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City of Gold by Jim Krane

City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism - Jim Krane

This account of Dubai’s history and challenges isn’t quite a textbook, but it’s much closer to that than the sort of popular nonfiction people read for entertainment. It is quite thorough, covering Dubai’s history, its leaders, the downsides and seedy underbelly to its fantastic growth, and the challenges it faces going forward. The book is organized in academic fashion, in short topical subsections, and would be well-suited to a college course.

For someone who doesn’t know much about Dubai – I read this book for my world books challenge and not due to any personal connection – this provides a good base of information about the place. And Dubai is certainly a fascinating place, going from a desert fishing village without electricity to a world-class city within 50 years. According to Krane, the secret to its extraordinary growth is a line of visionary sheikhs unencumbered by any checks on their power, able to take advantage of Dubai’s few natural advantages and build a diverse economy that’s become a regional hub for trade.

But while Krane writes a lot – more than I wanted to read – about building projects and economic ventures, and seems duly impressed with a city able to become a major tourist destination despite having no cultural or historical sites and to construct the world’s tallest building despite having been a land of illiterate fishermen and nomads only a generation before, he also acknowledges the faults. Dubai’s population is 95% expatriate, but with no opportunity to gain citizenship, especially for the unskilled, poorly-paid South Asian workers imported to build its skyscrapers. It does little to stop sex trafficking in a city that’s 75% male. And sustainability has never been part of its development. Krane presents both the positives and negatives without seeming to choose a side. He also deals with the politics (seemingly a no-go issue in Dubai), acknowledging how one-man rule has facilitated development, but also recognizing that if Dubai wants to become a cultural hub rather than just a collection of skyscrapers, political expression and participation will have to come with it.

The book has two obvious drawbacks and one less obvious. First, it’s dry, organized topically rather than through a narrative structure and focusing most of its attention on economic projects. Second, it’s quickly becoming dated: it was published in 2009, already an age ago by the standards of Dubai’s rapid development and change; there’s a hasty epilogue about the possible effects of the financial crisis, which was only just hitting Dubai as the book went to press. The third and less obvious drawback is that while Krane certainly discusses the significance and influence of Dubai in the Middle East, the majority of his interview subjects are Westerners like himself; to the extent the book gives much sense of life in Dubai, it's mostly the life of Western expats. This is true even when locals could provide more interesting perspectives. For instance, in the chapter about Dubai’s often fatal traffic, Krane writes about an infamous highway pileup from the perspective of a German flight engineer who crashed on his way to work, then includes a shorter section discussing young Emirati men’s love of reckless driving. Interviewing Emirati men instead would have made this section much more insightful and interesting.

Overall, this book seems like a good choice for academic or occupational purposes, but less so for the casual reader. It is certainly informative, but there’s a reason I could find it only at my university library.