Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Flights of Fancy in the UAE

"It's the biggest in the word!"

Used to be, America was home to the world's biggest stuff.

But that was then.  This is now.  The tiny cluster of seven Persian Gulf principalities called the United Arab Emirates has put our world on notice:  they are in a race with China and other developing countries to out-build the West, and America in particular.  They want the biggest and best of everything.

But then again, how many of us don't?

With the UAE, however, oil money goes a long way to getting you what you want.  If you're keeping score, Dubai has already built itself the world's largest dancing fountain, the world's largest and most-visited shopping mall, and the world's tallest building, while Abu Dhabi boasts the world's largest Rolls-Royce dealership.  Now we can add to this list of "world's biggest baubles" the world's biggest airport.  It opened Sunday in Dubai, with the arrival of - get this - a plane of 100 Hungarians.

No joke.

Technically, Al Maktoum International Airport isn't the world's largest airport - yet.  Its cargo facilities have been in service since 2010, but the broader effort to create what is projected to be the world's largest airport has been beset by delays, and won't be completed until 2027.  Nevertheless, with the landing of cut-rate carrier Wizz Air's inaugural flight from Bucharest, yet another super-sized airport for the developing world has begun to take off.  Two more passenger carriers - another discount airline from Kuwait, and a full-service airline from Bahrain - will join Wizz Air's operations as the $33 billion airport continues to conquer the airport industry.

Dubai already has another international airport in another part of town, and it's already the13th-busiest in the world.  It handled 58 million passengers last year in its own nearly-new, state-of-the-art designer terminal.  However, that's not good enough for the UAE, since Al Maktoum is being built for 160 million passengers per year.

Meanwhile, the world's current busiest airport, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson, handled 95 million passengers last year.  And have you ever met anybody who has anything positive to say about their experience at Hartsfield?  Which begs the question:  can an airport be built that can satisfactorily process an additional 65 million passengers annually?

And if the world's commercial airspace needs that kind of capacity at one facility, is the UAE the ideal locale for it?  Those emirates aren't exactly the largest of countries, either in population, or land mass.  And although their economies are booming now, what happens when the oil runs out?  What happens if other oil countries that have already started diversifying their economies manage to parlay their riches into other successful ventures first?

Miracle Mirage on the Desert

For all of its pretensions, Dubai never really had a lot of oil to begin with, so it's been banking its future on becoming some sort of bizarre amalgamation of Las Vegas, Manhattan, and Hawaii, subversively tempered by a moderate Islamic vibe.  Their brand of Islam isn't as hard-lined as Saudi Arabia's, which is already the major tourism destination for Muslims, thanks to their religion's Hajj to Mecca.  So the UAE's hoping their veil of moderation can help them forge a more nuanced reality.

So far, despite some financial hiccups during the global recession, things seem to be clicking along for them.  Expatiates with American corporations find the UAE's oversized bling just awe-inspiring enough to compensate for their worries about drinking alcohol in public.  The burgeoning throngs of middle and upper income tourists from China, Russia, and India have yet to tire of the UAE's sand and scorching heat.  And Europe's nouveau riche love being pampered by the plentiful and dirt-cheap domestic servants staffing the emirates' gaudy hotels.

As long as you don't think about how any of it is sustained, the UAE can make a lot of sense.

But let's go ahead and think about it, shall we?

What would happen, for instance, if militant Islam gathers steam in that part of the world, and crushes even more personal liberties than moderate Islam currently does?  Ostensibly, the UAE tolerates religions other than Islam, but foreigners brought to court are tried by Sharia law.  And the watchdog group Human Rights Watch holds a dismal view of the UAE's record on torture, free speech, and women's rights.

Then there are the human rights abuses critics are already uncovering in the nearby kingdom of Qatar, readying to play host for the 2022 World Cup, and an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood.  We already know that much of the UAE has been built from scratch with what even pro-business Western capitalists would call slave labor from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines.  But all of those countries straddling the Persian Gulf appear to have the same mindset when it comes to democracy (against it), law and order (by the book - the Quran, that is) and the oppressed laborers who are building their skylines (who?).

Defenders of the UAE's stunning and provocative rise from the desert point to America's history and how we set the standard for always striving for bigger and better things.  But aren't we supposed to learn from history, and take pains to not repeat what was bad, and be diligent to work for what was good?  Just as America's history with slavery was no glorious epoch, and indeed has contributed significantly to the social disparities that persist to this day in our country, so neither can the way most workers are being treated in the Persian Gulf's construction-crazy countries be justified simply because other countries have done it.

Dune Bubble?

And let's talk economics here.  It's not like the UAE, Qatar, and their kindred countries are responding to a resounding demand for all of this construction from market-driven economic forces.  In America and the West, new office towers and shopping malls need to be planned and executed to address reasonable economic expectations.  In other words, can you build something without going bust?  In the UAE, such practicality apparently is for infidels.  Sure, there is a measure of demand, but there's also an overwhelming amount of fanatical hubris on the part of its autocratic, patriarchal, and provincial monarchies.  Sure, Dubai managed to plant within its kindgom the world's tallest man-made (actually, male-slave-made) structure, the Burj Khalifa, and it's a feat of engineering.  But such towers - many of them being built in developing Islamic or Communist countries - seem to defy logic.

Fortunately for the spindly Burj Khalifa, it's just audacious enough of a conversation piece to have attracted plenty of wealthy foreigners who wanted to purchase the supertower's private luxury apartments.  Not because they needed them, of course, but for their novelty, and their prestige factor back home in countries where owning an apartment in a tower stuck into the sand - (literally - it's the sheer force of sand's friction that keeps its foundation in place) - is something to be admired.  Its residential success helps hide the fact that hardly any of its office space has been filled.  Indeed, across Dubai, the office vacancy rate is 35%, which itself isn't a bad figure for a business district that didn't even exist twenty years ago.  But the entire UAE is trying to create a whole new economy for itself out of real estate.  Just because enough people are willing to go along with them doesn't mean it's not one big, sandy bubble.

