The New Authoritarianism

After 12 long hours of restless sleep and a whole season of Modern Family, I looked out the right plane window to see the pink hue of the sun rising over an endless stretch of golden sand. As we continued to descend, the flatness became a rolling stretch of dunes until finally, the gleaming, futuristic Dubai skyline emerged. The slim, streamlined Burj Khalifa was instantly recognizable, towering above the rest of the city, a symbol of Dubai’s wealth, glamour, and grandeur.

After 12 long hours of restless sleep and a whole season of Modern Family, I looked out the right plane window to see the pink hue of the sun rising over an endless stretch of golden sand. As we continued to descend, the flatness became a rolling stretch of dunes until finally, the gleaming, futuristic Dubai skyline emerged. The slim, streamlined Burj Khalifa was instantly recognizable, towering above the rest of the city, a symbol of Dubai’s wealth, glamour, and grandeur.

A nation just 47 years old, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has become one of the most powerful Gulf States in just under 10 years. Its rapid development, accelerated by the discovery of oil, has led to the creation of immense wealth in the country. The ability of the nation’s elite government to go above and beyond with everything leaves Dubai with much to offer its tourists, with attractions like indoor skiing and dining in the dark, fountain and light shows at the Burj Khalifa, the largest mall in the world, and the longest urban zipline in the world. And as a city whose population is 85 percent expatriates, it markets itself as a property and income tax-free city. It’s the biggest, the glitziest, the grandest from every aspect. It’s utopian.

It’s easy to become enamoured by this surface-level impression of Dubai, the impression one might get from the cascading waterfall by the baggage claim or the overly friendly staff at every hotel. Yet as a tourist, I spoke with many residents, allowing me to see several sides of the city: Not only did I explore expat havens like the Jumeirah Beach Residence full of Western chain restaurants and luxury cars, local mosques, and bustling financial centers, but I also noticed the underlying unease permeating it. Apartments in the Marina, a southern part of the city known for its hundreds of residential condos and apartments, sat vacant; the city resorted to installing automatic lights to create the illusion of occupancy. Security cameras are conspicuously placed everywhere from taxi dashboards to the corners of hotel hallways, as if waiting to be noticed. Residents’ personal WhatsApp and Snapchat accounts are routinely deactivated by the state due to suspicious comments.

Those miniscule details highlight another aspect of the UAE, one often hidden in the shadow of the luxurious tourist experience: Its government is infamous for its human rights violations, resorting to torture, stoning, and arbitrary detainment of tourists and citizens alike for offenses spanning premarital sex, illegal substance use, and political dissidence. Immigrants, particularly migrant workers from countries like the Philippines, face such dismal opportunities to obtain fair wages that some critics have even gone as far as to say that the UAE practices slave labor.

My time trying to make sense of the many contradictions in the UAE not only illuminated the problems it faces but also provided a necessary contrast to the positive aspects of the U.S. we often take for granted. We in the U.S. never stop complaining about the inefficacy of our government: Legislation is next to impossible to pass in Congress. For one of the richest nations in the world, our failing infrastructure and inability to prioritize the environment are shameful. In contrast, despite lacking the political will to address problems like income inequality, the constitutional monarchy that controls the UAE ensures that if something needs to be done, it gets done. Its lack of lengthy processes and government barriers to cross makes its government far more efficient than our own. When it comes to infrastructure development and economic progress, the UAE’s government structure facilitates the rapid growth that has propelled the UAE forward as an economic stronghold in its own right. That power to properly direct the country towards economic prosperity makes a compelling argument for the power of authoritarian or oligarchic rule, especially in a time when American citizens are frustrated by their federal government’s inability to act. Even amongst other democracies around the world, including Sweden, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia, the level of red tape the U.S. faces in every attempt to pass legislation and to maintain a government that doesn’t shut down is extremely high.

Even so, depending on the principles and priorities one holds, the UAE’s “solutions” to its problems can be far from palatable. One could argue, for example, that the UAE’s requirement that residents living in the country must be employed would aid our unemployment crisis and our economy if applied to the U.S. But would it really align with our values to deport people for being unemployed for longer than a month?

The lack of freedoms of speech and dissenting voices may aid in the effectiveness of Emirati policy; nobody challenges the govrenment’s power, and consequently its ability to progress. But only the Emirati government gets a say in what “progress” means, and, oftentimes, its definition ignores those without economic power or who deviate from its strict cultural norms. In contrast, we in the U.S. may not have efficient ways to reach solutions, but at least we have a say in identifying those solutions.

In the end, my trip to the UAE reminded me that we must appreciate the debates we have, the arguments we engage in. Without an ability to dissent, to fight back, we truly lose our American identity. The UAE has had incredible success, yet governmental freedom to take action comes at a cost of individual ability to speak up. And while I believe that the United States faces too many roadblocks, we should be grateful to have the ability to choose whether or not these roadblocks are taken down in the first place.