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In the Eye of the Storm: Geopolitics and the Safe City

Dubai's Ruler Sheykh al Maktoom. Image from a presentation during the fieldtrip, by Lily Munson. Dubai's Ruler Sheykh al Maktoom. Image from a presentation during the fieldtrip, by Lily Munson.

"I like it because it’s safe:" The Role of Fear and Security in Dubai’s Urban Attractiveness

A beach is usually a place where people go to relax, get away from the hustle, and forget about their worries. You wouldn’t expect it to be a site of security, and yet inscribed onto the public restroom of an Abu Dhabi beach is an inconspicuous logo for Serco. The British company is probably also responsible for the security cameras that line the underpasses leading to that same beach, and is one of numerous private multinationals present in the UAE who oversee public utilities but whose business arms dabble in surveillance technologies, security equipment (notably the construction of for-profit prisons), and supplying military services. Serco is also responsible for the operation of the Dubai metro, alongside Thales, a French company operating in both the civil and military spheres. From our meeting with their representatives, it was apparent that this overlap between public service and defense industry was not trivial; a major contribution of Thales in the building of Dubai’s metro, the longest driverless one in the world, was their ability to ensure a seamless and controlled security dimension to the network’s operation.

Indeed, Thales has engineered Dubai’s metro around the Emirate’s conception of a "Smart City," with their systems and services interconnected through an "Intelligent City" platform. Beyond the aim of providing more efficient and integrated services by interconnecting government agencies, these digitized urban innovations also take the lived experiences of citizens as their prime focus and place a heavy emphasis on security and safety. Peppered throughout our meetings and daily encounters, a recurrent point that kept surfacing was the evocation of Dubai’s "protected" and sheltered nature, where the government’s ability to ensure protection was key in guaranteeing future urban attractiveness. Many migrants to Dubai are attracted to it precisely because it offers a safe haven from political and economic turmoil of neighboring regions such as Pakistan, and speakers from all walks of life waxed poetic about the ability to leave a car unlocked, or a purse unattended, with no risk whatsoever.

Yet, behind these calls for greater security through user-friendliness lay the latent threat of a terrorist attack that cast a looming shadow over many of Dubai’s entrepreneurs and agencies. In the Thales meeting, it was clear that a potential attack would deal a crippling blow to Dubai’s operational systems, and its image as a secure investment destination, making the protection of infrastructure essential to the city’s functioning. This pervasive unease was perhaps best illustrated as we were escorted through the Jebel Ali power plant and desalination station during our first days in the city. The many security checkpoints and heavily guarded sites of the plant were a testament to the knowledge that threats to this precious infrastructure lay not far away. If a major selling point of the Smart Dubai business team in illustrating the efficiency of their technology was to point out that not a single casualty was registered during the massive hotel fire on New Year’s Eve, incidents such as these are proof that keeping violence at bay for the city-state is much akin to playing with fire.                                       

Operation Desert Storm: Protecting and Projecting the Citadel from its Outside Walls

A tried-and true formula for statesmen is echoed in Tilly’s words; “States make war, and war makes states”. Thus, the internal infrastructure of Dubai, largely delegated to military-industrial manufacturers to become highly securitized and panoptic in the process, allows glimpses into the geopolitical climate shaping, and being shaped by, Dubai.

Dubai's prodigious ability to magnetize international investment of human and economic capital has relied not only on the internal provision of a secure environment fueled by a 'smart' vision of the city. It has also been dependent on the watchwords of stability and neutrality that define its exogenous relationship with turbulences pervading the greater MENASA region. Such exigency has traditionally implied a cautious positioning vis-a-vis international affairs. Enterprising exhibition of military power and active participation to geopolitical conflicts have thus remained rather scarce.

The city-state's strict commitment to its historically pacific tactic are however very well being revised. Although never stated explicitly, it became clear throughout our meetings that the UAE was, indeed, at war. In fact, the exacerbated contextual sediment of the last ten years–comprising, notably, the amplification of time-honored tensions between Sunni and Shiite factions in proximate Iran and the wave of Sunni Arab revolutions in 2011–has urged the UAE's national army to adopt a firmer, more outwardly military strategy. As reminded by two actors we met, Dubai’s security tactic can no longer remain strictly confined to the endogenous protection of a safe haven. The renewed and more robust geopolitical trajectory of the UAE has transpired most revealingly when Dubai, under the auspices of the Federal Army, sent boots on unstable ground within the 2015 Saudi-led coalition's intervention in Yemen. Prior to our arrival but still fresh in people’s minds, a national day of mourning had been declared by Dubai’s prince as an homage to the Emirati soldiers that had been killed during a particularly violent day of the conflict. Patriotic advertisements for army recruitment flooding national television complemented officials’ remarks that the UAE had for a long time been actively engaged in an air campaign in Syria, while noting that one of France’s prime economic interests in the Emirates was in the sector of arms trading.

As one embarks on the Thales metro or deciphers a recruitment advertisement for the army, one easily perceives that the rather pro-active stance of the UAE regarding regional affairs has affected Dubai's urban space. A less patent, yet particularly telling example thereof was revealed at our meeting at the Dubai South headquarters. The planning of the futuristic south-western sector– branded as Dubai 2.0–is imbued with strategic considerations, most discernible in the UN-encouraged establishment of a district that will be entirely dedicated to the provision of out-flying humanitarian assistance to the surrounding war, tension and terrorism ridden turmoil. These latest developments inspire a daring question: can we imagine a future where the UAE would be acting as a potent and intervening stabilizer of the region? If so, to what degree would such a path alter the branding, planning and governance of Dubai? The seemingly paradoxical imbrication between a securitized urban space, advertised as a safe haven for capital, and an increasingly active geopolitical presence in the broader region, raises questions concerning the long-term sustainability of this strategy, and the potential risk such aggressivity could breed.

[This post is part of the wider trip report Building Visions with Glass and Steel by the students of the Master Program Governing the Large Metropolis (SciencesPo Paris). It is reproduced with permission.]  

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