Skip navigation

'Cos I'm leaving on a jet plane...'

It’s almost a year to the day that I arrived in this weird Arabian dustbowl. When the clock strikes 6am on the 10th it will have been a year to the day. It’ll also be when I’m getting on the plane to leave, to go and seek an unlikely fortune in the US. Strange how that worked out, but 365 days will have been enough for me here, for several reasons. They say that being an expat wakes you up to what you want from life. I’d agree a bit, but I’ll remember Dubai more for the stuff I didn’t know I didn’t like. 45 degree heat, for one, although I’m pretty sure I wasn’t gagging to experience that this time last year. And to be fair, I’ve never really liked house music either.

One thing that sat uneasily with me from the off, and one I’ll be glad to get away from, is the level of servitude here: being waited on hand and foot, having people handing you paper towels in the gents’ and ending each sentence with ‘boss’. I was a bit of a backwards snob before I came here – now I can’t stand anyone who says they enjoy the ‘easy’ Dubai lifestyle. It’s easy for a reason, you muppets – a human one. In fact being out here among the crass Bugatti drivers and pinstriped wankers has bred a distinct contempt for opulence that I’m pretty happy I experienced here, in honesty.

I’d like to say I rallied against the injustice of the labour market out here; protested outside the government palace. But I didn’t. I just wrote about it and stewed like the sad little hack I am. I’ve written something for a well-known US publication about the lives of taxi drivers here, too: I’ll no doubt post/Tweet/Facebum/MyArse it when it’s out. I imagine I’ll also have to change the name of this blog, although I can’t think of anything catchy and New Yorky just now.

There are, mind, tons of things I’ll miss about this place. One is the friends I’ve made here – fortunately a funny, loving, down-to-earth bunch who are just as turned off as me by the thought of seeing the world’s biggest fish tank (really) or a train in a shopping mall as I am. I’ll also miss my flat (not the maid’s room) and watching every single Prem game at once, although I’ll bet you can do the same in America. Being near so many cool places is great, too: I should’ve done far more travelling but knocking off Egypt, India, Oman, the US, Japan and France isn’t a bad year by any means.

Anyway here are the top ten things I’ve learnt about Dubai by living here:

1) It’s really hot. Like, not just hot like Spain but hot like the surface of the sun. A five-min walk from the Metro to work is far too much in summer.

2) I miss roads with houses on them!

3) You can live here cheaply, contrary to popular belief, if you manage not to become a borderline alcoholic like me.

4) Alan Curbishley is one of the worst football pundits in history – something you don’t learn watching Sky.

5) The UAE isn’t actually all desert: there are, like, these big muddy hills over the other side and stuff.

6) Surfers are twats globally, not just in England.

7) Arabic food is AWESOME.

8) The roads in the UK are brilliant, wonderful and well-kept. Come here and you’ll realise why.

9) Dr Pepper is definitely NOT the worst thing that can happen.

10) Forced foreign labour probably is.

I might write some more unintelligible shit before my time’s up here; principally cos I can’t be arsed to do any proper work. But if not, then thanks to all my friends here for making 2011 brilliant. And cheers to Dubai which has, for all its foibles, become part of my life. Boom.

Paul McMullan: pricking a massive knife into the back of journalism. And a massive prick.

According to the bastardisation of a popular ancient Mayan myth, next year will spell the end of our world. This, of course, is crap of the absolutest kind, shining a shock-horror light on an oft-misinterpreted eschatological belief. The Mayans never thought the world would end, as Hollywood’s scientists have told us over and over again: merely that the date represented at most a regeneration of home and humankind. A sort of cosmological spring clean, if you will.

This Sunday, some of the UK mourned the End of the World (© all tabloid sub-eds). Goodbye cruel world, coed a couple of hundred hacks, as Britain’s biggest firelight cracked, hissed and imploded in a swirl of indignation, outrage and Michael Jackson-deathbed exclusives. Ironically the country hasn’t talked about much else since – neither ongoing public sector feuds nor the G (for Greece) -force that threatens to send Europe’s economy tumbling like a pack of cards covered in dogshit.

As Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brookes swan around central London looking like the product of some antipodean Age Concern outreach programme, a growing debate about the freedom of the press has been brewing in the nation’s homes and newsrooms. Nowhere was this Brechtian farce played out clearer than the BBC Newsnight studio, where comedian-cum-actor Steve Coogan and former BBC chief Greg Dyke (played by Joan Cusack and an overripe turnip respectively) were pitted against Paul McMullan (played by Renton from Trainspotting), a paradigm of red-topped hackness who has become a de facto spokesperson for the NoW’s impressive back catalogue of muck-raking.

Unsurprisingly Coogan, who has had ‘journos’ (the inverted commas are doing a lot of work here) camped outside his home, exposing recreational drug use and flinging defamatory nocturnal headlines at him like shit in a monkey’s cage, got slightly agitated at Renton’s accusation that the paper’s phone-tapping was at worst a prelude to the unearthing of genuine public interest stories – as if he were standing with Coogan’s bloodied head in his hands, screaming, “I found the cancer – it’s in his neck!”

Renton went on to claim that the shutting down of the NoW was not, as is widely recognised, a Murdoch-conceived scorched earth policy ahead of his more pressing BSkyB takeover bid, but a wider infringement of the freedom of the press. If we can’t tap Z-list celebrities’ phones, he argued, then the world is doomed to an Orwellian vision of servitude and chattelhood at the hands of Stalinist dictators and a fascist pseudo middle class, based on their control of the media.

What Renton studiously failed to mention was that phone-tapping is illegal in any circumstance – as is placing a camera inside Kerry Katona’s bathroom to expose to the world her cruel and calculated, yet strangely self-destructive, cocaine habit (the gang-ridden proletariat of Colombia and Mexico slept safer that Sunday, no doubt). It might be justifiable to hack the account of a politician who’s been diddling cash out of his or her constituents, but it certainly isn’t to phone-tap the grieving mother of a prepubescent murder victim. And I don’t need to remind you that the NoW ACTUALLY DID THIS.

It was a shame that host Emily Maitlis, who for me looks like the acceptable face of middle-class S&M, couldn’t shut McMullan up as he continued down his path of self-delusion, as she had Dyke and Coogan. But he did a pretty good job of ballsing the argument himself. The tabloid press has become a red button for the bored, lazy and disenfranchised – not, as many would have us believe, an people’s panacea against the tyranny of modern celebrity. It titillates and teases the very people it elevates, to a point where the traditional virtues of hard work, dedication and greatness are stickers to be stuck and removed at will. It has, in fact, become the very Orwellian wand McMullan feels that it was crusading against – meaning he at best is victim of a wholly modern brand of doublethink.

Later on in the debate, McMullan reverted to the same, tired brand of class-drawn rabble-rousing that has got him onto all the major terrestrial networks during the unfolding of this story: how could Coogan, or Hugh Grant or any other actor for that matter, command millions per film they’re happy to promote, yet be shocked when someone breaks the law to expose the lives they lead in their own homes? I don’t need to write a conclusion to this: unless you’ve recently been lobotomised I’ll assume you know it already. McMullan finally conceded that he doesn’t have the public’s backing. Ah yes, the public – that wholly bourgeois group who employ such impossibly expensive wizardry as YouTube to call McMullan a ‘liar’, ‘arsehole’ and ‘cunt’.

This is no class war. Neither is it an infringement on our right to hold government and its tendrils to account. Blame that on the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. Or section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act. Not the shutting down of a morally bankrupt ‘newspaper’ (those commas’ll be getting their own union soon) which has shovelled more shit than the elephant keeper at London Zoo. If we’re serious about corruption in the UK we need to stand up in union, to protest and barrack until the machinations of bureaucracy bow to our demands – not read about footballers’ wives.

Dame Edna Everage: about as welcome in the Gulf as pancreatic cancer.

How much culture should we adopt? How much should we adhere to – all of it? Just enough to get by? Or should we, as foreigners in someone else’s playground, impose any of our own cultural values on our adopted homeland? Nowhere is this tug-0f-war so apparent than the Middle East, where so often ‘western’ values are at odds with those of the locals. For someone born and raised in the UK, with a heavy slant on libertarianism and free expression, living in the Gulf has been something of a struggle – especially when it comes to sexuality and the press.

