If you thought Dubai was only a playground for secular capitalism, then last week the Dubai general projects department proved you wrong. The latest theme to get the Dubai treatment is not an Angry Birds theme park, or the world's largest Ferris wheel, but the holy Qur'an.
In this most recent episode in its litany of excess, Dubai is planning a Qur'an theme park. It appears that in order to combat its irreligious public image, the Dubai planning authorities have resorted to a typical manoeuvre. Spend loads of money, build a spectacle, and make it big.
Dubai, although fundamentally a conservative place, has done as much as it can to distance itself from religion (apart from when public order is seen to be assailed) and has generally gone about building a secular emirate that welcomes western tourism. It is also accommodating of its diverse expat population, south Asian labourers, western bankers, Arab middle men, Gulf billionaires; all are welcome, tied by the shared bond of a tax-free salary. Of course there are inevitable tensions, but the emirate is like a bizarrely themed bar where everyone drinks in harmony, before fighting breaks out at the end of the night, and the whole process is repeated the next day.
This reputation has started to alienate regional tourists from the Arab Muslim world. Recently, a controversial Saudi preacher ordered Saudi women not to visit Dubai (obviously Saudi men are incorruptible) due to the city's licentiousness. This latest theme park can therefore be seen as a move to appease regional tourists and plug a gap in the market that would enable Dubai to have 20 million visitors a year.
This latest offering to the pantheon of extravaganza is to be called "Holy Qur'an Park". The general projects department at the Dubai municipality announced that the park had been designed "from an Islamic perspective to introduce the miracles of Qur'an through a variety of surprises for the visitors". Designs include an outdoor theatre, fountains, a lake, walking and biking tracks, a children's play area, Umrah corner and "areas for showing the miracles of the Qur'an."
The whole project is characteristic of the emirate's commodification of everything. It's a project that appeases and attracts no one. If tourists are religious enough to want to come to Dubai and eschew its other attractions in order to execute a mock mini-pilgrimage in the "Umrah corner", chances are they won't be enamoured of its circus-like nature. It appears that the park is an excuse to build an area set back from the rest of the city's charms, but the religious subject is too vague, too tenuous. One of the features of the park is reportedly a series of gardens bearing the fruit and vegetables mentioned in the Qur'an, in order to "stimulate people to think why these were mentioned".
The park is symptomatic of a dispiriting focus on the spectacle as opposed to the history and antiquity of Islam and cultural legacy in general. Saudi Arabian authorities busy themselves with erecting malls and gigantic clock towers on sites where real estate is at a premium, while tearing down historical sites of great import in order to clear space. And when there are projects that seek to further cultural causes, they are usually along the lines of the gauche replica of the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art in Abu Dhabi, which aims to transform the city into the "Paris of the Middle East".
If Dubai wants to develop retain a regional and cultural identity, the way forward is to use its resources to encourage the preservation of its heritage and architecture, and tap into the art and history of the wider region – not to build mini-golf versions of religious pilgrimage. The Holy Qur'an Park is a classic case of not knowing your market. Dubai is the anti-Mecca of the Arab world. It's why tourists from the region go there. Trying to re-invent itself as some religiously appropriate cultural destination is as pointless as building a casino in the middle of Mecca in order to attract more secular visitors. – © Guardian News and Media 2013