The Sintered City

Rahel Aima explores urban shanzhai

Text by Rahel Aima

Harnessing the sun’s rays is a curious thing. When you place a magnifying glass over a piece of tinder, the concentration of rays at the focal point is enough to ignite a fire. If you use a larger lens, like one from an overhead projector, you don’t even need to use any kindling. It’s a favourite technique of wilderness enthusiasts, preppers and perhaps the odd child gleefully crisping up an ant. But what if you were to pick a spot in the desert, hold a magnifying glass over it and watch a city burst into existence? A few years ago, German designer Markus Kayser invented an alchemical machine. Dubbed the Solar-Sinter, it combines a Fresnel lens, photovoltaic panels, a sun tracker, a battery, electronics and a computer to form a solar-powered and completely mobile 3D printer. But instead of lighting fires, it focuses the sun’s light to create beautiful objects that have an oddly alien quality to them through a process known as selective laser sintering, or SLS: heat (usually in the form of a laser) plus powdery substance (metals, plastics, resins) equals solid replicas of a computer-generated model. Unlike its commercial counterparts, though, the Solar-Sinter uses only 
the two things found in abundance in the world’s deserts: sun and sand.

When silica-heavy sand, the kind you find in the Arabian Peninsula’s vast deserts, is heated to the point of liquefaction, it becomes glass. In videos of Kayser’s work, you see sand granules bubbling like caramelising sugar. Although the objects created have a crude, corrugated quality to them, as we approach peak plastic, the sustainability of Kayser’s technology might just revolutionise the industry. But before peak plastic comes peak oil, and because of the spectre of peak oil came Dubai.

Sun, sand and glassy monoliths rising out of the desert. A hyper-real city, printed to order, which feels like it has emerged almost overnight. Fast cars, Arab money, liquid gold and a projected palette of beige, blue and space age: the Gulf Futurist wet dream. It’s shanzhai on an urban scale. In Dubailand, a gargantuan entertainment complex, the Falcon City of Wonders, will include life-size replicas of the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Egyptian pyramids. The recently announced (and world’s largest) Mall of the World – climate-controlled and hermetically sealed under a retractable dome – will include an ersatz Oxford Street shopping area and Broadway theatre district. Untold pixels have been devoted to aestheticising the city (swaggy!) and diagnosing its problems (sordid!). Lips curl at its visual culture – too rich, too gaudy, too fake, and don’t ever forget its famed dark side.

And yes, to these external, overwhelmingly Western, observers, Dubai is all of these things and not much more. At a recent writer’s salon in Abu Dhabi, an audience member compared the way that the city is written about to Europe’s derision of early American boomtown culture as lowbrow, vulgar and unrefined. For these journalists Dubai can be understood only through hyperbolic similes – “like Las Vegas but on steroids, no, wait, on Viagra” – all wrapped up in thinly veiled Orientalist fantasies. As a phenomenon that feels entirely new on the world stage, there is not yet a robust framework for understanding a place like Dubai. It looks retro-futuristic, 
and kind of sounds like Dune, but has that dark underbelly, so let’s call it dystopian. If there was a DSM-V manual for cities, you can be pretty sure where you would find Dubai. Except that’s not what the future looks like anymore.

There’s something intriguing about Dubai as model for the global city of tomorrow. It’s part of a federation, the United Arab Emirates, yet exists as a largely autonomous city state, the kind that all its neighbours – Doha, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi chief among them – want to be. Its allure extends beyond the region, though. Khartoum and Casablanca are duelling over the title of “the Dubai of Africa”, much as Beirut, Bucharest, Manila and Shanghai scrap over who gets crowned “Paris of the East”. Since the 2008 crash, Dubai has bounced back and people are flocking in once again, especially after the Arab Spring. There’s a deliciously palpable urgency and excitement to working in a city that is on the cusp of swinging from margin to centre.

Dubai was modelled on the city state of Singapore, much admired for its transformation into a heartily pro-business global financial capital. Like Singapore, Dubai’s transformation required the easing of bureaucracy and red tape, stringent visa regulations and the top-down administration of a city as if it were a corporation. It took headhunting the best talent from around the world – no matter what the price – twinned with a reliance on devalued migrant labour to produce a city that was expat-heavy, with all its attendant tensions. It took heavy wooing of foreign investment, generously low taxation and a heavy emphasis on infrastructure. In a matter of decades, it grew from being a small trading entrepôt, fortuitously positioned on the Persian Gulf, to become the world’s third most important re-export centre after Hong Kong and Singapore. It maintained itself as a soft police state, with the promise of absolute security in a tumultuous region being as much of a draw to tourists and businesses as its relative social liberalism. Combined with an accelerated pace of growth, all of this allowed Dubai to skip the traditional urban developmental stages (agriculture, manufacturing) and emerge into the desert sun, almost fully formed, as a high-income tertiary economy.

Visiting Singapore for the first time last year, I was struck by subtle resonances. Here, too, were those gleaming malls and the familiar shadows of skyscrapers by the sea. The climate was different (rainy and muggy), the flora lush and verdant instead of primly manicured, but walking around the city, I couldn’t shake the persistent feeling that I had been transported into a parallel Dubai. Perhaps it was the evidence of one man’s vision, of seeing land art on the scale of the city. Although the UAE is undeniably a federation of autocracies, it is worth noting that its rulers are, perhaps unusually, universally beloved by citizens and residents alike. Dubai’s explosion onto the world scene is almost entirely attributable to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum (“The Boss” or “Sheikh Mo”), whose autobiography is appropriately titled My Vision. Instead of a spot in the desert by the Arabian Sea, however, Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew instead chose to hold his magnifying glass over an ex-colony in the South China Sea.

Most interesting are the demographic parallels, with both cities buttressed by an implicitly racialised mandate. Singapore was set up as multi-racial society, classified under four meta-groups of Chinese (74.2 per cent in 2011) Malay (13.2 per cent), Indians (9.2 per cent) and Others (3.3 per cent). Through the implementation of a racial quota system, these percentages have remained fairly consistent over the decades. It is worth noting that the racial categories are arbitrarily broad, corresponding to the postcolonial nationalist movements of the 20th century. The deployment of the term “race” is in itself a colonial holdover, and is used to indicate ethnicity rather than any conception of biological race. Hokkien, Cantonese and Hainanese, as well as the ethnically Chinese Malay speakers, the Peranakans, are all classified as Chinese, while Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, Nepalis and Pakistanis are all Indians in the eyes of the government. The country also maintains an Ethnic Integration Policy to try to combat segregation in its public housing – run by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) – where about 85 per cent of the population live. Units are parcelled up within each block roughly in accordance with these national divisions, so that each building’s racial composition matches that of the city as a whole.

Despite the earnest emphasis on racial harmony, discrimination is still widely felt. Chinese ethnicities are, for example, privileged above the others. Mainland Chinese, or PRCs, are an exception, though, and will, along with non-Singaporean “Indians”, find it especially difficult to rent housing. As an estimated 90 per cent of Singaporeans own their HDB flats, foreigners bear the brunt of rental discrimination. Xenophobia extends to the job market, too, where you can find listings that explicitly call for Chinese Singaporeans. This said, the country has experienced only three major race riots – in 1964 and 1969 between Chinese and Malay communities, and 44 years later with the 2013 Little India riots.

Not so in the UAE, where an entrenched structural racism is not so much a way of life as the bedrock upon which the society has been built, and which pervades its every level. It’s a strange hierarchical exercise in postcolonial power relations, which sees white people positioned below Gulf Arabs (though still above everyone else). There is a widespread assignation of jobs by nationality – South Asians as low-wage labourers, Filipinas as maids and service workers, Eastern European women as sex workers, white people as managers (“US/UK/SAF/AUS/NZ only” is the usual codification of whiteness). Look at any classifieds section or job board, and you’ll see that it is not only limited to nationality, but gender and age, too. Despite concerted efforts at Emiritisation, or incentivising more citizens to join the workforce through very highly paid, reserved-for-nationals positions, some Emiratis complain of tokenism and being employed only to meet quotas. As the job market gets more competitive, however, and with multinationals subject to the labour and non-discrimination laws of their own countries, these preferences are expressed a little less overtly, though the practice continues. Today, whether you get hired, and how much you get paid, will ultimately depend more on your passport and accent than on the colour of your skin.

Dubai is a city characterised by transience, impermanence and global mobility, along with a heightened, almost permanent condition of precarity. In this, it mirrors the contemporary condition of labour as seen in other global centres. Perhaps this is what the multiculturalism of tomorrow truly looks like. Over 200 nationalities coexisting nodally, with the frisson and transcultural dialectics this brings. Not a melting pot, with its homogenising, assimilating mandate, so much as a hotpot, where a variety of ingredients are added in and left to simmer for a while before being removed at will.

