2007-04-27 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

And You Thought We Had Sand!
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

Have you heard about what's cooking in Dubai lately? That's the oil rich Persian Gulf emirate, which, wallowing in petrodollars, not long ago sought to put its money to work by buying a British firm with control over operations in many major U.S. ports. A firestorm ensued and Dubai eventually had to divest its newly acquired company of its American port holdings even though our ports are typically run by private concerns which are mostly of foreign provenance. But, with recollections of 9/11 still fresh, politicians fell all over themselves to attack the Dubai deal, thereby forcing the emirate to alter its investment plans. Those of us living in New York clearly had an interest in the outcome since ours is a major port city though it was never clear that an Arab held company, especially one based in a friendly Arab state, would pose a real security risk. After all, our ports, no matter who is responsible for running them, are still subject to the U.S. Coast Guard and other American agencies charged with protecting us.

But the Dubai deal was only a symptom of what's been happening in the Middle East as the price of oil has continued to pump its way higher on the back of global insecurity, seemingly insatiable demand from the fast growing economies of China and India, and the self-imposed limitations we are experiencing because of our own failures to build and sustain our domestic refining capacity (refineries turn crude into the fuel that drives our cars and SUVs). Our need for oil to keep things chugging along holds us hostage to those parts of the world which have it and want to squeeze us both economically and politically. In the Middle East, of course, oil money has been supporting our enemies. It's one of the reasons we can't simply abandon the Iraqi project, much as we'd like to, given the daily bombardment of violence and bloodshed coming from that part of the world. And in other places, such as Venezuela to our south, local demagogues prance to power, abolish democratic protections and make us the target of their particular rage on the tide of the oil revenue they can command.

We certainly can't cut ourselves off from such nations because they have what we need. Besides, they're not all taking our money to arm themselves against us or tweak us (like Venezuela's Chavez). Using its burgeoning oil revenues Dubai has, in fact, embarked on a series of long term building projects designed to turn itself into an international playground for the wealthy, a national Disneyland par excellence. What are they up to? How about building manmade islands off their coast by reallocating sand from the bottom of the Persian Gulf into the shapes of palm trees and a map of the world? We in Rockaway, who basically live on an overgrown sandbar, can empathize.

In Dubai, they're working overtime to turn their country into an unprecedented resort, building skyscrapers that rotate every ninety minutes and giant platforms in the sky containing the world's highest tennis courts. Why bother? Because the Emir and his government believe they can use their newfound oil wealth to reshape their nation both physically and economically. This isn't the first time the Arab world has reaped a windfall from oil wealth but after the surge in oil prices in the seventies that took them to new heights in money and influence, the surprising decades' long drop in prices that followed left some of the Arab states struggling to keep their systems afloat. Sparsely populated, these nations import huge numbers of foreign workers and, when times got tough, their "guest" populations become tougher to care for - and to keep happy. Dubai seems intent on changing this dynamic by investing for the future. And so they reshape their coastline with manmade islands and build structures seen nowhere else on the planet in hopes of supplementing their oil production (which won't last forever) with a Middle Eastern fantasyland right out of the Arabian Nights.

Will the wealthy of this planet flock there, as hoped, to spend their hard-earned gazillions? Well why not, as long as they've got money to waste. Dubai hasn't much else in the way of natural resources to exploit so why not make the most of its climate and proximity to the sea? But what if the world's economy goes punk, as it surely will at some point? Trees don't grow to the sky after all. Well, at least it's a better use for excess oil dollars than plowing them into military hardware and nuclear weaponry, or supporting global terrorists. You can never count on the future and the Emir of Dubai seems to have figured this out. But looking at all the photos of the massive Dubai construction projects now underway, one can't help thinking about certain other massive projects mankind has carried out in the past, particularly one of the oldest and most famous from that same part of the world - a certain tower which some folks constructed when all of us were said to have shared a common language.

Are the palm shaped islands in the Persian Gulf, built by an unprecedented sand dredging operation that dwarfs anything ever seen in Rockaway, the new Tower of Babel - or are they the harbinger of a better Middle Eastern future? And if they promise diversification for a nation like Dubai when its oil runs out or the market turns against it, are they really a viable investment or will they just be a temptingly succulent target for an increasingly aggressive Middle Eastern hegemony like Iran when it finally has the nukes it covets?

Are we on the cusp of prolonged planetary prosperity, as signaled by Dubai's colossal effort to reshape the human environment, or is this just another magnificent mirage, awaiting the next marauding Middle Eastern potentate who may be prepared to pluck the ripest melons from others' vines? rockirreg@aol.com

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