I’ll give you an example: just last week this article appeared in local Dubai rag 7Days. It’s the closest I’ve come to thinking, “If that’s your culture, f**k it.” To me the idea that the way someone dresses can in some way determine someone’s sexuality, ergo, in the eyes of local lawmakers, harm society is nothing short of medieval. But this isn’t London, New York or Paris. This is an Islamic state bordering Saudi Arabia, whose view of Islam is to the religion what Liberace is to a Hawaiian shirt. Here’s a pretty typical comment from the article, by someone named MadBoy92:

“As usual we have the regular dose of expats who simply refuse to abide by our culture and traditions. In Islam, it is NOT acceptable for BOTH men and women to act or dress like each other. We are a Muslim country, why are we imitating the Western lifestyle?!”

Mr Boy continues to argue that a woman wearing trousers is not, in fact, exercising her right to individualism, but merely conforming to a ‘western’ ideal (the inverted commas highlighting the uselessness of the term: I’m not French, for example. Or German. Let’s get that straight). This is something I completely disagree with. But to go out and challenge it? Possibly not. Mr Boy then goes on to make the hackneyed point that if ‘we’ don’t like ‘it’, then ‘we’ can go ‘home’, a particularly stinging philosophical syllogism favoured by moral heavyweights like Nick Griffin and Richard Littlejohn in the UK. This is countered by someone called chickensoup, who argues that he or she is in the UAE to ‘make a difference’. In the context of the argument, as well-adjusted as it might seem, I think Mr/Mrs Soup’s comment sounds dangerously Crusaderish, and, quite frankly, bollocks – unless he or she is feeding starving Indian labourers. Presumably with chicken soup.

I’ve likewise come across some pretty disgraceful episodes in my day job – namely our not being allowed to reference the Syrian civil uprising (it’s not happening) and, worst of all, the word ‘Jew’ (they don’t exist either: Zionists do, however). As a British journalist I can’t bring myself to adhere to these rules, even if it means a bollocking at the end of the month. And frankly, I don’t care: British journalists are the best in the world – it’s why we’re in demand in places like this, and I’m not about to deny the Holocaust, or pretend the Arab Spring doesn’t exist, in print. That’s my name by the writing, that is. Another moral conundrum, which boils down to ‘like it or lump it’.

What I’d really like to change is the term itself: “respect our values.” I respect this region’s views on homosexuality about as much as I’d respect a naked man on a unicycle reciting Mein Kampf to preschoolers. But I abide it publicly because it’s not my country. Neither do I feel I need to respect those particular ‘cultures’, despite being eager to learn about Arab culture and life itself: it flies to hard in the face of what I hold to be morally right. But equally I’d expect Muslims in Britain to respect our cultural values and celebrate diversity: be it racial, religious or sexual.

So should all expats respect the values of the place they’re living in? No. Should they abide them? Yes (but not in print).

Crowds gather in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Friday May 27.

The hand slapping across my chest is heavy, with a tradesman’s roughness. “Stop,” booms a guttural voice. “Passport?” Shit. I’ve forgotted Cairo’s 2am curfew: cursory given the thousands out on the streets smoking sheeshah and knocking back cups of syrupy Turkish coffee, but a curfew nonetheless. “Sorry,” I say meekly, offering my business card.

“Engleezi?”

“N’am.” – yes.

“Ah,” he bellows, a smile wrought across his mottled features. “Welcome, welcome!”

It’s the edge of Tahrir Square. Earlier that day, 20,000 Egyptians turned out to protest the army’s ambivalence in moving political discourse forward, following the February revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. In the early hours, the effluvia of the day’s events is still everywhere: flags, banners, slogans and a few hundred protesters still line the streets around the revolution’s epicentre. Happily the people asking for our particulars aren’t army, police or even the rural heavies rumoured to have been drafted in to cause mayhem in previous protests. These are normal Egyptians, taking time out to make sure the protests run smoothly. They sweep streets, divert traffic and stop tipsy expat idiots, like us, from shedding a bad light on the protests, which would give the army its excuse to step in and impose rule.

