The two worlds of Dubai
FOR the past several years, every New Year's Eve has featured a stunning display of fireworks at the Burj Khalifa, the sky-skimming behemoth that looms large over Dubai's skyline. Like so much else in the emirate, the building is a statement that sums up the syncretic possibilities of the present-day Gulf, the modern and capitalist slapped onto the traditional and archaic.
The fireworks are a part of that larger show, a steroidal extravaganza to demonstrate that modernity and monarchy can coexist and, in fact, produce unbounded largesse.
A few hours before 2015 ended, a fire of another sort broke out before the hubbub of the Burj Khalifa fireworks. The higher floors of The Address Downtown Dubai, which is a downtown luxury hotel located not too far from the Burj Khalifa, were engulfed in flames, or more precisely in an inferno that was visible for miles around. An uncontrolled blaze (it took four hours for the firefighters to tame it) very close to an organised display of pyrotechnic excess hence became a fiery metaphor in the sky.
The blaze did not stop the fireworks show at the Burj Khalifa. Everyone who saw the display could also see the smoky remnants of the unintended catastrophe, a scar on the beautifully made-up face of the bride of the Gulf. Those who believe in Dubai's glory and partake in whatever way they can of its expatriate excesses and exploitations, looked only at the fireworks; the rest of the world wondered at the ethics of a celebration that took place so close to the scene of destruction.
In moments of crisis, however, there is also opportunity. In this case, it was the emirate's public relations machine that took what was fast turning into a story of heartless and callous celebration close to the scene of catastrophe and turned it into a win-win situation for the ruling monarchy.
ON HIS MAJESTY'S SERVICE
It turns out that among the firefighters battling the flames at The Address was none other than an actual prince, one of Sheikh Rashid Mohammed Rashid Al-Maktoum's children. A picture tweeted by Gulf News featured Sheikh Mansoor Mohammed Al-Maktoum, a strapping young man clad in fire gear, standing among others who were engaged in fighting the blaze.
The Britain-based Independent newspaper noted that Sheikh Mansoor was the chairman of the Dubai International Marine Sports Club, undoubtedly just one of the many titles that the sons of monarchs automatically obtain. His Instagram page, the paper noted, also showed him in military uniform.
How often the prince fights fires in Dubai is unknown and will likely never be known. Also not known is whether he was deliberately called in to fight this high-profile fire, whose proximity to Dubai's largest extravaganza of the year ensured some international publicity.
Those who are used to monarchies would, of course, find it laudable that a prince so entitled and blessed would do any such service at all. Others more sceptical and less reverential may wonder whether "firefighter" is just one among the many titles that princes automatically obtain and a role they erratically fulfil.
Whatever the details of Sheikh Mansoor's career as a firefighter may be, the episode does reveal a new pressure on Gulf monarchies that may not have existed previously. In a world turning towards green energy and a Middle East in the throes of conflagration, the right to rule based on accidents of birth may not be as revered and untouchable as it was once deemed.
While Dubai is no Saudi Arabia, its ruler and princes do enjoy a lifestyle of excess and largesse that has been the subject of much scrutiny and criticism in the past few years.
Sheikh Mansoor's older brother, Crown Prince Hamdan, is known to be one of the richest royals in the world, often throwing his wealth around at horse races and car shows. Recent posts on the official Facebook page maintained by the Dubai government showed him holidaying in San Francisco and Vancouver over the winter break. Perhaps if he had been in residence, he too could have participated in extinguishing the fire that broke out on New Year's Eve.
PRINCES AND PAUPERS
There are other less flattering accounts of Dubai's princes and their doings. There were reports that Sheikh Rashid, Crown Prince Hamdan's older brother and the heir, had a severe drug problem.
Perhaps this and a mysterious incident involving the death of a palace staff member (reported in a WikiLeaks US diplomatic cable) led to Sheikh Rashid's demotion and the elevation of his younger brother to the position of crown prince.
In September last year, the rejected Sheikh Rashid, who was then only 33 years of age, died under mysterious circumstances that, like so much else of what happens within Dubai's inner circles of power, remain unclear.
The good sons of Dubai continue to live on, however. The current Crown Prince, according to the official Facebook page devoted to him, is a poet and his songs often turned into pop ditties to boost his popularity. The new princes of Dubai, for all their wealth, seem dependent on this sort of acclaim, on being loved and liked.
It is notable that in a war-ravaged Middle East, kings and princes, with their wealth and acts of profligacy, stand out against the hapless want and weariness of millions of those dying in conflict, some of whose bodies wash up on Western shores.
Against the macabre reality of their losses and trials, of the bombed-out cities and barren villages, it is hard to laud the heroism of a firefighter prince, or even an emerging poet king.
But as the example of the Burj Khalifa fireworks demonstrates, the rulers have deemed that their show must go on, even if desperation and destruction lurk so very close by.
DAWN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK