Darryl Chen, 08 04 09


J.G. Ballard could give up now. Dubai is quickly surpassing his dystopian imagination by conjuring this phenomenon from its maxed-out economy: There is now a subclass of western expats who having been made bankrupt from over-extended mortgages have been evicted from their gated villas, had their bank accounts frozen and are now seeking refuge in hotel carparks camped out in their SUVs.

Homelessness is not supposed to happen in this oasis where flowers bloom in the desert. Certainly not for white-collar executives who have been shipped in for the promotion, the tax-free paypacket, the lifestyle, the blissful unaccountability of expat life. Even in an economic downturn, we expect this savvy international class to have some fallback position, some funds back home, a legal safety net….

But bankruptcy affords no shelter in the Emirates, just a continuing obligation to pay back debt. And so the developed-nation expats strangely parallel the sorry plight of indentured construction workers from the developing world who without money or rights, are shuttled back and forth from building site to workers’ hovel. Much more than any other city on earth Dubai exposes all – rich and poor – as transient objects of a regime where economic opportunism reigns.

For now, the capsule of the automobile comprises a last refuge from the planned city It is a hermetically-sealed haven for one, where expended desire can finally come to rest – in adjustable bucket seats. With a corporatised public realm, a gagged media and an omnipresence of moral codes, the private car provides a last bastion for the individual, the last refuge when opportunism runs out. And for the homeless expat, the car’s domain is a territory not of roads named after rulers, but the service spaces, vacant lots, hotel undercrofts and ample roadside nature strips that have not yet been accounted for by capitalism. These could be the spaces of Dubai that really make the city come alive.

3 Comments

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  • 1. Camel  |  April 11th, 2009 at 4:33 am

    It is not just Dubai, all Islamic middle east states are ‘medieval dictatorships’ where anybody questioning their dictatorship means (even privately within friends) will be immediately terminated from their jobs and kicked out. I know this for a fact, it happened to a friend of mine, who emailed from a company email account questioning their law to a friend, the law that you cant eat in public in a hotel during ‘Ramadan’. Next day he was terminated and was not even given his contractual settlement, and he could not stay to take it to court either, as his visa was canceled immediately.

  • 2. Bob  |  May 18th, 2009 at 5:52 am

    I would like to know the source of this story…espacialy about people living in cars. Because I live in Dubai and among expats I can confirm that we help each other if there is anything wrong. So I really don’t think that expats are living in their car. But it is true that you can’t leave the country if you have debts to pay!

  • 3. Darryl Chen  |  May 21st, 2009 at 5:51 am

    Follow the link to Johann Hari writing in the Independent. Not being on the ground in Dubai myself, we at TTT can only speculate as to the consequences of such phenomena without verifying their accuracy. Living in cars is no big deal in a lot of cities around the world, but in Dubai this might be a necessary interstice of spatial occupation. What are your experiences?


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