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The Dubai Social Contract

Murals Seen in Dubai. Image by Eleonora Dobbles. Murals Seen in Dubai. Image by Eleonora Dobbles.

Dubai is a city-state with a modern economy built on top of a tribal society. Its particular mix of 21st century globalized business alongside traditions and social structures that date back to a time of nomadic tribes make it a particularly interesting case study to understand how a pre-modern society confronts and incorporates contemporary capitalism.

To understand the social contract in a place like this, one must first understand the structure of the indigenous population. The Emiratis, making up around ten to twenty percent of the total population of the country, are part of tightly knit tribal families. These families gain their power through their connections to the sheikh, the central patriarch. Citizenship is thus less a legal understanding between state and individual, and more a relationship based on kinship and family. As such, citizenship is not offered to anyone that is not part of the extended Emirati bloodline. This particular definition of citizenship is the foundation of the Dubai social contract.

The Sheikh, then, is the legitimate and de facto leader of his clan through lineage. But, what then of his legitimacy towards the other eighty percent of the population? The guiding philosophy of governance that was underlined in many conversations we had in Dubai–with business people, government officials, Emirati citizens–was happiness. If we understand the Sheikh as the patriarch overseeing a country whose citizens are his extended family, this impulse is easy to understand. What is particularly noteworthy, then, is that this governing philosophy also applies to foreigners that move to Dubai–at least those that can take part in the money making activities of the city.

Happiness, in this context, is defined as material well being. The quantity and size of advertisements along Dubai’s main thoroughfare, Sheikh Zayed Road, was the most obvious example of this. In a meeting with a group of Emirati officials working on “smart city” tools for Dubai, the guiding purpose of their work was providing "happiness" to citizens. In this context, ‘happiness’ was defined more as "satisfaction." The tools they presented allowed citizens to pay their bills quickly using their cell phone, access immunization records for their children, and schedule doctor visits quickly. They referred to citizens as "customers" several times throughout the presentation. Thus, their primary goal in developing these kinds of tools was to make life easier.

The social contract offered to non-Emiratis can be thought of as a country to be purchased like a product. The power of a non-Emirati is the power of the market. The Dubai government is selling is a product: material comfort, ease of business, stability, and security. Foreigners may not be given much decision-making power, but because Dubai needs their money, and they can always move it elsewhere, the government provides them as best a product as possible. The power of foreigners is that of a consumer.

What the Emirates get in return for this social contract is expertise and manpower. This global expertise builds businesses, undertakes large and complex infrastructure projects, it even runs their government. This is their business model. In essence, the government of Dubai is a privately held company. Its stockholders are Emiratis and its product is its country. And, like any company, its raison-d’être is profit and return on investment. In this way, having foreign bureaucrats work in high-level government positions is not contradictory. The many expat government workers we met—in Dubai’s executive council, in Abu Dhabi’s environment ministry—are essentially employees of a multinational corporation that happens to be a country. And, like any multinational, the competence and professionalism of their employees is the most important, not their nationality.

In this way, the concept of public-private partnerships (PPP) in Dubai is moot. Since the public sector functions like the private sector, there is very little distinction. Contrary to some countries where PPP governance is criticized because of the lack of rules and the introduction of neoliberal policies into the State, in Dubai, commodification, namely the marketization of services and talent, is how the government has always functioned.

This global capitalist ideology naturally extends to the private sector. An employee from Chalhoub—an Egyptian company selling luxury products in the Gulf region—described her role in the "happiness" machine of Dubai. She explained that though her job is to sell luxury products, the actual content of what she sells does not matter. Rather, it is the fact that she is creating jobs and wealth that contributes to the "happiness" of Dubai. She understands clearly her responsibility under the Dubai social contract.

In the end, then, the legitimacy of the Sheikh is based on his vision and success in making Dubai the "happiest" city in the world. The social contract he extends to his citizens is one of wealth, stability, and material comfort. To accomplish this, he welcomes workers from around the world to build, invest, and consume what Dubai has to offer. Run like a business, the growth of Dubai is material and financial. A quintessential "charismatic authority" as defined by Max Weber, the Sheikh’s leadership gains its legitimacy from the significant accomplishment of transforming a society of pearl-fishing nomads into citizens of a global, growing, and modern metropolis.

 

[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 republished with permission.]

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