Month: May 2011

Ejo #17 – A Response to A. A. Gill’s Dubai-Bashing Article in Vanity Fair

A couple of weeks ago there was a little bit of controversy surrounding a Vanity Fair article written by Scottish restaurant critic A. A. Gill. It was a piece that rather viciously attacked the city of Dubai – but that in itself isn’t what caused the scandal. It was the fact that the article had been removed from copies sold in the UAE. There was, of course, the expected furore about censorship and freedom of information, blah blah blah. But when asked about it, the UAE censorship committee shrugged their shoulders and said, “It wasn’t us!”. A theory has evolved that, in fact, Conde Nast (the publisher of Vanity Fair) was responsible for ripping out the “offending” article from copies sold in the UAE in order to drum up publicity for the story.  If so, bravo, because it worked – it was a form of viral marketing that has stirred up far more discussion about A. A. Gill’s work than had it been just another Dubai-bashing story.

If you are interested in reading the article, you may do so here:

http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2011/04/dubai-201104

And if you are interested in reading my response to it, you may do so here:

Dear A. A. Gill,

This letter is addressed to you but it is not, in fact, directed towards you at all because I know that it would fall on deaf ears.  Based on this, and previous articles you have written, you don’t really care about anything except creating a fuss.  Congratulations, you have, yet again, succeeded in offending an entire city (if not country) and its inhabitants.  What a shame that this was actually your goal and that the tools you employed to do so included bigotry, bitchiness and bullying.

If I thought that you would actually be open to feedback and discussion then yes, I would write this for you.  However I don’t.  And thus, I am writing it for anyone who may have read your article and taken it at face value – which, admittedly, it would be easy to do as it reads just like a real article from a real travel journalist.  What most people may not realise is that you are actually just a restaurant reviewer and TV critic.  It seems that these days anyone with a passport and a pen can pose as a travel writer.  I promised myself I would not use against you the fact that you have such severe dyslexia that all your work is done by dictation, so I shall not.  I will, however, rephrase my previous sentence: It seems that these days anyone with a passport and a Dictaphone can pose as a travel writer.

Having read some of your previous scathing travel reports it would appear that being offensive is your ‘bit’.  Well done for having found something that you’re good at (and kudos to you for getting paid for it).  But let’s be honest, it’s not very nice, is it?  And even more importantly, it means that not much of what you write is actually very accurate (it’s a bit harder to be controversial when you have to stick to the facts, isn’t it?).  So, I guess the only problem I really have with your article is that it is being touted as non-fiction when it is nothing more than a deliciously nasty short-story.

For the clarification of your readers, and mine, I will now address a few of the many fallacies in your story (I don’t have the time or the inclination to correct them all).  Let’s start with the first sentence: “The only way to make sense of Dubai is to never forget that it isn’t real.”  The city I have chosen to adopt as my home town is not, as you go on to say, a fable.  Nor is it a fairy tale.  How silly of you to say so.  Of course it’s real.  It’s as real as New York, London, Edinburgh, Melbourne or Singapore.  People live here, work here and play here.  There is an art scene, a stock exchange, several universities, efficient public transport and even a burgeoning film industry.  Approximately 5 million people choose to live here and about 50 million people a year pass through this so-called “imaginary” city.  They demand (and receive) an infrastructure that solidifies it as very real indeed.  So while it sounds really good to start your story off by calling Dubai a “fairy tale”, let’s agree that it’s not true and move on.

You say that Dubai can’t buy a culture of its own.  I shall concede that argument while pointing out that perhaps it isn’t trying to.  Culture can’t be bought anyway.  Culture is grown, earned and nurtured over time.  Dubai, as a city, hasn’t had the time to attain what you refer to as “culture”.  Its history goes back only about 30 years; I challenge you to find any 30 year old you could describe as being cultured.  In that short time though, it’s gone from a small, but thriving, pearling and fishing port village to the bustling metropolis you see today.  It has never been, as you assert, inhabited by a “handful of tented families herding goats and shooting each other”.  I believe that the families you are referring to are Bedouins (from which the majority of locals in Dubai do not actually originate).  And as for your reference to them shooting each other, I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about.  My guess is that you’re just trying to be inflammatory.  More silliness.

