Nayla Khaja, 26, a filmmaker now studying in Canada, is riding a sudden crest of fame. Khaja had grown tired of hearing misconceptions about Dubai, where she grew up. Women are as likely...
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Nayla Khaja, 26, a filmmaker now studying in Canada, is riding a sudden crest of fame.
Khaja had grown tired of hearing misconceptions about Dubai, where she grew up. Women are as likely as men to be driving the late-model Jaguars that zip along the avenues here, and bluejeans are as common in the marble shopping malls as the black, cloaklike abayas worn throughout the Persian Gulf region.
So she decided to make a documentary, “Unveiling Dubai,” a look at her hometown as seen through the eyes of a visiting foreigner. She shelled out $30,000 to become Dubai’s first female movie producer.
“We are not Saudi Arabia,” Khaja said in summarizing the documentary, which made its debut at the Dubai International Film Festival this month before an audience of local leading lights and a few Hollywood stars. “That really is the lesson.”
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As flat as Florida and with few of the natural resources that bless its neighbors, this city-state on the shores of the Persian Gulf has had to invent its own economy over the years — and it has succeeded spectacularly.
Prosperity has made this ancient trading hub, one of the seven states that comprise the United Arab Emirates, something like a politics-free zone in a region rippling with discontent.
There is little clamor for greater democratic rights, and the subdued news media know that political change and the place of Islam in society are subjects more safely left to tribal leaders, who have run this patch of desert for centuries.
Most of the city-state’s 1.1 million residents are immigrants, and many of the 20 percent actually born in Dubai appear happy to be living under a benign autocracy that guarantees them free health care, education and scholarships to study abroad regardless of need.
Dubai has been filling in the sea to expand its shoreline, building skyscrapers and ski slopes and generally making the desert bloom. In the process, the emirate’s unelected tribal leaders have presented a small-scale alternative to the Bush administration’s vision of democratic government as the key to a stable Middle East.
This month, Dubai’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Rashid Maktum warned his fellow Arab leaders to “change, or you will be changed” at a forum attended by intellectuals, Middle Eastern politicians, business leaders and former President Clinton.
People who know the prince said his speech was not a push for democratic reform but meant only to encourage his far wealthier neighbors to follow Dubai’s model: using economic opportunities to appease volatile youth suffering poverty, unemployment and despair.
The ruling tribe of Dubai, once a Silk Road stop renowned for its pearl trade, arrived from Abu Dhabi roughly a century ago. From the start, trade was central to its governing ethic and remained so even after oil was discovered here in 1966.
Dubai’s reserves pale in comparison to those of Abu Dhabi, which in 1971 became the capital of a federation of six emirates and largely finances the budget for each. A seventh joined a year later and each has developed a distinct character, from the traditional and pious Sharjah to cosmopolitan Dubai.
Dubai has viewed the alliance, engineered by the widely admired president, Zayed bin Sultan Nahayan, who died last month, as a way to free itself of responsibilities that distract it from what it does best: business.
Dubai’s majority immigration population has arrived from the east over the past three decades to build its gleaming infrastructure and sustain an economy based on tourism, real-estate development and industries spun off from the booming tax-free port. Oil accounts for about 5 percent of Dubai’s economy, and in the past five years its non-oil sectors have grown at a combined annual average rate of more than 9 percent.
Like other tax-free business hubs, Dubai also has become a haven for money laundering, a reputation government officials have sought to shed by tightening banking laws. The government is also moving to change the property-ownership laws that have prevented expatriates from owning their own homes.
Meanwhile, the city-state is pushing a development scheme of “world firsts.” A German consortium has announced plans to build the world’s first underwater hotel, to be named Hydropolis.
The largest mall outside North America is scheduled to open next year. But that will quickly be trumped by the mall at the Dubai Tower complex, featuring an aquarium, amusement parks, a “floating fashion island” and a “seven-star” hotel, which will be the largest in the world.
With the focus on business, there is no class of critics pushing for democracy. The Arabic-language news media in Dubai are largely government-owned, and the English-language media largely serve the commercial interests of their clients.
The only political protest most people here remember followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a sanctioned demonstration led by the crown prince. Small labor demonstrations also break out on occasion. But the government, worried about how such unrest might affect construction plans, has moved quickly to handle the complaints.
The crown prince, who doubles as the United Arab Emirates’ defense minister, holds regular town-hall-style meetings where he can be questioned by anyone from port workers to business leaders. The events are crowded, however, and little actual debate occurs.
The prince also usually drives his own car and frequently dines with friends in local restaurants without a bodyguard in sight.
But Dubai’s transformation into Vegas on the Gulf has disturbed some people. Khaja, whose film-school tuition is paid by the government, worries about the potential loss of her city’s identity and culture.
She chooses to wear the black abaya and head scarf as a nod to tradition, and she left temporarily to study in Canada because Dubai’s own universities mostly don’t teach the arts.
“We need to slow down,” she said. “We have all the glitz and glamour. But it’s all about buildings, and that gets boring.”