Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Problem with Symbols

Several days ago the Burj Khalifa, the latest 'superlative' to emerge from the emirate of Dubai, was closed to the public after a small explosion in one of the elevators. A group of tourists apparently sat terrified in the elevator, stuck between two floors, for more than 45 minutes before rescue workers managed to pry the doors open and evacuate them via a service elevator. Afterward, Emaar properties, which owns the property, announced that the observation deck would be closed due to "technical issues with the power supply."

This is only the latest public relations debacle to wrangle Dubai, after an embarrassing near-default on semi-public debt that required neighboring Abu Dhabi to come to the rescue with a multi-billion dollar loan. The world watched stunned as Dubai's shiny veneer was briefly scraped away to reveal a slightly grimier undercoating. Dubai responded to this financial setback by unveiling a brand new display of profligacy and ostentation. The opening for the Burj Khalifa was rushed forward to January 4, largely to take the world's attention off the debt embarrassment. The event was steeped in symbolism. At the last minute the name of the building was changed from 'Burj Dubai' to 'Burj Khalifa,' a nod (perhaps of gratitude) to the ruling family of the UAE and a sign of Emirati national unity. The tower is the tallest in the world, a symbol of Dubai's rise to international prominence, a beacon calling one and all to a new cosmopolitan Mecca that fuses the best of the old and the new... Or so they hoped.

The tower may still achieve what Dubai had in mind. But the problem with symbols is that their meaning can shift in unpredictable ways. Until last week the only part of the Burj Khalifa that was open and operational was the tourist observation deck. Even when it opened, the windows at the top were apparently still caked in dust because cleaners had had no time to wipe them down. This new setback, which has received attention in a slew of Western publications, could actually bolster the image of the city that was fostered by the debt mess. Will the emirate continue to be seen as an urban meeting place between the East and the West, with enough pomp to wow even the savviest global travelers? Or will this new tower come to represent a city that is already past its heyday, with nothing much to show for it but a whole lot of debt and a bunch of behemoth-like structures that barely even work?

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