Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Norwegian Wood v Dubai Gold

As some of you may have noticed I've spent most of last week in Dubai. Or so I thought before I got there. Yes, we knew the hotel was not going to be in Dubai proper, but little did we expect it to be more than 100km away from it. Still, it was a very nice hotel to be in (apparently most Dubai hotels are). But that's not what I want to talk about...

What I do want to talk about is Norway, really. Or rather, how Norway and Dubai are at the same time very much the same, and very, very different.

First the sameness...

This may not be so obvious unless you immediately home in on on thing that both United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Norway have in common: oil. A lot of oil. There's other similarities, too, like population: around 5 million each (2005 census data for UAE, 2010 for Norway). Or even GDP: between 250 and 300 billion US dollars (2010 estimate for both).

I am sure I'd be able to find even more similarities, but the most important one for what I have in mind is oil, or rather, the wealth that flows from it into both countries, and with it the opportunities. And it is in the ways these opportunities are being used that the countries differ, and wi(l)dly. Let's have a look at some of them...

The thing that probably strikes me the most as being very, very different in the two countries is how well (or poorly) they distribute their wealth among the population. Yes, both countries have rich and the poor while at the same time both try to spread the benefits to most. However, the wealth - and especially well-being - gap I saw in Dubai surpasses anything that exists in Norway. Do also note that I am by no means advocating spreading wealth absolutely evenly to every last one citizen. That would be both impossible and counter-productive in the long run.

I guess what I am really thinking of here is how Norway is so much better at making sure that the very worst off are still not horribly poor and/or underprivileged. UAE seem to be much happier with leaving the bottom rungs of their society in what most Western countries would consider abject poverty. The size of GPD goes only so far in portraying a country's true well-being.

Another striking difference is, of course, the political system - or a lack of one in case of UAE. I'm sure in time UAE will probably move to something akin to a modern day democracy. I am also sure that at the moment they do not necessarily need one. Money (i.e. oil) is plentiful, and the current royal family is benevolent enough for most people not to feel any need for change. That's fair enough. After all, I have heard from some locals that they positively love their current ruler.

The problem, as ever, lies in some - possibly not too distant - future in which either oil runs out or the ruler turns sour. Or both, the former possibly giving rise to the latter. In such a situation people may wish they had the checks and balances - imperfect as they are - of some sort of democracy. Yes, the current royals are trying to develop tourism and other sorts of industry for when the oil does run out, but business also needs democracy - and especially in times of strife.

The final difference I want to mention is the most sensitive one. It goes straight to the heart of the religion and tradition that pervades all of the Middle East, and beyond. Whereas Norway, much like most of the Western countries, and Scandinavian ones in particular, is completely devoid of religious influence and pressure in the everyday, and especially public life, even Dubai, considered one of the most liberal Middle Eastern cities/states is a very, very far cry from the liberties we Europeans are taking for granted.

Again, similar to statements about the current royal family, you'll find a lot, maybe even most people in Dubai will defend the restrictions that are in place - all of them being essentially religious, or at least partly religious.

More universal ones, like an almost total ban of alcohol, are probably seriously harming tourism. Yes, one can imbibe to one's heart's content in any of the expensive tourist-only hotels. These even serve pork. And that is fine for as long as you are planning on a holiday where you spend all of your time in the hotel and on its beaches. And you may want to stay in the hotel not only because of alcohol. After all, a lot of us would probably benefit from drinking a tad less. The problem is, the area is perfect for spending a lot of your time on the beach. But in this one again runs into local restrictions, this time ones about the appropriateness of various styles of dress. And, it is not only that nude or topless is frowned upon. Perfectly ordinary, and conservative,l swimming costumes of today are banned on public beaches, especially for women.

So, once you leave the confines of your hotel, you can neither (sun)bathe nor have a beer, the two things that most of the Earth's population consider sine qua nons of holiday. It would be just about acceptable to have these restrictions in a country which does not publicly welcome tourism, but in one which would like to make it one of the main exports it borders on ridiculous. Not to mention that on a hot night even a stroll around town is made unnecessarily inconvenient by restrictions on the amount of flesh both sexes are supposed to be showing (which, for women, tends to gravitate to none). Oh, and you're also not supposed to hug and kiss your own wife/husband/partner. Especially "partner", gay people being really, really frowned upon. And here I am not at all talking about the silliness of having sex on a public beach. That particular stunt is illegal, or at least considered ill taste, in most liberal countries, too.

So, having said all this, or rather, having moaned about all this, did I enjoy my time in Dubai? You bet I did! Did you not notice I never said people were not the nicest one can hope to meet? Did I really complain about anything more (un)important than passing up on a beer or two, a kiss or two, and spending a bit more time than necessary in long trousers? No, I did not. After all, any of these things I can make up for elsewhere, or even in Dubai if I can exercise just a little bit of patience. Delayed gratification can indeed be very, very gratifying.

The main reason for all the ranting above, really, is that I am also the kind of person who cannot just go on holiday and switch off all but the most basic of pain/pleasure circuits. The good old brain keeps ticking and what comes out is (too) often something only vaguely related to the concept of holiday=unadulterated fun and games. You may think it's a bit sad, but for me holidays wouldn't be half as fun if I didn't spend at least some time pondering the absolutes, as it were...

Finally, having used Norway as a sort of a yardstick, would I have preferred a holiday there?

Well, I find this a bit of a pointless question. Most of the time I go on holiday to experience something new. In this respect, having never visited either place (until last week, that is), both would have been equally fun. If you really need an answer I can give it to you, with a caveat. The caveat being that it really depends on the season. This having been December, which is equally cold in both Blighty and Norway, Dubai stood out as a clear winner: who wouldn't change the wet and the cold for the sun and the sea, if only for a week. Now, if only Dubai changed some other things by the time I feel the same need again...