Picture Dubai, sometime after the discovery of oil in 1966, and before the import-export boxiness of the 1980s was ascendant. It’s probably the early 70s, during or shortly after the Arab oil embargo of 1973–4. This image of Dubai is one of sleepy, slightly oily glamour, all bedouins and boîtes. Of mirrored sunglasses and the earliest mirrored buildings, tinted copper, steel blue or sage, the kind you see as “before” examples in photos of the country’s evolution. Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum, founding ruler of Dubai, says, “My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel.” It’s a quote that has since been repeated so often that its origins have become apocrypha, but its connotations remain fixed. Sheikh Rashid is wary of the sudden influx of oil wealth. He knows that it can’t last forever, that it’s risky to depend on a single resource. That Dubai’s economy must be radically diversified if the country is to survive into the next century. Like his son, current ruler of Dubai and Emirati Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed, he is a visionary. He sees the future and then brings it into being. Or so the comparison photos show.
I’m now thinking of the go-to diptych of Dubai’s development, which features two images: one of Dubai’s arterial highway, Sheikh Zayed Road, snaking through empty sand and coastal scrub, and another matched shot showing the city’s current receiving lines of skyscrapers. In it, the saltwater inlet that contributed to Dubai’s history as a trading entrepot is scattered with wooden dhows, and lined with even more skyscrapers, which crowd its sides like iron filings. And now: satellite images of the coastline pre-and post the completion of Dubai’s signature continent-shaped island, and palm shaped-islands. Of the Burj Khalifa, currently the world’s tallest building, dwarfing all the other very tall buildings at its base, depicted alone because what could compare? The thing about the genre of “before and after” photos is that they usually describe an external, often calamitous, out-of-human-control event. Here’s the verdant forest and here it is decimated by a tsunami; here’s a once-prosperous city after a fire, a tornado, a hurricane, a flood. But in Dubai’s case there never is any event except Dubai. Here’s the city before and after itself, and during the ongoing process of its own becoming.
Also out of this world is Dubai’s new projected image of itself. It’s a full-throated embrace of Gulf futurism, a term coined by artist and writer Sophia al Maria to describe the hypermediated conditions of life on the peninsula at the extreme promontory of the future. This is a futurism that is very much in the Italofascist, as opposed to Afro, mold—all the aesthetics of science fiction without the social justice. Why be content with the nostalgic Space Age starchitecture of the Burj Khalifa or Martian landscape comparisons when you can literally go to space, pick up the reins of Muslim cosmology, and aim for the stars? So, when Dubai hosts the World Expo in 2020—potentially featuring Elon Musk’s first high-speed Hyperloop transport system—the United Arab Emirates will launch a probe to Mars. It will be the first major foray into space from any Arab or predominantly Muslim country. The probe will arrive on Mars in 2021, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the country’s founding, with all the attendant jingoism and nationalistic fervor. The team behind the Mars Mission will, unusually, be 100 percent Emirati, with a significant assist from South Korean space engineers. As Dubai shifts more broadly to being less reliant on foreign knowledge and skills (while still being dependent on imported physical labor), the Mars Mission feels like a pilot program in more ways than one.
For decades, Emirati identity has been predicated on cultural heritage. On boat building songs, weaving, pearl diving, nomadism, hunting and falconry, and so on. At the same time, Emirati identity is framed explicitly by what it is not: not South or Southeast Asian, not Iranian, and not East African, even as it emerges from a triangulation of these surrounding geographies. The legacies of the trans-Indian Ocean and Arab slave trades, while not actively suppressed, aren’t really reckoned with, or are dismissed as “low” or vernacular culture. This is a model of nationalism that jettisons any kind of genealogical or historical fixity in favor of instrumentalizing different—and sometimes competing—narratives depending on prevailing geopolitical currents. Centuries of trade and friendship with India are now in vogue thanks to Narendra Modi’s aggressive foreign policy (coupled with the flexing of Emirati soft power in the South Asian art scene). Proxy wars in Syria and Yemen mean that Iran is very much out.
Yet recently, the way the UAE constructs its national identity has begun to change. 2014 marked the introduction of mandatory national service for men between the ages of 18 and 30—which, significantly, came shortly after Qatar’s own introduction of conscription. Under the new law, the standard service period is nine months, which goes up to two years for those who haven’t completed secondary education (exemptions and reductions are available for those who are medically unfit, the only son, or in graduate or post-graduate study). Service for women is optional and is standardized at nine months. This policy, in tandem with post-Arab Spring political precarity and a scramble to enfranchise voters, as well as the war in Yemen, have contributed to an overall recalibration in which Emirati nationalism is now predicated on military and technological might. One friend characterized his time doing military service as an exercise in nation building. In attempting to recast familial and emirate-specific allegiances as synonymous with the national project, the government is striving to more solidly fuse together what has historically been a very lightly bonded federation. As such, the construction of the citizen is no longer based on identification with the terrain (the desert, the sea), but on identification with the nation-state itself.