In the city states of the Gulf, with their high proportion of expat workers, ideas of citizenship and belonging, of having a home where the state has your back when you retire, feel like increasingly dated concepts. Along with places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Macau, Dubai points to the possibility of a new, Asian form of city state, one which differs greatly from the old European model of tiny nation states like Andorra, Monaco or Liechtenstein. Borders are set up to be semi-permeable, facilitating the flow not only of goods, capital and information but also of people. While it is rather strict on illegal immigration, the UAE favours periodic general amnesties, although it should be noted that on paper this applies only to those who have overstayed their visa, and not surreptitiously entered. Criminalising or jailing the latter is not as important as ensuring they leave.

Perhaps the city doesn’t displace the nation state so much as render it irrelevant. In Dubai, the legal structures of the UAE, which maintain that only Gulf nationals can own property and businesses, have been undercut by a tessellation of free zones and freehold areas. In these areas, someone can own a company or property outright, exempt from corporate tax and import-export levies, with no restrictions on profit or capital repatriation, a setup that is understandably attractive to multinational corporations. Many of the free zones are industry specific, thus media and internet companies are found in Media City or Internet City, charities and NGOs in Humanitarian City, radio stations in Radio City and so on. (For a while, Media City and Internet City enjoyed unrestricted – though presumably still monitored – access to the internet, though this has now ceased.)

Although Dubai sprang up next to the sea, it really came into being with its airport. As Dubai duty free’s slogan says, “Fly Buy Dubai.” Today, Dubai International has surpassed London’s Heathrow as the world’s busiest international airport, and is responsible for some 28 per cent of the city’s GDP. It has been recently joined by Al Maktoum International, which will become part of a massive aerotropolis, Dubai World Central, currently under construction. The rise of Emirates airline and the importance of its role in bringing passengers through and to the city cannot be underestimated. If you build it, they will come, but someone has to fly them in first.

As Wall Street Journal writer Tom Gara has argued, what is truly futuristic about Dubai are its demographic flows. A hyper-globalised country where only 12 per cent of the population are Emirati, or “local”; a reserve army of third- and fourth-culture kids who are born and spend their whole lives here but still have to leave when their visas run out. At risk of glibness, statelessness becomes a way of life – think economic migrants and serial expat mercenaries – even though someone might hold multiple passports. This said, it is a statelessness that turns on the silken assurance of hypermobility, with little thought to those the future left behind. The UAE has sizeable population of bidoon, who are literally stateless in that they have no legal papers (bidoon translates to “without”, as in “without nationality”). They are mostly descendants of migrants from Iran and eastern Pakistan, whose families may have lived in the area for generations but failed to obtain citizenship when the UAE unified in 1971. Also included are nomadic Gulf Bedouins whose lack of verifiable permanent residence meant that they had difficulty proving their claim to citizenship when borders were drawn. Others failed to register as citizens due to illiteracy or simply a lack of interest. Illegal immigrants and those who destroyed their identity documents in order to try to obtain UAE citizenship supplement those numbers by either 10,000 or 100,000, depending on who you ask.

As a whole, bidoon face restricted access to schools, jobs, the welfare system and non-emergency healthcare, and are unable to register vehicles, births and marriages, or open bank accounts. While they are rarely subject to deportation, their lack of documents means they are unable to travel internationally, although unusual news has recently emerged on that front. Reportedly the outcome of a multimillion-dollar deal, some bidoon are being granted passports from Comoros as a first step towards integration and possibly eventual citizenship. As with Edward Snowden recently, the revocation of citizenship remains a tool deployed against political dissenters.

It’s worth noting that unlike their 19th-century boomtown counterparts in the US and Australia, which were built on the subjugation of Native Americans and Aborigines, in the UAE, those in power have been there since the beginning. Or so the official narrative goes. Building something out of nothing, entirely divorced from history, zero to 100 in just a few short decades: these myths are integral to the Dubai story, coupled with the convenient elision of the city’s history leading up to the discovery of oil. Writing about Dubai’s cityscape, architect Fadi Shayya has emphasised the importance of endless sand and sea as a backdrop to its bar-graphed skylines. It’s not enough just to build big; the city must be contrasted with the appreciable voids of desert or history. But then again, perhaps all it takes is a carefully positioned magnifying glass. §

Photo caption: Markus Keyser’s Solar-Sinter is a 3D printer that harnesses the power 
of the sun to forge desert sand into computer-designed objects.