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Once Again: Either Dubai or the Suburbs

Once Again: Either Dubai or the Suburbs

Wednesday, 4 January, 2023 - 06:15

It is difficult for anyone following the celebrations of the new year in Saudi Arabia to believe what they see is happening in the Kingdom. In the capital alone, the Trio Talent concert in Mohammed Abdo Arena (a Riyadh Season event) saw 12 music artists of both genders from across the Arab world come together and set the city alight with their singing, joy, lights, and outfits. Anyone watching the celebrations at Boulevard Riyadh City, their fireworks, and the crowds that gathered there would not find a difference between the scenes in the Saudi capital and the festivities in Times Square, London, Paris, or Beijing.


The celebrations of the new year have strong connotations and are extremely indicative of the scale of the social, moral, and political changes underway in Saudi Arabia. These changes, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and under the guidance of King Salman bin Abdulaziz, are the result of diligent and careful planning.


Saudi Arabia has taken every opportunity to announce that it has a new place on the map. Saudi Arabia has a different spirit; it is looking to a different future, one that is different from the one that had been drawn for it in reaction to the choices of others. This different choice is the choice of the Saudi people first and foremost. It is the choice of Saudi Arabia’s men and women. It is a direct response to their needs and ambitions, and this choice is being taken in isolation of policies, decisions, and actions being taken here and there, regardless of the threat they pose to the country and its people.


Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said it in the past, and he is declaring it with his actions today: “We will not remain hostage to the events of 1979.” When Khomeini established the first confessional religious state in the Middle East that year, Iran’s neighbors were terrified, and he inspired some of their citizens to make insane and suicidal decisions. Among the latter was Juhayman Al-Otaybi, who attacked the Grand Mosque of Makkah that same year. All of that is now behind us, the Kingdom has announced. Tomorrow is for the Saudi People, their joys, achievements, economic progress, and innovation.


The choice of the Saudi people, the latest manifestation of which was the celebrations of the new year, comes within a broader regional framework. Some Arab cities are determined to make joy their social and political choice, while others have chosen destruction, displacement, and militias.


In the Emirates, the New Year’s Eve celebrations of the Sheikh Zayed Festival were attended by over one million visitors and spectators, who came together at Al Wathba (an Abu Dhabi suburb) to welcome the new year with stunning largest fireworks displays and a drone show that included over 3000 drones, in celebrations that broke five Guinness World Records.


In Dubai, which has always been a pioneer of dazzling displays, 30 events and shows were organized to welcome the new year. As is the case every year, the most impressive display was the fireworks at the Burj Khalifa, the city’s crown jewel, the most renowned of all symbols of cities, such as the Paris’ Eiffel Tower, New York’s Empire State Building, and London Bridge.


All of this is nothing short of political and social investment in what exists and what is being aspired to. The modernization of ethics is being funded, and closed identities are being opened to creative engagement with the identity of the other. All of this comes within a broader human framework that goes beyond rigid sectarian, religious, and national identities.


Since Dubai is a pioneer in redefining Middle Eastern cities, their roles, and their functions, I once wrote, in an Asharq Al-Awsat column, that the real choice before the people of the region is: “Either Dubai or the suburbs”! Wherever the “vision of the suburbs” (that is, the southern suburbs of Beirut- the main stronghold of Hezbollah) has taken hold, poverty, hunger, broken infrastructure, disease, cultural backwardness, and blind ideology followed. Wherever the “vision of Dubai” emerged, reconstruction, success, and opportunities have emerged with it.


At the time, I did not know that Iran would replicate the suburb model verbatim elsewhere. Indeed, in my discussion of the suburbs at the time, I was not referring to infrastructure alone but also an ideology that defines a group’s view of the world, its relationships, and its positions on the ideas of life, death, joy, and others!


I was astonished by the reports I read in Asharq Al-Awsat about Iran striving to revive its expansionist project near Damascus and expanding its influence in the rural regions south of the Syrian capital next to the Sayida Zaynab region, buying homes and establishing military bases aimed at creating a “southern suburb” like of controlled by Hezbollah in Beirut.


These are material replications, not mere political euphemisms for the “suburb/ Dubai” contrast. They sum up the real dividing line in our region. The matter goes beyond simplifications that see confessional dividing lines or regional battlelines manifesting themselves in Arab cities. All of that is abstract. It seems that the real split in our region is here:


On the one hand, Dubai is a euphemism for successfully moving towards all forms of modernity and striving for the well-being of its people. On the other, the suburbs are an open invitation to die for illusions and fantasies. “Dubai the euphemism” is not just a place. It is moving toward the future. The suburbs, meanwhile, are a euphemism for being imprisoned in a past that does not pass. The former is a laboratory for tolerance as a requisite for progress and building bridges to other places, while the latter is a factory where grudges and ideas are recycled.


One euphemism is inspired by and echoes a saying by one of the brightest minds in the region: the future is for those who can imagine it. The counter euphemism echoes a slogan that reflects sick formulations from a distant past.


Once again: “Either Dubai or the Suburbs!… Happy New Year.


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