World city aspirations


For this reason, Dubai’s urban entrepreneurialism will be evaluated not in rational economic or eulogistic terms, but in recognition of the sociological dimensions of these mega-projects for the city’s pre-existing social divisions (Levi 2009, p. 5). With that in mind, attention should now be turned towards the way sociologists have made linkages between globalization, global cities and the socio-spatial order. Most theorists concur that globalization redefines the relationship between territoriality, economic organization and social processes (Robinson 2009, p.8).

There also appears to be consensus that cities and the dynamics of urbanization have been changed by the intensi? cation of globalized flows of financial capital (Nijman, 2000; Robinson 2009; Samers, 2002). Divergence occurs when however it comes to determining the spatial and social implications of these processes, with some heralding the end of geography (Castells 1996) whilst others exalt the redundancy of spatial referents in the construction of identities (Appadurai 1996).

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Two of the most provocative claims regarding the effects of global city formation emerged from Freidman (1995) and Sassen’s (1996) theorizing about the polarization of social class divisions and a dualized labour market as a result of the emerging global city hierarchy. Particularly relevant to this discussion is Sassen’s (1996) argument that large cities are far more concrete places for social struggles than the national political system as the appropriation of urban space is divvied between the corporate complex and the immigrant community.

Even though Dubai may not qualify as a global city for Sassen, given her emphasis like Hall’s that global cities function as command centers of the national economy, the conclusions she makes in relation to the new entitlement claims to place and to citizenship are applicable to Dubai and will be used to guide this investigation of the emirate’s global-local dynamics. According to Sassen (in Robinson 2009, p. 17), economic globalization has been reproduced in the social geography of the global city as spatial and class apartheid.

Such kind of dual or partitioned city is evident in the sharp increases in spatially concentrated poverty in Dubai, as the older suburbs of Deira and Al Satwah house lower-paid immigrants while the more recently constructed gated-communities of the Arabian Ranches and the Hills attract foreign investors and wealthy European expatriates (Al Damarki 2008, p. 209). The most iconic manifestation of this ‘spatial apartheid’ however is the segregation of labourers into worker camps like Sonapur that are located 15 km away from the city as a means to prevent them tarnishing the image of Dubai (Kaye 2010, p.136).

To make the claim that that this concept of partitioned cities is unrealistic because it neglects the agency of the city’s mobile inhabitants (Van Kempen 2005), is to ignore how power is manifested in more subtle forms of exclusion. Much of Dubai’s viability is strictly dependent on ‘invisible power’, which can be exercised only with the complicity of those who do not want to know that they are subject to it (Bourdieu 1991, p. 164).

Exclusive clubs and lobbies, gated seven-star hotels and jet-set malls example geographic forms of symbolic power as their access is not hindered by force, but by their price and inaccessibility via public transport (Acuto 2010, p. 281). Even if the degree of exclusion appears to be minimal (almost anyone could enter the Dubai Mall for example), the form and function of the residences on the Jumeirah Palm Islands and even the developments like the Internet City and the Media City have a preconceived ”in-built user” that is hardly tailored towards the low-income inhabitant (Latour, 1992).

The irony that these latter city-within-a-city projects lie on the peripheries of Dubai but function as major facilitators of global flows of information communications technology and capital, is the strongest confirmation of the new geography of marginality and centrality that has emerged as a result of Dubai’s global city aspirations (Sassen 1996, p. 207). As alluded to above, spatial restructuring influences not only the possibilities for movement, but for claims to citizenship and the consciousnesses of those who interact with the urban environment, be they inhabitants or transient ‘guests (Sassen, 1999).

Since the emirate’s urbanism project is predicated upon ”demand-oriented planning” (Bagaeen, 2007, p. 175), commissioned mainly to foreign Western architectural firms, hotels and leisure buildings account for 90% of projects under construction and are primarily aimed at creating comfort zones for the short-term visitor (Al Damarki 2008, p. 184). The most obvious consequence of building infrastructure for the wealthier margins of the market is the overt alienation of the invisible working class (Davis 2007).

The idea that disadvantaged workers in global cities, namely women, immigrants, and people of color, lack a political sense of self and struggle to find their identities embedded in the “nation” (Sassen 1996, p. 206) is concurrently reflected in the ambiguity of Dubai’s famous architectural landmarks. Take for example the acclaimed Burj Al Arab hotel, whose dhow shaped fai?? ade was instrumentalized by the Maktoum dynasty to showcase to newcomers the city’s original seafaring roots (Al Damarki 2008, p. 189).

Many Emirati nationals consider the icon to be a gross deformation of tradition, especially since the intersecting mast and cross beam of the hotel appear as the largest cross in Arabia when it is viewed from the Palm island side or offshore (Al Damarki 2008, p. 190). Thus, the attempt to ascertain a local identity in relation to a migrant population through the hybridized iconography of structures like the Burj hotel or the Jumeirah Beach Hotel has not translated into either the assimilation of the expats, or the construction of a more multi-ethnic Arab societal basis (Al Damarki 2008, p. 190).

As the dominant forms of architectural iconicity for the global city become increasingly driven by those who own and control the corporate sector (Sklair 2006, p. 21), Dubai’s urban entrepreneurialism has consequently led to the exclusionary expression of symbolic power over place in a way that privileges a certain kind of elite and transient consumer above all others. Critics are quick to point out that Sassen neglects to deal with agency adequately as she gives the impression that the polarizing effects of enclave living are absolute, immutable and ultimately irreversible upon a passive underclass (Van Kampen, 2005).

While scholars wax lyrical about the potential of these mega projects to contribute to increasing polarization, the methodology used to measure these changes is circumspect (Andersen 2002). An emergent body of research dubbed ‘second wave globalism’ by Michael Peter-Smith (2001, p. 236) has begun to respond to this growing criticism by employing the heuristic of ‘transnationalism’ to observe informal relations of dominance, accommodation, resistance as they occur simultaneously in the everyday practices and lives of individuals (e. g.Ley 2005).

One such example of ‘transnationalism’ in Dubai is El Sheshtawy’s (2008) discovery of how marginalized low income South-Asian migrants circumvent official policy by ‘occupying’ and ‘taking over’ left-over and forgotten districts of the city in Satwa and Baniyas Square. Construction workers and a few Arab nationals stake their claims to these spaces in a very public way, through graffiti, drug use and loitering, constituting an act of resistance to globalizing in? uences in the architecture around them (El Sheshtawy 2008).

Yet these acts of agency do not necessarily reverse the polarization of the present and can be acknowledged in tandem with the idea that a sense of deprivation persists amongst the labourer class as the administrative and business sectors reap the benefits of accelerated capital flows. Even if the effects of social upheaval are difficult to identify in a city where political mobilization and trade unions are illegal, Sassen’s (1996) articulation of how global cities privilege the owners of capital has to a large extent materialized in Dubai.

Ultimately, the argument that life in the emirate has so far continued very peacefully in spite of the pervasive ethnic division of labour which repeats itself in all aspects of life (Sabban 2005, p. 18), does not negate Sassen’s argument about global cities operating as sites of global control but reinforces it. Cities which operate as sites for transnational labour flows have received scant attention in the political economy of world city formation.

Approaching the case study of Dubai from a sociological dimension reveals how there is a genuine avenue for future research about how the desire to be achieve primacy on the global city hierarchy has accelerated not only rapid alterations to the urban form but the extent of inequalities between differing social groups. While it is in vogue to consider the financial and ecological implications of these mega-projects, too few have taken into consideration how pre-existing social polarization has become even more pronounced territorially and symbolically as a result of the Dubai model of urban development.

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