It’s just one of a sequence of events that have cemented my love for Cairo and its people over the past few days. From meeting students in bars to arguing the toss with taxi drivers, this is a city where, right now, you could cut the political energy with a spoon, let alone a knife. Every street hisses and fizzes with the voices of the revolution, especially in the Parisian Downtown neighbourhood with its bohemian bars, bookshops and galleries. Among the city’s stirring hotspots is the Townhouse Gallery and adjoining Rawabet Theatre, where I was fortunate enough to watch Tahrir Monologues, a 90-minute stage production of the personal stories of the revolution. I don’t speak much Arabic but the sense of gravity was palpable: each heartfelt soliloquy was met with feverish applause, and the rapturous outpouring of emotion when the curtain fell was overwhelmingly touching.

It’s an exciting time to be an Egyptian, especially a young one. The older generations may be in charge of the nation, but the youth own it. I expected, however, to find more polarised opinions between twenty-somethings and baby boomers. But almost everyone I speak to is delighted at Mubarak’s ousting. “He is crazy,” booms Mahmoud, a driver. “He steals our money and kills our people. Good riddance.”

Right now, as far as I understand, the revolution is in a secondary stage (please correct me if I’m wrong but this is what I have understood from various interviews): the army, keen to impose its own authority on the country, has been lackadaisical in doing anything to the current political limbo the country finds itself in. Thus, counter-intuitively, it has stayed away from recent protests, in the hope that violence will occur and the people will cry out for it to reinstate stability. The people, therefore, have been careful to avoid conflict and instead show that they are together for the country – hence the makeshift bouncers on Friday night. The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, has ‘boycotted’ protests, in the hope that it can show how powerful its numbers are by their absence, thus sewing popularity among the electorate. Therefore the protests have a three-pronged meaning: to show solidarity; to send a message to the army and to let the Muslim Brotherhood know that it’s not the only consensus party in Egypt.

Confused? So am I, a little. But make no mistake that this ‘revolution’ has only just begun. Elections aren’t due til September at the earliest, and no-one I spoke to had a clue what would happen over the next three months-or-so. But one thing is for sure: the Egyptian people know that they can speak loudly enough to be heard; that they have the power to topple governments, to get what they want and to enjoy a brighter future.

As for Cairo itself, go. And go again. On a personal note, from the skyscrapers and streetless expanse of Dubai, Cairo was a refreshing taste of the real Arab world. But whether you’re from Berlin, London or New York there’s something for everyone here: ancient history, cafes, religious wonders and a vibrant nightlife. Despite Downtown’s fashioning by Parisian urban planner-extraordinaire Baron Hausmann, it’s totally unfair to call Cairo the Paris of the East. It’s far, far more than that. And then some.

Pecknold: bit of a knob by the sounds of it. But his music still fizzes.

Earnestness might just about be the uncoolest thing these days. Outwardly giving a toss about what happens to the whales, grieving a love lost or talking about a painting you like, that’s not cool. Writing eight-minute symphonies about your ex-girlfriend, that’s not cool either. In fairness, no, it’s not cool to pine on about your ex-lady like a fop-haired human Labradore. But that’s exactly what Robin Pecknold feels the need to do on Fleet Foxes’ ‘difficult’ second album, Helplessness Blues. We should be sneering at his limpid, pus-faced teenage angst; looking down on his pallid reflections like a bunch of postmodern geniuses. “Fleet Foxes suck,” begins a particularly insightful NME review. “They lull you in with their flawlessly polished music and hey-nonny-nonny you into a hypnagogic state, with the aim of making the world safe for the bland, the dull and the wi-fi enabled.”

Hmm.

Aren’t these the same NME writers who went to university, discovered drainpipes and Dangermouse and then spent the next couple of years living off mummy and daddy while penning angry soliloquys about the failing pop industry in their local pub/cafe? Anyway, it’s a bit rich for some NME hack to be telling us Fleet Foxes are now too magnolia, when the same magazine pretty much decided the Seattle six-piece were good because they were folk-geeks who happened to shop in Urban Outfitters.

