Let's talk about it

Saloon One evening in Al Quoz, a call for popular participation.

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One evening in Al Quoz, a call for popular participation. "I'm here because I like Dubai," said Mishaal al Gergawi, the Emirati writer, in the opening of a speech he delivered last Thursday at The Shelter, a converted warehouse in Al Quoz. Given that preface, the rest of his presentation could only be classified as an ample dose of tough love - one that criticised Dubai while also, in its very delivery, challenging the pat notion that the emirate is a place of straitjacketed public discourse.

Wearing a simple black suit, al Gergawi called on residents - both foreign and local - to rise to the challenge of making Dubai into a better city. Speaking in a fast-paced stream of observations built up over a life lived in Dubai, al Gergawi outlined his worries for the emirate: that its over-regulative government stifles entrepreneurship, that the members of its alienated expatriate population do not conceive of their long-term future as tied to Dubai; that the corporate elite has lost touch with reality; and that social infrastructure has not kept pace with the booming economy.

To remedy these ills, al Gergawi proposed a reinvigoration of public debate, beginning with the launch of an online forum where Dubai's residents can discuss how to improve the city. He imagined calls for better schools and customer service and a permanent residency system for lifetime expatriates. Those discussions would feed into workshops and roundtable discussions, the output of which would be made available to the city's powers that be.

"If anyone wants to listen, it's up to them," said al Gergawi. "But the people will have spoken." In a nation where governance remains a closed-door affair, such talk of popular participation can set hearts in an audience fluttering. "I was worried for a while that it would be interpreted as an anti-government statement," al Gergawi said this week, reflecting on the presentation. "That would be ridiculous, because I work for the government. I'm a government official." (Al Gergawi manages projects and events for the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority).

"I'm not interested in revolutionary rhetoric," he said. "I'm interested in demystifying something and letting people know what they can do about it." Demystification by itself is a tall order in the emirate - and something that's badly needed. For a town that loves to be talked about, much of what has been said about Dubai over the tumultuous past year has been about as persuasive as a tea-leaf reading.

Since the city entered its painful economic crisis, almost all those publicly discussing Dubai - at least in English - have been political or geographical outsiders. Local newspapers, staffed almost entirely by expatriates, reported on Dubai's crisis using mainly expat sources in government companies, investment banks and research houses. Foreign press relied on many of the same sources, with the physical remove of their newsrooms only exaggerating the difficulties of seeing Dubai clearly. Much of what was published amounted to analysis made through binoculars on a foggy day.

Case in point: the most prolific commentator on Dubai's complex political and economic system is a British university lecturer based in Durham. Over the last year, a reader of the New York Times would have seen Christopher Davidson quoted more than a dozen times discussing Dubai. Readers of local and international publications are more likely to see the name Davidson accompanying a published quote on Dubai than any other.

The former Zayed University professor is no doubt well-informed on the UAE's past and present. But it is hard to imagine another place on Earth being explained so frequently by a single man who lives thousands of kilometres away. Even the politics of North Korea are dissected by a wider range of thinkers. To be sure, one factor contributing to the problem is that there has been a relative dearth of independent local analysts willing to speak freely. Sometimes, though, these voices have simply been overlooked in narratives that sketch Dubai as a hedonistic playground where discussion is either vacuous or suppressed.

The venue of al Gergawi's speech, for example, is one place where members of an engaged local community feel relatively free to speak their minds. The Shelter, a mixed-use warehouse that is part gallery, part creative workspace and part event venue, sits at the heart of the most culturally exciting development in the Gulf, a cluster of renovated warehouses in the Al Quoz industrial zone that now host regular concerts, exhibitions, workshops and happenings.

The phenomenon of Al Quoz cropped up without government planning or stimulus, and the combined total of all that has been invested in the handful of institutions that make up its heart would represent a miniscule fraction of the budget for one of Dubai's lesser apartment towers. But for the city's creative elite, places like the Shelter make Dubai stand out among its neighbours in the Gulf as a nascent hub for ideas and creative exchange - much of it both bracing and affectionate in its consideration of Dubai. Al Gergawi plans to return to The Shelter soon to deliver his presentation in Arabic, targeting Emirati and Arabic-speaking audiences.

Saturday's speech was sprinkled with hat tips to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Dubai's ruler, who al Gergawi said was not to be blamed for the emirate's shortcomings. "If you think about it, every single thing that Sheikh Mohammed has said makes perfect sense," he said at one point. What went wrong was the "execution" of his vision by those below him. But beyond such niceties, the speech was a striking call for change from below, challenging Dubai's true believers - again, both foreign and local - to take the future of the troubled city into their own hands. "If Dubai wants to hear this dialogue, great. If not," he said, invoking ancient Rome, "far greater cities have fallen. But I'll be damned if I sit here and watch it go down without a fight."

* Tom Gara