That isn’t to say terrain no longer matters. The research goals of the Mars probe are primarily weather-based, encompassing global weather tracking and the study of climate dynamics, the effects of surface weather on the atmosphere, and atmospheric escape (that is, the loss of atmospheric gases into outer space). The mission is one of Emirati excellence: For the good of science and all mankind, all data will be made freely available, open source. Given that the water table is low to tapped out in most of Dubai, apart from mountainous and rural areas, and that the bulk of water in the UAE is very expensively desalinated, studying arid environments seems like a natural fit. The last few decades have seen an emphasis on learning how to quite literally make it rain: Cloud seeding has recently become common, and desert ionizers, a new technology that resembles pyramid tea bags perched delicately on steel poles, seem to be responsible for much of the recent rainfall. One indication of technological interference is the quality of the storms themselves, which are unusually violent and feature a particular timbre of extended lightening that feels disproportionate to the amount of rain that falls. Unfortunately, officials don’t seem to have much control over these technologies, and flash flood-induced mass displacement and death is not uncommon. (Neighboring Oman both benefits and bears the brunt of these experiments as the clouds pass quickly over the UAE’s small territory.)
Most remarkable about the Mars probe, however, is the way in which it is being framed as a revival of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab nationalist project, which looked to unify the many disparate Arabic-speaking countries from North Africa through to West Asia into a single Pan-Arab body. (We might draw a line between the short-lived United Arab Republic, which united Syria and Egypt from 1958 to 1961, and the United Arab Emirates.) Nasser’s ideology emerged from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, emphasizing resistance to Western intervention in parallel with the global decolonial moment of the time. Its prominence waned following the crushing Arab defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War, and as a result of broader factors: the rise of smaller regional blocks like the Gulf Corporation Council, a strengthening of non-Arab minority identities (Kurds and Berbers, for example), and Saudi Arabia’s promotion of Islam as a counter to the rising tide of Marxism-Leninism. Now, 51 years later, the Mars Mission is aiming to recast the UAE as an ambassador for the entire Arab and Muslim worlds. Take this blurb from the Emirates Mars Mission website:
As the first-ever Arab Islamic mission to another planet, the project demonstrates the capability of the Arab people as contributors to humanity and civilization. It is a symbol of hope for a new era of peaceful human development. It will inspire a young generation to think positively and see a future filled with possibility.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the probe is named Amal, or “hope.” At a series of launch events announcing and promoting the project, spokespeople took this interplanetary diplomacy one step further by characterizing the endeavor as the UAE picking up the baton previously dropped by the Golden Age of Islam, a period roughly between the eight and 13th centuries when arts, literature, philosophy, and especially science flourished thanks to the support of various caliphates whose empires stretched from Pakistan to Portugal. Following Europe’s Dark Ages, this period of scholarship led to the continent’s renaissance, a phenomenon that the UAE seems keen to reprise. Also invoked by Mars Mission representatives was the Lebanese Rocket Society, whose achievement in launching the Arab world’s first rocket capable of suborbital flight was especially remarkable given that the rather scrappy affair was started by a group of graduate students who received nowhere near the same backing or resources as their American and Soviet counterparts. With these connections in mind, the initiative feels like an extension of government cultural strategy—which, apart from collecting works looted from Iraq and Syria, for example, or 3-D printing monuments and artifacts destroyed by the Islamic State, sees the UAE and Qatar as competing to both write themselves into, and be seen as guardians of, civilizational narratives neither were ever part of.
THE LAST FEW DECADES HAVE SEEN AN EMPHASIS ON LEARNING HOW TO QUITE LITERALLY MAKE IT RAIN
Thus far, the UAE’s space program is still in its most nascent stages, although it can be assumed that extending the country’s reach into space will work wonders for the GDP in the same way that the aggressive funding of passenger transit, cargo, and shipping infrastructure did before it. In this, the Mars probe will be a continuation of Sheikh Rashid’s legacy, which saw the UAE become a trading powerhouse with the opening of Port Rashid in 1972, Jebel Ali Port in 1979 (which, fittingly, is visible from space, like the continent- and palm-shaped islands that came decades later), and the Dubai Drydocks, which were completed in 1983 following a major dredging and widening effort in the early 70s to allow access to bigger ships. As evident in how it treats its labor force, this is a country that doesn’t actually want anyone except its citizenry to set down roots: It is designed for everything and everyone to pass through. It is worth remembering, too, that the image of Dubai is very much a surface one: The whirlwind of tourism, finance, luxury real estate, theme parks, and spectacular architecture are nothing compared to the volume of trade that is still the lifeblood of the city. If Sheikh Mohammad’s national contribution was to remake Dubai into an aerotropolis (Dubai’s airport is now the world’s busiest for international passengers), then dominating the space market seems like the logical next step.
