What about Dubai?

Until last year, I’d never been to Dubai. I’m not a big shopper and I don’t sell anything. But I wound up spending four days there in the spring, and the place surprised me. Dubai is over the top, daringly cosmopolitan, and all about business and pleasure. Across the Arab Middle East, economically productive minorities have been driven out. The Emiratis of Dubai, by contrast, have turned themselves into a minority in their own country, bringing in foreigners of every kind to build up and partake in the boom. Anyone who can do anything better (and cheaper) is welcomed in Dubai. They’ve perfected the Arab version of the American ethos, short on democracy but long on opportunity.

The Arab world has always had privileged nodes through which it has transacted fast-track business with the world. In the colonial period, Alexandria in Egypt served as the great gateway, relying crucially on foreign minorities. Nasser put an end to that. In the immediate post-colonial period, Beirut in Lebanon emerged on top, building upon its long tradition of open exchange with East and West. Extreme brands of nationalism destroyed that. In our time, Dubai is the great entrepôt. It exemplifies that larger shift of power away from the decaying, ideology-ravaged Arab Mediterranean and toward the worldly crust of the Arabian Gulf.

As a whole, the United Arab Emirates is much more of a mixed bag. In Abu Dhabi, the capital, they yearn to be political players in the Arab world, which has led them to buy off bad guys and offer money for Arab or Islamic studies to places like Harvard and Columbia. I don’t look with equanimity upon gifts from governments that don’t respect academic freedom at home. But the UAE’s pushing ideas about the Middle East in classrooms seems a lot more problematic to me than its moving containers in Baltimore.

Whatever happens to the port deal, it’s important to strengthen the tie to Dubai. In time, and beneath the glitz, all sorts of interesting cultural interactions might take place. It will also be a very American-inflected exchange. Alexandria in its heyday revolved around Europe. Beirut tilted both to Europe and America. Dubai seems destined to vacillate culturally between New York and Las Vegas, for better or worse.

One afternoon in Dubai, I had a bit of spare time on my hands, so I went out to the brand new Ibn Battuta Mall, named after the 14th-century Muslim traveler who journeyed from his birthplace in Morocco across North Africa and Asia to China. The mall is set up as a series of arcades, themed around the various highlights on Ibn Battuta’s route: Andalusia, Tunisia, Egypt, Persia, India, and China. The place gives new meaning to the familiar phrase “shopping mecca.” The Persian arcade is a giant dome, itself a work of art on a considerable level, no doubt meant to be admired by the many Iranians who come through Dubai. Smack in the middle of it, as this photo shows, is a Starbucks.

Orientalist kitsch? Definitely. But Arabs have built it. Such cross-cultural play is possible only where people are comfortable with amalgams. To see the incredible mix of people strolling this mall, happily shopping for designer labels and making their choice at the 21-cinema “megaplex,” restores one’s faith in the Arabs’ potential for embracing a global future. It’s no doubt fragile, this odd experiment in our own style of consumerism, on a stretch of hot sand a world away from us. That’s all the more reason not to turn Dubai into a whipping boy for our disappointment with the rest of the Arab world.