I went to Dubai once. It is where tyranny meets hyper-capitalism, and it is as awful as it sounds.
I was helping a journalist friend research an article. I spent my days admiring an undersea bedroom in a lagoon and a ski slope inside a mall. At night I would meet trafficked maids, or a woman imprisoned for adultery. I asked an ancient British tourist why he came here for his holidays. He said, “The staff will hold your dick if you ask them.” That is what Westerners like about Dubai: the indentured servitude. And the weather.
Last week, at the grand opening of Atlantis The Royal, Dubai’s newest luxury hotel, Beyoncé gave her first live performance in five years. This gig featured a 48-person all-female orchestra—how feminist—a Lebanese dance troupe, and her daughter. She was reportedly paid $24 million for the occasion.
Her latest album, Renaissance, is, among other things, an homage to black queer culture. She performed no songs from it; how could she in a country where homosexuality is punishable by death? So she sang her back catalog for the equivalent of ten Bugatti Chirons. Oil-rich tyrannies have generous marketing budgets; they’re selling tyranny itself.
What Beyoncé does or doesn’t do for money wouldn’t matter but for the trend of celebrity activism, which insinuates that morality travels with a star like her wardrobe. Beyoncé acolytes say that just by arriving in Dubai she made the city gayer, a kind of subtle protest. Perhaps so subtle that even Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid—accused of abducting two of his daughters for noncompliance with his wishes, one from England, and another from a ship as she tried to flee Dubai—wouldn’t notice. Did his enforcers reconsider their stance on gayness as they sang along to “Drunk in Love”? Or are they laughing themselves stupid at the PR coup of persuading an until-now gay ally to perform at the opening of a hotel in a country that hates gays?
Dubai, along with Saudi Arabia, wants to reinvent itself as a tourist destination for when the oil runs out. There is nothing understated there—the Burj Khalifa, which is the tallest building in the world; the Palm Jumeirah, a man-made archipelago in the shape of a palm tree. Everything is vast and highly colored, a distraction. It has to be: To enjoy yourself in Dubai, you must close your eyes to suffering. Almost 90 percent of Dubai’s residents are migrant workers, and many of them live in conditions amounting to indentured slavery.
Beyoncé isn’t Dubai’s only brand ambassador. Aussie actress Rebel Wilson, who is gay, was photographed at the opening of Nobu by the Beach in Dubai that same weekend. (She participated in a sake ceremony.) Members of the Kardashian-Jenner dynasty were photographed at after-parties, presumably celebrating the common values they share with Dubai: love of attention and excess.
The luxury hotel opening is just the latest act in a grotesque fairground, where brands and celebrities who practice goodthink at home sell themselves to the highest bidder elsewhere, while attempting—and failing—to maintain the moral high ground.
Perhaps nowhere is this clearer and more absurd than in the world of sports. FIFA was condemned for giving last year’s World Cup to Qatar—a tyranny in which migrant workers are barely better than slaves. (Many died building the World Cup stadiums.) Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, addressed critics in Qatar last summer. “Today I feel African,” he said, like a deranged person. “Today, I feel gay. Today, I feel disabled. Today, I feel a migrant worker.”
But he isn’t any of those things. He’s a straight, Italian-Swiss football administrator dogged by accusations of corruption.
Infantino, who could teach a class in hubris, is even less honest than the British boxer Anthony Joshua, who, when criticized for appearing in Saudi Arabia last year, simply said: “I don’t know what sports-washing is.”
Well, here’s an example for Mr. Joshua. Find Lionel Messi, football’s genius-idiot, now reinvented as a tourism ambassador for Saudi Arabia, having an “ultimate Saudi experience”—staring at something through binoculars, riding a dune buggy—in photographs at visitsaudi.com. Or Cristiano Ronaldo photographed with the Crown Prince of Dubai, looking at the Palm Jumeirah.
Presumably, Messi’s ultimate experience does not include the common abuse of women, or the murder of Saudi critics. There is no reference to the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, dismembered with a bone saw in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 on the order of its ruler Mohammed bin Salman, or the execution of children. The country apparently has hopes of hosting the World Cup in 2030. It will probably get it.
This collusion between Western celebrities and Middle Eastern despots is enabled by idiotic elements on the left: People who don’t seem to know what fascism, Stalinism, or Nazism is, since they insist upon confusing it with things they don’t much like. They hate their own rotting democracies so much, they cannot accept that other places are worse. Call a democracy tyranny and you won’t recognize tyranny when it hands you a check.
This logic says that, given our own ills, what do we have to teach Saudi Arabia? And if we have nothing to teach Saudi Arabia or Qatar or the UAE, why shouldn’t we go on holiday there and enjoy the luxury that indentured slavery creates? Who are we to judge, we ask, between mimosas and dermabrasion facials.
Tyranny’s defenders—that is, its contracted employees—will say that feasting in authoritarian states brings incremental reform and teaches us to be less racist toward an over-overlooked and vulnerable minority: authoritarian rulers. I think the opposite. It normalizes tyranny, using what we love best to seduce us: leisure.
Tanya Gold is an award-winning freelance journalist. She lives in England.
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