Back on earth, the government emphasis on technological might takes the form of fixating on the future. This future orientation is so important that in 2016, the Ministry of Cabinet Affairs was renamed the Ministry of the Cabinet Affairs and the Future. And in October 2017, the UAE became the world’s first country to appoint a Minister of Artificial Intelligence, the 27-year-old His Excellency Omar Al Olama. Anchoring these endeavors are activities of the Dubai Future Foundation, which literalizes the strategy of continual renewal laid out by Sheikh Rashid. Its tagline, for example, is “see the future, create the future.” The implication is crucial: Building and protecting the nation into the future by use of technology is no longer the domain of leaders, but the mandate of every ordinary citizen.
The activities of the Future Foundation include running several future accelerators whose function is unclear beyond encouraging techpreneurs to somewhat ominously “use the city as a living testbed”; holding the “Drones for Good” and “AI and Robotics for Good” competitions (winners get $1 million each, while local winners are awarded $272,250); operating a number of 3-D printing and autonomous transport divisions (we might get flying cars after all, specifically taxis); and planning the Museum of the Future, which is still under construction. For the last few years, the foundation has organized a weekend-long popup exhibit to coincide with the annual World Government Summit. These popups have reliably served as a barometer of where the city’s future sights are set at that moment—whether that is smart government, the interactive future of fitness, going to Mars, or the most recent theme, artificial intelligence. At this year’s exhibit, one wall quote from Sheikh Mohammed was particularly fascinating in how it carefully stepped over previous future strategy: “Artificial Intelligence is the new wave after the Smart Government upon which all our services, sectors, and future infrastructure will rely on.”
Titled “Hello, I am A.I.,” the 2018 exhibit was notable for being less techno-rococo than previous iterations, for want of a better way to put it. Past years have been in keeping with Dubai’s culture of “more is more” maximalism, presenting future speculations that were almost baroque in their bells and whistles. (A particular favorite was a jungle-inside-an-Apple-Store fever dream of an exhibit on the future of wellness, in which lab-coated aestheticians used a device to scan your palm and prescribe you the appropriate nootropical cocktail.) This year, however, the museum simply presented, over three sub-exhibits, the potential cultural applications of AI, its deployment at the level of government, and the dangers of human, data-set, and algorithmic bias. (Perhaps the future has already become a soft sell? Or perhaps organizers are simply acknowledging that to live in the UAE already requires a reliance on technology to survive the harsh climate.) The first room considered AI’s creative applications: There was a listening station that let visitors tap into AI-generated tunes, and a drawing station that would take a photo of the visitor and then render that image into a famous work of art.
The second room, meanwhile, celebrated how AI could make use of data-crunching to expedite decision-making processes. It did so via a series of games released by the Ministries of Earth Affairs and Extraterrestrial Affairs, as well as ones put out by more commonplace Ministries like Labor and Transport. In one of these games, a screen might ask you, the new Minister of Smart Infrastructure and Automation, to evaluate the costs versus benefits of an “open quantum computing data center in UAE, providing a regional hub for global firms’ analytics needs.” The predicted impact is 15/100, while the potential risk is calculated at 6 percent; your job is to accept or reject it.
The museum was just a taste of how the government is mobilizing futurist aesthetics and gamification to construct future generations of citizenry, as well as the state itself. After all, the more speculative and future-oriented the ideas under consideration, the lower the risk to those in charge. Since the events of the Arab Spring, any nationalism tied to political change and self-determination has been seen as dangerous, off the table. Arguably, those early uprisings were only the opening salvo in a geopolitical fandango that included the doubling down—and consequent implosion—of the GCC. Meanwhile, the rises of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State have checked the appeal of Islam as a uniting factor or organizing principle. With all this playing out in the background, a national identity predicated on heritage has given way to the hard sell of a technologically enhanced, might-driven future. To Mars and mandatory military service. For the state, there’s safety in looking ahead. A population discouraged from pursuing enfranchisement and liberation in the present are asked, instead, to imagine themselves into the future.