City-states that make their living from money-laundering and peddling tacky, overpriced real estate come in two categories: the big boys and the wannabes. The Emirate of Dubai sadly shows itself to be in the latter league today, as state-owned conglomerate Dubai World suspends debt repayments and shakes global markets.
Two characteristics distinguish the sheep from the goats. First is attitude. In Dubai, they committed the cardinal sin of self-consciously yearning for greatness, visibly exerting themselves in order to attain success, as represented by structures and events. It is all heavily contrived, vanity-driven and, most horrifying of all, state-run. Private-sector hideousness and pretentiousness is fine, but when government ownership lies behind the palm-shaped reclamation, the world’s tallest tower, silliest-looking hotel, most expensive hotel opening party, the car racing, golf tournaments and all the other hubristic tat, you have failed. Even Singapore’s overbearing leadership doesn’t have to try this hard.
Hong Kong, on the other hand, is the world’s ultimate city-state/funny money/property hub because it doesn’t sweat at it. It just is. Admittedly, its current government shows depressing signs of low civic self-esteem, embarrassing the populace by embarking on frantic attempts to promote the place as a centre for Islamic banking, wine trading, and trendy/creative/bio/tech/blah-blah industries. Since taking over from the British in 1997, the Chinese government seems to have encouraged a more-or-less subtle but systematic campaign to undermine the Big Lychee’s self-confidence, hence the constant threats of isolation and irrelevance if we don’t indulge in all that partnership and cooperation with the mainland. But those of us without a vested interest in the latest integration-or-marginalization scam treat it all with a healthy disregard. To be real, success and superiority must be effortless – otherwise it’s just fake.
The second factor in wealth-recycling, luxury apartment-churning city-statehood is of course people. The natives of Dubai account for only 10% of the population. Unlike American or Australian aboriginal inhabitants, they retain title and sovereignty over their homeland, but otherwise they have vanished into practical day-to-day insignificance. There are only two circumstances under which members of the majority foreign population will ever meet a Dubaian: either being tortured on film by him in the desert, or getting jailed for offending local morals after having drunken sex on a beach. Which brings us rather neatly to the class of outsiders attracted to the Emirate. The white-collar/skin expatriates tend to be low-bred British, rutting on the aforementioned seashore after a champagne and baked beans buffet, or Russians who are not quite classy enough to hang out in Phuket. An English soccer star who can barely speak his mother tongue is considered a desirable neighbour. Meanwhile, Pakistani, Filipino and other Third World toilers do all the menial work and sleep in stacked-up containers. In Dubai, even the outsourcing is outsourced.
In Hong Kong, 100% of the people are hard-working immigrants. The Cantonese majority are born of parents who cast their vote of confidence in China by swimming through shark-infested waters to get away; they built this city into what it is. Laziness is rare, and there is an admirable tradition of spotting ways to perform intermediary services (in particular) better, cheaper and faster. Dusky locally born or migrant workers do some of the sweeping, washing and cooking, but are generally treated like humans. The westerners, apart from some distinctly unappealing exceptions allowed in back in the days when the place was less fussy, are fine-looking specimens with university degrees who read books and practice moderation in all things.
European and American stock markets slumped with a vengeance on hearing of Dubai World’s embarrassment. The Hang Seng Index starts the morning 3% down as well. But we’re too cool to seriously wet ourselves over the laughably self-described Big Lychee of the Gulf. It’s a buying opportunity.