WHETHER Michael Jackson knew it or not, he had a huge following in the Arabian desert.
Traditionally conformist Arabs might appear an unlikely fan base for the eccentric singer, but the shared experience of ludicrous wealth transcended such cultural divides.
“He’s more like them than any other person alive,” an acquaintance tells author, Jo Tatchell, before Jackson’s death, citing the preposterously palatial compounds in which the oil-rich super-elite of Abu Dhabi reside.
“These guys live in Never Never Land. There are fountains and roads with mini-cars for driving around in. Golf courses, zoos, railways. Jacko’s their kind of guy.”
It’s just one of the observations British-born Tatchell collects on a return trip to her childhood home to see how its transformation from one of the planet’s poorest regions to the world’s richest city, in just 40 years, has affected the local psyche and what plans its rulers are making for the day the oil runs out.
Tatchell’s story is typical of the expat experience.
She moved to Abu Dhabi, with her family, as a toddler in the early 1970s, following her father’s job as manager of a catering firm which, like every other commercial enterprise in the fledgling metropolis, serviced the booming oil industry.
On her return, she meets up with family friends who never left; the remnants of the pioneers who ventured out in the 1950s; the exuberant new young entrepreneurs who see potential fortunes in enterprises other than oil; the underclass of migrant labourers from developing countries; and the idle wives and offspring of billionaire Arabs stupefied by suffocating wealth.
The city is an extraordinary character in the book.
Built in one of the most inhospitable terrains on earth, imported skill has conquered the limitations of its location with exceptional feats of engineering, much the way its camel herders and date growers once did with extraordinary displays of endurance.
It is home to 850,000 people, but only one-in-five are native Emiratis, making it the mother of all multinational melting pots. Yet it rigidly retains its ancient ruling structures, with an unelected monarch in charge, his extended family filling key administrative positions, and only a few thousand well-connected citizens allowed the privilege of voting in the largely symbolic federal national council.
Open to the world, yet shielded by censorship, strictly Islamic, yet tolerant of all faiths, shackled by protocol and bureaucracy, yet trading in the world’s fastest-changing commodity market, the city is a mass of contradictions, so much so that Tatchell ponders whether there is such a thing as an Abu Dhabian identity.
The author occasionally indulges her nostalgia for her childhood days, when the desert sand still crept into every crevice, but she allows the people she encounters to challenge her rose-tinted recall.
As an old friend says to her on a trip to the now floodlit desert, when Thatchell speaks wistfully of the days of starlight and camel trains: “Don’t get touristy on me. Too many people like the fantasy of that old stuff. Come on, why would you ride a damn camel when there are SUVs?”
A Texan who has worked the Abu Dhabi oilfields since the ’80s offers an insight into the mindset of his adopted home, saying the Middle East is more Texas than the Lone Star state. “We got similar heat, similar dirt and sand. Just the mullah and the water is different. And, maybe, the labour force.
The Mexicans do that kind of work at home.”
Indians are the Mexicans of Abu Dhabi: one survey in the ’90s numbered them at 40% of the population. The author recalls with discomfort her family’s use of a ‘house boy,’ a native of southern India, when they lived in the city, and she is unsettled by the casual delight expats take in the low pricing and swift delivery of services as supplied by migrant workers presumably terrified not to work at a breakneck pace for marginal reward.
One expat describes the seductively easy way of life for his type as the “velvet rut”; and, for all its comforts, one former professional, who followed her husband to the city, speaks ruefully of the lack of challenge. “You have to work hard to fill your days, sometimes.”
In other settings, such a mix of nationalities and cultures, all competing to gain from one depleting resource, would be volatile, but Abu Dhabi has a reputation for stability and safety.
Tatchell isn’t entirely convinced by the image and, guided by childhood memories of whispered incidents that clearly unsettled her community, attempts to delve into the city’s short past to see if the reality recorded in newspapers and official documentation is different. Her quest is frustrated, as Abu Dhabi has no state archive – at least, none that she is allowed to access.
Without openness about the past, she questions how ready Abu Dhabi is to face the future, particularly as oil, its only resource, begins to dwindle.
Neighbouring Dubai has already seen its spectacular wealth bubble burst, but Abu Dhabi has been in the game longer and its ruler, the intriguing Sheikh Khalifa, is intent on creating a completely new dimension to the city to give it a purpose and influence beyond that of oil producer.
Under his wildly ambitious urban structure framework plan, Abu Dhabi, by 2030, is to be a city admired worldwide as much for its artistic and cultural pursuits as its black gold. Early aspirations include the building of branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums.
It’s easy to dismiss the notion as a fad – a bit like the current craze among sheikhs for buying football teams, Khalifa’s half-brother, Sheikh Mansour, owner of Manchester City, being a prime example.
Tatchell believes the Khalifa’s interest is genuine, but she questions how art could flourish in such a conservative environment, where the job of the artist – to challenge the status quo and depict uncomfortable truths – would be so at odds with the way Abu Dhabi does business.
If hero worship of Michael Jackson is indicative of the level of sophistication in art appreciation among Abu Dhabians, Khalifa’s vision for his city’s future may also belong in Never Never Land.
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