I just returned from a weeklong class in the United Arab Emirates where the theme is “superlatives.”
The nation — or, more specifically its two richest emirates, Dubai and Abu-Dhabi — is rich with oil money and its sheikhs have decided to pump that money into the biggest, largest, tallest, fastest, bestest things in the world.
The Guiness records and superlatives are simply everywhere. Some examples:
- The tallest building, man made structure and free standing structure (Burj Khalifa). And yes, those are three separate records.
- The third-largest mosque in the world (The Grand Mosque in Abu-Dhabi).
- The largest chandelier in the world (The Grand Mosque).
- The largest single piece handmade rug in the world (The Grand Mosque).
- The fastest rollercoaster in the world (Ferrari World in Abu-Dhabi).
- The world’s only 7-star hotel (Burj Al Arab in Dubai).
- The largest gold ring in the world (The Gold Souq in Dubai).
- The second-largest yacht in the world (Dubai, owned by the sheikh).
- The largest mall in the world (Dubai Mall).
- The largest water cannon show in the world — think the Bellagio (Dubai Mall).
- The longest indoor ski slope in the world (Ski Dubai).
It became a running joke, a joke that was topped off when we saw this sign inside the offices of the developer of the Dubai Mall (largest mall in the world!):
When a country starts measuring the size of its plexiglass, you have to wonder. The obessession with bigger, faster, taller, better seemed to be everywhere. In some ways, it’s understandable. The United Arab Emirates has taken a pile of oil money and transformed a primitive desert into two sophisticated, modern cities. They are clearly proud of their accomplishments as they should be. Not every nation so successfully transforms itself.
But it also reeks of nouveau riche. The UAE is like a man who makes a lot of money very quickly and spends its ostantaciously simply because he can. Like that newly rich man, Dubai and Abu-Dhabi seem to want to show they can do whatever developed nations do — and even do it better. By building all these modern marvels, they are proving they can compete.
But the problem with being nouveau riche — other than accumulating a collection solid gold toilet seats — is that you often don’t spend your fortune wisely. And there are signs that Dubai and Abu-Dhabi have fallen into that trap. Dubai’s man made islands have fallen in value and, according to some folks we spoke with, may be experiencing technical difficulties. Abu-Dhabi is building a carbon zero city so far away from its city center that all its employees must drive for an hour or more to get there. Every new development is a luxury development, leaving one to wonder — is there enough money to fill all these fancy hotel rooms?
Only time will tell if Dubai and Abu-Dhabi can maintain the lead in all these biggest, tallest, fastest races. It will also determine if setting Guinness records makes a better country.