For the record, Pecknold is a tool. A dickhead of Sysiphean proportions. “I don’t really hang out with anyone. I’ll hang out with my band, because I love them, but I don’t have any friends aside from that,” his Wikipedia page quotes him as having said once. Loners aren’t cool any more. Neither are stoner loner folk singers. Yes, Pecknold is a dickhead, and I’d rather pull off my own testicles than spend more than five minutes in his whining, languorous company. But I wouldn’t really want to hang out with Gary Glitter either, and his old stuff was pretty good (that said I’d probably refrain from sticking one of his LPs on at my three-year-old goddaughter’s birthday party). Some of the lyrics on Helplessness Blues are priapically prickish and self-indulgent. But there’s still that same vampish quality about Fleet Foxes’ music; the same ethereal harmonies and whimsical Americana that made them, bar the NME, so famous in the first place. It’s not quite as good as their eponymous debut – it lacks a bit of pudeur – but it’s pretty bloody good for a second album. And three years on from the storming Sun Giant EP, Fleet Foxes’ music is still something of a one-off. Something to have a picnic to. In London Fields. With vegan falafel wraps, 1920s napkins and a Chuck Berry quiff. But not the NME.

Yesterday, I had my first sighting of one of Dubai’s infamous worker villages, just outside a dusty trading estate in the centre of town. “We call this place Zombie Town,” said my driver, “just look at it man.” I did. And what I saw pushed home all the ‘dark side of Dubai’ articles I’d read before and during my time here. Giant ocre blocks, surrounded by swirling pits of sand, brickdust and concrete, are the living quarters of Dubai’s million-plus foreign workers, mostly from the subcontinent. Up to a dozen men sleep in rooms big enough for one small child. I’ve seen similar standards of accommodation, from the slums of Mumbai to the half-abandoned sink estates of the former Soviet republics. But what struck me most was the overwhelming gloominess of the place: “Zombie Town” was a pretty fair assessment. The other examples I’ve mentioned are communities that have been built up over time, and knocked back by a succession of political setbacks. As Danny Boyle put it after filming Slumdog Millionaire, Mumbai is rife with poverty, but it’s not abject poverty. And I’ve met dozens of people in the backwaters of Bosnia, Romania and Bulgaria who are stoic and entertaining despite their financial hardships.

Dubai wasn’t built hundreds of years ago. Most of it hasn’t even been here a decade. These giant prison blocks aren’t weathered remnants of times past, but the gears of a ferocious money-making regime. Foreign labour here costs as little as Dhs600 (£100) a month. Which is still more than most Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans would earn back home. But that’s not the point. Passports are taken, wages mollified by rent, transport etc. And the mercury never officially hits 50 degrees in Dubai: that would mean a day off (check the BBC Weather report in the next few months, it’s amazing how many days reach 49). But this has all been said: I’m just trying to give you an idea of how their living space compares to the giant, gold-leafed hotels and apartment blocks they’re building in 50 degree heat. And the city’s assorted Brits, Americans and Aussies complain that their Dhs20,000 a month isn’t enough. Clearly the root cause of the problem is the level of poverty on the subcontinent, which forces people from their homes to the dust bowl. But there’s also a feeling among the Emiratis that somehow they’re due their turn at empire-building, and that workers’ conditions are fine. Most of them will add the caveat ‘compared to their home nations,’ but I don’t think that comparing your labour laws to those of India is a standard such a rich country should aspire to.

Some of the comments I’ve heard from locals – and expats – about foreign labour here is little short of disturbing. Hearing Brits talk like that leaves a particularly sour taste in the mouth, personally. And although I’ll add that I’ve met plenty of honest, friendly and hardworking Emiratis, I’ll point to something that happened recently while I was waiting in line to get an Indian visa. Two men, a Saudi and an Emirati, are chatting (oddly in English) in the queue ahead of me. “Why are you going to India?” The Saudi guy asks. “To bring back a few Indians,” the Emirati replies. “How many?” “About ten, maybe a dozen.” Their passports were stamped and off they went.

Inzamam: dangerous with a bat. And a fork.

I was in Dubai’s Radisson Blu watching the India Pakistan match last night, which despite the relative ease of the Indian win was one of the most electric sporting occasions I’ve witnessed in years. Unsurprising given the scarcity of games between the two and their, er, differences in opinions over the past few decades. The hundreds of expat Pakistani and Indian fans in the bar helped too, as was their fiery but friendly banter throughout. I suspect it was the same in Mohali’s PCA Stadium – it certainly looked a ground befitting of a game watched by about a billion people.