All of this makes for both an enticing opportunity for bottom-feeding capitalists, and also an increasingly problematic dilemma in our global era of sustainable development.  Has anybody bothered to ask what product is being created there, other than glitzy hype and hollow bling?  Why do cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi need such expansive and expensive infrastructure, especially since their native populations are a fraction of the numbers of people coming to build, and coming to admire what's been built?  What are all of the resources being poured into the UAE actually supporting?

Again, it's not like the Western world hasn't known a few egocentric kingdom-builders.  But for this corner of the Persian Gulf, sustainable development is a mirage in more ways than one.  Consider the region's dire lack of clean drinking water, which has been the main reason its population has been stagnant for centuries.  Currently, the UAE is literally banking its survival on energy-thirsty desalinization plants, a process that could guarantee a nearly limitless supply of seawater from the Gulf, but is profoundly fossil-fuel-intensive.  Indeed, the tiny UAE now commands the world's largest carbon footprint, making it even more ecologically dangerous a threat than the entire United States.

At least we Americans' aren't the world's worst ecological villains anymore.

Still, the UAE has surprised the world before, and since nobody in authority over there seems troubled with all of the ancillary human rights issues surrounding the actual construction of their shiny new air-conditioned world, it seems they can build whatever they want with impunity.  Major international corporations that scold American conservatives about our stances against homosexuality and abortion seem unpreturbed with the UAE's even harsher stances on these and other social issues (such as legalizing rape) and enthusiastically open offices and stores there.

Flying High

Which brings us back to airports, the facilities through which most people arrive in and depart from the UAE.  One of the reasons why all of the emirates fuss so much about their airports, and are incessantly expanding them, involves the fact that airports literally serve as their global entry doors.  The UAE is pretty much stuck out in the middle of noplace, between barren desert and the hotly-contested shipping lanes of the Persian Gulf.  How else are these millions of visitors going to get there?

Airlines and the airports they serve watch two major lists in their industry to keep themselves apprised of their pecking order.  One of the lists has to do with how popular certain airports are among the flying public, and the other is a more nuts-and-bolts listing of passenger counts to see which airport is the busiest.

Of the top twenty most favorably-ranked airports, only one is in North America, and it's the international airport in Vancouver, Canada.  Seven are in Western Europe, and all the rest are in Asia, with the exception of twentieth-ranked Abu Dhabi.  Dubai's current airport is at the 33rd spot.


Well, considering the fact that American airports are designed less for comfort and more for economic considerations, perhaps we shouldn't be.  In capitalistic, democratic republics, building and operating an airport involves a lot more than a government's dictates, which likely explains why America's airports fare poorly in popularity contests.  Taxpayers will fund what is sufficient, but not what isn't essential.

Indeed, of the world's busiest airports, six are in one country:  the United States, with Atlanta's colossal aeronautical juggernaut taking top prize, for whatever it's worth.  Another five of the top 20 busiest are in Western Europe.  And one is in Dubai, with the rest in Asia.

Surprisingly, seven airports are on both lists, representing a mix of European and Asian cities, and proof that airports can be both big and busy and passenger-friendly.  But apparently your country has to be either socially liberal, or Communist, or run by Muslims to get the best of both air traffic worlds.  America's busiest airports are merely aviation workhorses; all business and little pleasure.

So, maybe the UAE is on to something with their desire to build the world's busiest airport.  Few people apparently care that they're using slave labor to build everything else about which they're boasting.  Or that one person in the UAE is causing more ecological damage to our planet than any American.  "Bling it on, emirates!" the vacationing world seems to be cheering.  "There isn't a marble-floored shopping mall or a glassy super-skyscraper that you can't chill with desalinated water, or pay some foreign schmuck pennies on the dollar to build and clean."

Kinda makes Americans look like suckers, doesn't it?  Thinking that what we build should, somehow, both respect human rights and turn a profit.  Of course, we're not perfect.  Rightly and wrongly, we've been criticized by other nations for all sorts of problems, and it doesn't ever seem like we can please anybody.

Then along comes the UAE, and a few pimped-out buildings later, everybody's marveling at how wonderful a place it is.

Who knew?  All it takes to gain the world's admiration is being more brazen at things for which the world faults us!

World's Top 20 Airports as Rated By Passengers - from World Airport Awards
(Dubai's airport is ranked #33)
  1. Singapore Changi
  2. Incheon International
  3. Amsterdam Schiphol
  4. Hong Kong International
  5. Beijing Capital International
  6. Munich
  7. Zurich
  8. Vancouver International
  9. Tokyo Haneda International 
  10. London Heathrow
  11. Frankfurt
  12. Auckland International
  13. Central Japan International
  14. Kuala Lumpur International
  15. Helsinki Vantaa
  16. Narita International
  17. Copenhagen
  18. Kansai International (Osaka)
  19. Shanghai Hongqiao International
  20. Abu Dhabi International

World's 20 Busiest Airports - from Airports Council International
(All caps denotes a top-20 highly-rated airport from list above)
  1. Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International
  4. Chicago O'Hare International
  6. Los Angeles International
  7. Paris Charles de Gaulle - Roissy 
  8. Dallas Fort Worth International
  11. Denver International
  12. Jakarta Soekarno–Hatta International
  13. Dubai International
  15. Madrid Barajas
  16. Bangkok Suvarnabhumi
  17. New York JFK International
  19. Guangzhou Baiyun International
  20. Shanghai Pudong International

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