Let’s continue.  You state that Dubai’s economy is maintained by oil rich families.  Not so.  Yes, these families do exist, of course.  But Dubai, unlike Abu Dhabi, doesn’t have a huge amount of oil.  As a result they’ve had to work for their money and they’ve done that by creating an international city with first class facilities to entice tourists.  The economy is driven by those 50 million travellers that pass through each year.  And the reason they come is that a member of one of those rich families, Sheikh Mohammed (the Ruler of Dubai), realising that the emirate’s meagre oil supply would be insufficient to feed the growth of the city, invested that money in making Dubai a destination city; making it attractive to tourists; making it a beautiful, strange oasis in the middle of the desert.

And guess what, it worked.  The tourists came and they had a good time.  And yes, some people, including David and me, decided to move here.  Not because we are, as you say, “mercenaries” or “parasites”.   Sure the tax free salary was a contributing factor in our decision but the reality is that we don’t actually make that much more money here than back home.  The primary reason for moving was to take up the opportunity to work abroad.  The options were Dubai or Ireland and I don’t like the cold.  The secondary reason was adventure.  We love to travel and compared to Australia, geographically, Dubai feels like the centre of the world.  In the two and a half years we’ve been here we’ve been overseas nine times and have another three trips planned for 2011.  We simply could never have enjoyed this lifestyle back home.  The money came much further down the list.  So as easy as it is for you to call western expats “greedy sycophants”, in our case (and several others) it simply isn’t true.

Next, you claim that Emiratis are “born retired” and are unable to “even change a fuse”.  I know for a fact that you must not know any Emiratis otherwise you couldn’t make such ridiculous statements.  I do have the pleasure of knowing a handful, and the truth is that they do have to work, and they are actually good at what they do.  Not all of them are born rich and not all of them have been rendered useless by a menagerie of servants.  Yes, people like that do exist but they are not representative of the entire nationality.  Broad statements like that are usually referred to as being “racist”.  Please be careful Adrian.

Finally, I’ll address your crude statement that the Burj Khalifa is a “monument to small-nation penis envy”.  I wonder what kind of envy you suffer from to make such an observation.  Phallic-centric, much??  The Burj Khalifa wasn’t built out of any kind of envy.  It was built as a monument of beauty and incredible architecture.  A feat of modern engineering.  I look upon this building from my living room window every day and I honestly think it is an amazing structure.  As a resident of the city I am very proud of it.  Were the Eiffel Tower, St. Paul’s Cathedral or the Sydney Opera House built because their designers had small willies??  I don’t think so.  All of these buildings may be considered ostentatious too if you look at them through your mud coloured glasses.  What they do all have in common is that they were built by people who had a dream to create something memorable, lasting and unique.  The Burj Khalifa is an incredible achievement; a testament to human endeavour and vision.  I defy anyone to stand before it and not feel some sense of awe.  You don’t have to admit that you felt it Mr. Gill, but I bet that you did.

It seems almost naive of me to even bother writing this response to your article.  I’m sure you’re not even invested enough in what you wrote to care what people think.  I debated with myself whether writing this letter would be falling into the trap of doing exactly what you wanted me to do.  In the end I decided that even if that was the case, I didn’t mind.  I had to respond.  Dubai is very far from perfect and you did actually make a couple of salient points regarding the city’s terrible human rights record.  The treatment of construction workers here is abysmal.  It’s getting better but the process is frustratingly slow and, unfortunately, I can’t see an improvement of the situation in the near future.  But you didn’t write about it in order to find a solution.  You did so for entertainment and that, sir, is just as despicable as the act itself – if not more so because, indeed, you have a platform to bring attention to the plight of the labourers in order to effect a change for the better.  To help them.  Instead, you chose to use it only as a means of belittling the city.  Shame on you.

Dubai is certainly a strange creature, and most definitely not to everyone’s liking.  Anyone who reads my ejos knows that there’s lots about it that really annoys me too.  But it doesn’t deserve to be lambasted by the likes of you.  Leave the lambasting to people who live here and know it intimately and can complain about the real issues.  You, almost certainly, visited here with the intention of being mean and looking for faults.  Sure it makes a great article, but you know what A. A. Gill?  If that’s the way you go through life, I imagine you’ll be unhappy wherever you find yourself, and all I can feel for you is pity.