As the game eddied and flowed, and the drinks flowed and I eddied, I got chatting to a lovely sports journo cove about the state of the game. Australian chap, but not bad considering. We began chatting about some of the game’s bigger boned stars, to put it mildly, recounting the portly charms of players gone by who may have enjoyed lunch and tea breaks more than most (and the pints in between). One of my favourite players to watch was always Inzamam-ul-Haq, a man of such mammoth stature he made a cricket bat look like a flapjack, and bowlers look (and feel, on many a memorable occasion) like little boys. Inzy wasn’t a great runner between the sticks, or a particularly mobile fielder – you suspect the only athletic thing about him may have been the odd fungal infection – but man could he spank the ball, and throw a dead bat in such an arrogant way as you’d think he’d never get out. 6ft 3in is Inzy, and about the same width. But what a cracking character, and how quintessentially cricket.

There’s something uniquely charming about the fat batsmen, or fatsman as I’ve rather brilliantly named him. The way they waddled between the stumps, slurred speeches between drinks and picked Pop Tarts out of their rolls while batting (alright, that one’s made up) was wholly unathletic. But their sleight of hand, hand-eye skill and grace made them almost ubiquitously wonderful to watch. Arjuna Ranatunga was such a fat sod you’d think he was cast as the Penguin in a Bollywood Batman makeover. But he looked great plundering run after run with fatboy partner in crime Aravinda de Silva. Then there was the latter-day beer-swilling Shane Warne. He was a ‘fowler’, technically, but I loved the way he could make someone look like a complete plonker even when half-pissed. And WG Grace, well there was a man for whom nominative determinism was surely coined.

I guess what I’m saying is that cricket, alas, must go the way of football with the IPL and big wads of cash injecting professionalism into the game. You look at super-fit fielders like Paul Collingwood and Virat Kohli and wonder whether they’ve been transported from another sport – it just isn’t seemly to be doing all this running malarkey when you should be planning what to eat at the next lunch break. Besides, sweaty whites and grass stains don’t look particularly gentlemanly, do they? Never mind. I guess we’ll have to make do with amazing dives and spectacular run-outs from here on in. Ho hum. And in case you think I’ve forgotten, there was no way I’d leave Dwayne Leverock out of this piece. Especially when the man could leap through the air like a flying fish. Trapped inside a fat b*stard.

Gill talks plenty of horse, and even more horseshit.

Just what was Graydon Carter thinking when he commissioned this? This turgid, vapid, erstwhile useless tripe which hovers somewhere between pointlessness and spite? I’m talking about AA Gill’s ‘discovery’ into Dubai’s underbelly, according to the article’s standfirst; a farrago of empty stereotypes whipped into something vaguely resembling magazine journalism. I’ll make this post short, cos that’s far more than the article deserves.

We know Dubai is built on money. We also know that the Burj Dubai was renamed Burj Khalifa, a couple of years ago. We also know – but thanks for pointing it out – that it can get pretty bloody hot in the Arabian desert (the clue’s in the name). That apartment blocks and shimmering residential towers have been left uninhabited since the economic crash is hardly breaking news, and I myself have commented several times on how the roads here resemble strands of sticky spaghetti. This isn’t news, nor is it in any way investigative.

Then there are a couple of things Mr Gill clearly made up. His taxi driver didn’t get lost on the way to Meidan horseracing track. They don’t. Not there. You think that on a weekend when the city’s richest are gathered in one place, the taxi drivers wouldn’t know how to get there? Pull the other one. I’ve been lost in cabs but never to major points of interest, and, thanks to the financial crisis, roads aren’t actually being built by the day. With what? Secondly, it’s not that hot here right now. Unless anything above 25 degrees has you breaking out in xenophobic floods of sweat, which, given Gill’s penchant for tweed three-pieces and John Lobb loafers, is entirely possible. Even today, at a time of year when the mercury should be soaring, it’s still overcast and little over 27. Hardly Arrakis, is it.

Journalistically there’s plenty wrong with this piece, but one of the main disappointments must be that Mr AA didn’t actually speak to any locals during his time, which was, I assume, spent drinking wine and hobnobbing with the same chavvy Brits he loves to castigate. To speak ill of an entire culture without referencing any of them is tantamount to racism, and something a ‘proper’ hack would get the tin tack for.

