Dubai's lavish show goes on in age of Arab revolt

AFP , Sunday 27 Mar 2011

Wealthy Gulf states keep up appearances as neighbors grapple with unrest

Bahrain's Formula One Grand Prix fell prey to Arab revolts, but the show went on for Dubai's super-rich horse race as the 2022 World Cup stands safe on the distant horizon.

Playing up their pro-Western credentials, the Emirates and Qatar, the only two Arab states untouched on the home front by the Middle East's unrest, are sending US- and French-built warplanes to join the air strikes on Libya.

But on Saturday night, after a day-side natural desert storm, the bubbly flowed freely and the expat girls decked out in their finery and Ascot-style hats were out in force for the US$10 million Dubai World Cup 2011.

"We do not talk politics," said a newly graduated Emirati accountant at the annual extravaganza who said the young in his oil-rich country were following the Arab world's turmoil on satellite television.

"We communicate with young Arabs in other countries on the Internet," said the accountant, preferring to go unnamed. "We have the same interests but not the same problems. We are very small in terms of numbers."

In a state where its nationals are far outnumbered by expats from around the globe, the United Arab Emirates of which Dubai is a member hands newly married local couples a gift of $20,000 and soft loans to buy a house.

Stressing the stability of life in the UAE, a British-educated engineer and state employee who only gave his name as Abdulrahman said the key was "the close relationship between the government and the people."

"The government shares the wealth, they look after the people," he said, voicing pride at the grandeur of the Meydan racecourse which is reputed to have cost a whopping three billion dollars.

But in a highly image-conscious state which even has air-conditioned bus stops -- for its Asian expat workforce, as locals and most Western nationals do not use public transport -- the authorities are taking no chances.

In mid-March, it was reported indirect elections are to be held in September for only the second time -- after landmark polls in 2006 -- for the southern Gulf emirate's purely advisory Federal National Council.

More than 100 Emirati intellectuals and activists, emboldened by the Arab uprisings, petitioned the president earlier in the month for direct elections and parliament to be granted legislative powers.

Qatar, another energy rich Gulf monarchy with a small population, has become the first Arab state to fly missions over Libya as part of the Arab League-backed international campaign to enforce a no-fly zone.

Qatar, which ranks as the world's top exporter of liquefied natural gas and pumps around 800,000 barrels per day of oil, has also deployed troops to unrest-swept Bahrain as part of a joint Gulf force.

Meanwhile, worries for the football World Cup awarded to Qatar in 11 years time are focused on the unbearable summer heat of the Gulf rather than the political climate.

The UAE, alarmed by a perceived Iranian-inspired Shiite threat to the kingdom in the Sunni-ruled Gulf and irked at the lack of urgency in the West's response, has also sent soldiers to Bahrain.

Bahrain's Formula One Grand Prix scheduled for 13 March was scrapped before security forces this month crushed a pro-democracy protest movement and swept demonstrators out of central Manama.

While apparently immune to anti-regime protests, Dubai -- the city of superlatives -- has however come under vicious attack in Vanity Fair magazine over its credit-fuelled spending spree.

Despite its indoor ski slope in the desert, a "seven-star" hotel and other modern wonders, Vanity Fair has mocked the Burj Khalifa, world's tallest tower, as reflecting small-nation complex.

Its native population, the magazine scoffs, live such as privileged life that they are "born retired."

But expats in Dubai dismiss such attacks as a hatchet job born of envy, as in the case of a video game in which its glittering skyline is reduced to a wasteland of concrete skeletons and jagged steel by cataclysmic sand storms.

Short link: