Time for Dubai to speak up and fight back

Westerners should be cheering this dynamic city as the best thing to happen in the Arab world in 700 years.
Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National

Until about 15 months ago, Dubai was the western media's favourite Middle Eastern "good news" story. Coverage of the city and its accomplishments during its six-year boom was, for the most part, positive. Dubai's leaders received pop-star treatment on their travels. But when Dubai's economic fortunes flipped in 2008, so did the coverage. Instead of focusing on the Emirate's failed economic policies, however, some journalists confronted its entire existence. Dubai found itself pilloried on human rights, environment policy, and the tastefulness and social acceptability of its tourism offerings. Writers predicted - even advocated - its demise.
It is now safe to say that Dubai is under-appreciated in the West. I believe westerners should be cheering this dynamic city as the best thing to happen in the Arab world in 700 years - a free-market inspiration for the stagnant and strife-ridden Middle East. But that is not the dominant view. Why has the coverage turned nasty? In America, people view Dubai's skyline as the physical result of the extra US$2 per gallon of petrol they have been paying for the past five years. Arabs are a routine target in the US media, where Dubai's rise is viewed by some as a challenge to Israel. This isn't true, but there is a fear that the surging Gulf - dramatically manifested in the US dollar holdings of its sovereign wealth funds - means that Arabs will have leverage to challenge America's pro-Israel policies.
In the British press, the anti-Dubai bent appears to be due to a herd mentality that has papers lining up to praise the city - or slag it off - depending on the fashion. Journalists love the contrarian view. There is no more satisfying feeling than to puncture the sacred cow: "Everyone has been saying that Dubai is wonderful. Well, the truth is, it's sickening," is the tone adopted. Edward R Murrow, the great American newsman, said it best: "The journalist has two responsibilities: to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." Dubai, from 2002 to 2008, was a comfortable place ripe for affliction.
Johann Hari at The Independent first lowered the boom with his article The Dark Side of Dubai last April. The story was a diatribe that stereotyped Dubai as a robber-baron state of disgusting wealth and cruel misfortune. Hari, who explained his stance by saying that "there's a revulsion in Britain towards people who don't pay taxes", triggered a stampede of muckraking. Joining in were The Guardian, The Sunday Times and many others.
I can imagine various news editors demanding equally lurid follow ups. Dubai isn't the only victim of the herd mentality. Brits will remember the negative coverage of the Millennium Dome. Americans still cringe at the media cheerleading for the invasion of Iraq. Of course, Dubai - and the rest of the Gulf - has plenty of skeletons that deserve to be tackled. First among them is its treatment of labourers. Describing them as slaves, as Hari did, is factually incorrect. But not by much. As long as labourers are denied their due for their remarkable feats, Dubai and the Gulf can expect to be called out on it.
Residents of Dubai and the rest of the UAE also happen to have one of the highest CO2 emission rate per capita in the world. Government attempts to address this issue haven't gone far enough. Dubai actively seeks attention by building towers and islands. When you look for attention, remember, you might get it. And let's not forget that Dubai is the epicentre of "25/11", the day the debt standstill announcement pushed global stock markets downwards.
But much of the nasty coverage is beyond these issues.
So, what can Dubai do to combat this blight, besides addressing the problems above, which, to be fair, it is quietly doing?
The first thing is to speak up on its own behalf. For too long, Dubai has been content to let others tell its story. Westerners (including me) are its chief chroniclers in the English language. When you forfeit the microphone you lose control of the message. The reality is actually worse. Dubai has no press office where a journalist can go for information and commentary. I found this intensely frustrating. Every other entity I covered, from IBM to the postwar government of Iraq, had a press office staffed by people who answered phones and issued comments. Dubai does not. It may claim to have such an office, but for practical purposes it does not. The city has abdicated from its own story.
In 2006, New York-based Human Rights Watch held a press conference in a Dubai hotel where it released a very critical labour report that was covered by every major international news agency. The only entity to ignore it was Dubai's government, which didn't say a word in its own defence. It did not challenge the report's findings nor explain what it was doing to improve labour conditions. The reason, I learnt later, was that Dubai didn't want to be seen bowing to "foreign pressure". The result was that foreign pressure increased.
The second thing is that, when journalists are wrong, Dubai needs to forcefully correct the record. Newspaper corrections may be small and outwardly unimpressive, but they are deeply embarrassing for the newspaper, the reporter involved, and the editor who missed the mistake.
At the Associated Press, where I worked, a "corrective" rose up the editorial hierarchy and had to be signed off by the managing editor. This was an excruciating process that did not endear slipshod reporters to their bosses. Once they are printed, corrections serve as an industry-wide warning that the mis-portrayed subject is vigilant. Abandoning your own story does the opposite. It invites others to pile in.
In my scanning of negative stories like that of Hari - who did not respond to an e-mailed request to comment for this article - there are several errors for which corrections could have been demanded. Some of them are petty: he describes a UAE desert populated by "cactus". Some errors aren't so minor. He says a Dubaian's carbon footprint is more than double an American's. It is slightly bigger, not double.
A press office isn't just needed to set the record straight on negative coverage. Dubai has plenty of facets that deserve praise, but rarely, these days, does anyone notice. A press office can spoon-feed the good news, and add context that could change the tone of a negative story.
For instance, Dubai gets derided in the West as the service centre for Iran's evasions of the US trade embargo. Why not respond to these accusations by saying that Dubai pursues a pragmatic and neutral foreign policy which keeps it on friendly terms with Washington and Tehran, while enforcing the UN's nuclear sanctions?
Dubai gets blasted in the Muslim world as a place of western excess and sleaze. Why not respond that Dubai is a city of religious and cultural tolerance, a cosmopolitan beacon for the world? Dubai's fear of engaging the global press is a character flaw.
This maverick city, a place with the confidence to bring into being some of the world's most iconic creations, lacks the voice to defend it.
Jim Krane is the author of Dubai: The Story of the World's Fastest City, published in North America as City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism. He was the Associated Press Dubai-based Gulf correspondent. He is speaking on Perceptions of Dubai in the Western Media at the Dubai School of Government tomorrow.