Dubai shot by Neven Allgeier & Benedikt Fischer. Part 3: City and People


centre of now


The most common insult hurled against this land of gleaming towers and metastasizing shopping malls is that it is “fake”. The accusation is both material and moral. It pinpoints everything in Dubai that is unnatural or counterintuitive– the desert turned green, man-made islands, indoor ski slopes, the absence of outdoor pedestrian infrastructure. “Fake” bemoans history being sacrificed to hubris. It disapproves of “local customs” being wiped out by fast-food franchises and armies of English-speaking sales staff. It frowns on“traditional architecture” being vanquished by the thirst for superlatives (the latest example of which is Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s upcoming Tower at Dubai Creek Harbour, intended to be “a notch taller” than what is currently the world’s highest building, the 828-metre-high Burj Khalifa). “Fake”condemns the money-buys-everything worldview it perceives as the creator of a soulless, commoditised city-cum-corporation.

What “fake” fails to consider is that Dubai is a kaleidoscope. It is not one city, but many.

It’s deeply ironic that most of Dubai’s real estate advertising brandishes the concept of “centre”– the Centre of Now, the Heart of the City, Life at the Source – since “centre” here is a purely relative notion. Dubai’s “downtown,” where Burj Khalifa reigns, was only completed in 2008.

Depending on where you are (and what you seek), Dubai can be many things. One of the few establishments that even visitors acknowledge is not “fake” is a greasy Pakistani darbar sandwiched between a dirt parking lot and a dingy Korean grocery. It’s a well-known eatery for the city’s taxi drivers where a moist mutton biryani will set you back a mere 12 Dirhams (€3).

People from everywhere are everywhere – South Asian, Western and Arab expats are the most common demographic clusters, alongside the minority of UAE nationals, or “locals.” Not all Emiratis are rich, as a visit to the Northern Emirates will prove; nor are all Bangladeshis labourers.

But labourers were the most visible denizens of the streets under the scorching September sun, when these photos were shot. Their dilemma is by now well publicised. While some forces attempt to improve their plight – the artist coalition Gulf Labour lobbies adamantly for migrant workers’ rights – there are just as many voices trying to minimise the hoopla. Architect Jean Nouvel once told me in an interview that worksites in Abu Dhabi were comparable to those in France, and writer Ingo Niermann has made a similar comparison to Germany.

Rather than fakeness, perhaps what truly characterises Dubai is the tension between its progressive aura and a lingering backwardness, its futuristic gleam versus its toiling underbelly. As if one part of it has not caught up with the other. And maybe that’s exactly what keeps it real.


KEVIN JONES is an art critic based in Dubai.
NEVEN ALLGEIER & BENEDIKT FISCHER are two photographers based in Frankfurt.