But beyond the obvious, the thing that really angers me about this article is the way it throws a blanket over every expat living here as idiotic, pisshead, arrogant wastrels who come here purely for the cash. Yes, there is that element to the unseemlier businessmen drinking champers on the Palm, and the prospect of a tax-free salary is hardly a downside to a job here. But nearly all of those I know here are hardworking journalists, writers, editors, stylists and designers who came here not for riches but for a stab at a career they were being denied back home.

Getting a first-time, or even second-time job in journalism back home is often harder than finding meat in a MacDonalds burger. And it’s not just because of the financial crisis, rising unemployment yadda yadda. It’s because of the same professional nepotism Gill chastises in his ‘discovery’. I could count the amount of times I’ve been denied a job in media because someone’s daughter/son/nephew/dog-walker wanted it on two hands at least. Some of us don’t enjoy the luxury of an independent education and ties to all the major editors in town. Not that we’re complaining: we’re doing just fine, thanks. We know Dubai isn’t the Florence of the east, nor is it a meritocratic nirvana where all your dreams can come true (unless those dreams include giant ice sculptures or man-made islands). And if we all wrote as crap journalism as this, we’d be on the first flight home.

Could Dubai Marina's many empty apartments be put to humanitarian use?

There are only about ten Emiratis in Dubai, and each of them is richer than Croesus. So the threat of revolution here is as good as nil. The same can’t be said of neighbouring Saudi Arabia, located less than 200 miles away through what’s commonly known as the Empty Quarter. Although Saudi hovers around the 40 mark for GDP per capita, rated by the International Monetary Fund at a respectable US$16,778, the figure has been fading in recent years. And the real problem is that the gap between the (usually oil) rich and the poor would shame any nation. Many of my friends here have been to Jeddah, Riyadh or Damman. And while each city boasts shiny new skyscrapers and a veneer of prosperity, outlying urban areas and villages often resemble slums, with crumbling roads and walls a crippling reminder than life for the majority of people in Saudi is anything but sweet.

Saudi’s human rights record is similarly dubious. Its treatment of women (they cannot drive, enter hotels alone or vote), anti-Semitism and treatment of foreign workers (foreigners number a hefty 5m, in a country of just over 24m) and corporal and capital punishment (the legends of Riyadh’s ‘Chop Chop Square’ need no introduction) appear craven and anachronistic.

That’s not to tarnish the reputation of every Saudi Arabian, of whom I’ve met many charming, forward-thinking examples since my time here. But I guess this is the point: people want change, especially young people. Tunisia, Egypt and – hopefully – Libya have felt revolution’s swift hand on their shoulders, and it seems Bahrain, Yemen and Oman are on the brink. Saudi’s King Abdullah, just back from a back operation in New York City, has hurriedly vowed to pump $37bn into unemployment benefits and affordable housing. But he might be too late, in a country whose median age is a mere 24.

King Abdullah, unlike his fellow autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt, has a strong armed presence behind him. The country’s National Guard reports to none other than his own son, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah. And with a media more closeted than Tom Cruise’s sexuality any public uprising could well be dealt with bloodily. Whether this happens or not, of course I cannot say. But if it does get ‘naughty’, as alliterated dough-faced mockney Danny Dyer might say, there will be plenty of Saudis crossing the border into Abu Dhabi, perhaps even millions. For a country with a population just over five million, this could be crippling. Pair that with Omanis fleeing their own troubles across the opposing border, and Dubai could be looking at its very own humanitarian crisis – ironic for the city whose boom days slogan was ‘build it and they shall come’.

Even Emiratis have realised that economic prosperity doesn’t necessarily mean freedom. “Wealthy Gulf states such as the UAE are far away from the economic difficulties that afflict Tunisia or Egypt but there are similar issues of unemployment and lack of freedoms, human rights activists say,” reports the FT’s Simeon Kerr.

“The UAE should take a long, hard look at what happens to governments that suppress the rights of its citizens to speak out or that think they can control the information people share,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director tells Kerr. “Tunisians are not the only ones in the Arab world who will insist that no government has the right to trample their rights.” Shame, then, that most voices of dissent, on the treatment of migrant workers and disparity between Emirates, have largely focused their efforts on the web, an avenue the government has a firm grip on.

