Images: Dubai Holdings
Dubai is building "the world's first climate-controlled city"—it's a 4.3 mile pedestrian mall that will be covered with a retractable dome to provide its shoppers with air conditioning in the summer heat. The Mall of the World, as it's called, will become the sort of spectacular, over-the-top attraction Dubai is known for. Shortly after, it will probably become an equally spectacular real-world dystopia.
By sectioning off a 3-million-square-foot portion of the city with an air conditioned dome, Dubai is dropping one of the most tangible partitions between the haves and the have nots of the modern era—the 100 hotels and apartment complexes inside the attraction will be cool, comfortable, and nestled into a entertainment-filled, if macabre, consumer paradise.
The masses, including the underpaid immigrants who will no doubt help build it, may be free to wander through by day, but they will surely find no residence there. According to the UN, a full 88.5 percent of United Arab Emirates residents are foreigners; most are migrant workers, who receive few protections from the nation's labor laws. There are estimated to be hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in Dubai alone, many of whom toil in conditions that resemble indentured servitude.
And as global warming bakes the region—which is already regularly seeing record-breaking temperatures—the divide between the rich and the poor, the cool and the sweltering, is going to grow.
A climate-controlled dome, intended to be a glitzy international attraction, may end up producing an entirely different, and uglier spectacle. It won't be long before there will be those who will be desperate to get inside; and it means an authority will be established to decide who can, and who can't.
As my colleague Alex Pasternack has pointed out, there is something distinctly sad about any proposal to place a dome over a city—it means there is something that needs to be kept out; something that urgently needs to be dealt with, even in an overwhelmingly haphazard fashion. In Dubai, it's the heat and the non-spenders. In China, it's pollution. In midcentury US, it was the cold. In fact, some of the earliest dome city proposals originated here in the US—Paleofuture points us to scientists' 1952 calls to establish "perfectly feasible" weather-controlled communities.
Spread from Fact or Fantasy (World of Tomorrow), Neal Ardley, 1982. Image: Paleofuture
In our fiction, the domes usually seek to keep out an entire world; one that's grown harsh and unpleasant for anyone unfortunate enough to be on the wrong side of the its dividing glass.
Sealed-off cities are a mainstay of dystopian stories; the cult classic Zardoz imagines a future where humans outside of the domed cities have devolved into savages, while those inside flit around, enjoying a life of plenty.
Another relevant analog to Dubai's proposal is Logan's Run, the 1976 sci-fi film that imagines a dome-encased society given over to consumerist and technological pleasures—but where the fun promptly expires when the revelers turn 30, and population control takes over.
The media has mostly adopted its requisite awestruck tone in tackling the story—First refrigerated beaches, then indoor ski resorts, now this?! That crazy Dubai, at it again!—but there's something additionally cynical about this latest move.
The dome isn't merely a tourist attraction and wow-inducer, though it is those things too. There is something unambiguous about the metaphor imposed by the dome, something even more powerfully exclusionary in one of the most exclusionary-minded locales on earth.
Maybe it's that we already have such well-designed templates for the dystopia this dome city is doomed to become, and Dubai is building it anyway.