“What is the nature of the luxury which enervates and destroys nations?”

-- Henry David Thoreau, Walden


“Money is like water, block its flow and it will stagnate.”

-- Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, sovereign of Dubai

You had to think it all was coming to an end when this tourist attraction opened: “Ski Dubai is the first indoor ski resort in the Middle East and offers an amazing snow setting to enjoy skiing, snowboarding and tobogganing, or just playing in the snow. Young or old, there is something for everyone, from the beginner to the snow sport enthusiast. Ski Dubai is a unique mountain-themed attraction that offers you the opportunity to enjoy real snow in Dubai all year round.”

And by “it all coming to an end,” I mean it all. Armageddon. The Apocalypse. Isn’t there something in Revelations about snow falling in the desert and islands erupting from the sea? Aren’t those signs that the end is near? If not, they ought to be.

It turns out that the fantasy that is Dubai stumbled before the Four Horsemen arrived in town. Dubai World, a state-owned development conglomerate behind many of the Persian Gulf emirate’s most outlandish projects, announced late last month that it was having trouble repaying $60 billion in debt. The emirate itself didn’t have enough money — or at least, wasn’t offering up enough money — to bail the company out.

The result is the Dubai bubble — not nearly as significant globally as the dot.com bubble or housing bubble, but certainly more colorful. Not to mention, a big enough pop to deflate prospects for a few big banks in Europe and at least one Middle East sheikdom.

Let’s face it: Didn’t you gloat just a bit when you heard the news?

Dubai’s excesses have been a global media obsession for about a decade. National Geographic. The New Yorker. All the major news networks. You name it. Every major news organization has produced at least a couple of major stories on the emerging emirate.

It’s not as if the Western media wasn’t skeptical of all the spending on gross luxury. Usually, the question posed ran something like: “Dubai: Miracle or mirage?”

But the subject matter inevitably (and understandably) turned into a giddy checklist of Dubai’s ambitious construction projects, each seemingly designed to meet some sort of superlative: the world’s two tallest buildings, the tallest hotel, the most expensive hotel, largest marina, largest theme park, biggest artificial island (then one bigger than that, and finally one bigger than that), the tallest indoor ski slope, the largest man-made port, the richest horse race. Am I missing something? How about city-state with the most entries in the Guinness Book of World Records?

What’s always struck me about Dubai, however, were the contradictions. The spin — and no doubt, the belief of Sheikh Mohammed Maktoum — is that the emirate’s ideals are very progressive. It offers relaxed moral codes and significantly expanded rights for women. While freedom of expression doesn’t meet Western standards, it’s more open in Dubai than in most neighboring states. The emirate even appears to be trying to manage its environment with a sleek subway system and infrastructure projects that are novel innovations in the Arab world.

At the same time, the city-state has engaged in appalling human rights abuses that in many ways approximate South African apartheid. More than 80 percent of the population is made up of foreign workers, who have limited rights inside the country. The vast majority of the workers are poor laborers from the Indian subcontinent, who must live in squalid labor camps, are banned from access to certain developments, work long hours for little pay, and often are coerced, much like indentured servants, into staying in the country for years.

Dubai — with its nouveau riche emirati, hypocritical morals and conspicuous vanity — seemed ripe for comeuppance, not least of all from more conservative Arab countries surrounding it. Says the Economist:

“Germans may think they invented Schadenfreude, but Arabs have an ancient and precise term for the same thing. Shamata, that twinge of joy for someone else’s sorrow, is what much of the world seems to feel about Dubai’s financial fall to earth. Even the Emirate’s Arab neighbors tend to share a certain smug satisfaction in seeing the region’s shiniest bubble burst.”
Oh, were it only true that the fable of the desert kingdom offered a tidy moral lesson. But couldn’t this fall work as a fable for the folly of worship of material wealth? Something more along the lines of what noted writer and environmentalist Thoreau said:
“The luxuriously rich are not simply kept comfortably warm, but unnaturally hot; as I implied before, they are cooked, of course a la mode. Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meager life than the poor.”
One school of speculation is Dubai’s conservative sister states in the United Arab Emirates will force its errant member to tighten its moral belt as a condition for a financial bailout. But the too-big-to-fail rule that has protected America’s largest banks seems likely to protect Dubai. Dubai is now the largest economy in the Emirates, all of which are dependent on its prosperity. Shutting down the party — the nightlife, the tourism, the freedom that attracts Western investors and celebrities — would only slow its economy further.

Whatever its financial problems, Dubai has established itself as the trading, finance and tourism center of one of the world’s most wealthy regions. It may retrench a bit. When construction comes back, it may be less flamboyant. But nobody is about to surrender Dubai’s monuments of commerce and consumption to the sands of the desert. Nowadays, we are all to interdependent for that — it is too big an investment.

The moral of this story isn’t likely to be that the mighty have fallen. It’s that we’re all interdependent.

Journalist Ken Edelstein writes the Media Mayhem column for the Mother Nature Network. From various coffee shops in Atlanta, he publishes an environmental news site at MyGreenATL.com.

MNN homepage photo: JanBertrem/iStockPhoto