Perhaps Dubai could make use of those empty apartments and office spaces they’ve so ruinously insisted on building? It could help thousands, even hundreds of thousands, from violence and oppression on their doorstep. It would also greatly enhance the stock of a nation desperate to pander to the West in light of Iran’s dangerous rhetoric across the Straits of Hormuz. As for us, all we’ve been told to look for is an increase in Saudi number plates. When that starts happening, something’s up.

Dorff and Coppola: going nowhere.

In bullfighting, the condemned beast isn’t allowed a swift death. Instead his tormentors, the toreros, tease and violently goad, stabbing into his haunches a succession of brightly-coloured banderillas, or barbed sticks, which both anger and weaken the animal before the lead fighter thrusts a bloody coup de gras into its aorta.

Cinema is that same pitiful creative, moving with all the plaintive grace of a pensioner on a one-way flight to Zurich. TV is its garishly-decorated matador, and we, the media-hungry public, play the part of the sanguine audience, watching in breathless awe as each bloody blow is struck.

But many of cinema’s banderillas come not from outside but within. Step forward Sofia Coppola, whose status as one of the medium’s classiest names must surely take a beating with latest venture Somewhere, which promises much but delivers squarely nothing. Marketed similarly to Coppola’s 2003 masterpiece Lost in Translation, Somewhere sells itself as a ‘lost boy finds solace and self realisation through charming muse’ piece, with a hefty side dish of indie flick cinematography. But it squarely fails on all fronts, and its meandering and fruitlessness may just have dealt a hammer blow to cinema at large.

Stephen Dorff plays Johnny Marco, a disenfranchised, doted-upon movie star whose listless life entails monosyllabic press conferences, garrulous PRs and a host of stunning if empty conquests. Marco applies himself to the role with all the drive and energy of a Generation X antihero, picking up precious little sympathy as he wades through the misanthropic Hollywood gravy train Charles Bukowski so succinctly labelled a ‘piece of crap’. Enter Marco’s eleven-year-old daughter Clio (Elle Fanning), who has been lumped on him by her mother, who has upped and left for an unspecified length of time.

Cue self-realisation; of father recognising the value of fatherhood and the sort of broody, affecting dialogue and scenery that has rightly made Coppola a darling of both the mainstream and indie filmmaking fraternity. Except that far from where its title suggests, this film goes nowhere. Johnny and Clio enjoy a series of inconsequential, perfectly normal father-daughter experiences – video games, swimming and ice cream in hotel room bed. However, but for daubs of spite and sadness here and there which do little to advance the plot, nothing has changed come the film’s infuriatingly filmed end-sequence: no spiritual epiphany has been made, no strengthening of family ties. Nothing.

Of course, this is largely the movie’s intent: to explore the shallowness of celebrity, and the emotional redundancy that that can entail. But there is no drama here. Dorff and Fanning put in perfectly ok performances, but they are hamstrung by a sporadic and wanting script. Equally, as Lost in Translation‘s star wasn’t really Scarlett Johansson or Bill Murray, but Tokyo itself, a loquacious haze of halogen and hipsters; so Somewhere‘s protagonist, the flat, urban sprawl of LA, rouses and offers little. The imagery it provides simply isn’t compelling enough to justify Harris Savides’ lingering camerawork.

Shortly after, I watched (another) four episodes of the second series of Mad Men (again). Its own psychedelically colourful depiction of Sixties New York, and a script that makes you feel like you’ve just sat down to dinner with Aesop, Marx and Mohammed, is everything Somewhere fails to be: dramatic, addictive, affecting and beautiful. You could watch Don Draper straining out a particularly fretful post-curry turd and somehow it’d still look like an Edward Hopper print.

Doing his own bit to kill off the cinema experience this year is Darren Aronofsky, whose visually overpowering Black Swan was, in my opinion, all trousers and no mouth; a simplistic and potentially misogynistic plotline letting down the overall viewing encounter. Same with Avatar. TV, with its myriad storylines, instantly multilayered characters and increasing visual brilliance is continually planting banderillas into cinema’s faded haunches. And with the advent of 152″ tellies with incredible definition and sound, why should we entrust a tenner in Sofia Coppola’s career when we know we can watch The Sopranos, The Wire, Ashes to Ashes or Boardwalk Empire from our own homes? Factor in on-demand and we can watch incredible drama the second we want it. 2011 had better be a good year for the big screen. God and its accountants know it needs one.