of viability and has begun to “dissolve from within and from without (…). And with it the west.”
This is the world into which Dubai is striding – boldly I might add. Frivolously some say, but clear as to its role, who it benefits and who are its benefactors; not claiming any duty beyond that which is defined by birth and geography. Yes, I think the future belongs to Dubai – to Hong Kong and Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Models which do not extend their protection beyond what they believe is reasonable – and take no shame in being compared to Atlantis, instead of to Rome and the USSR.