THE members of the upper echelons of the new Netflix show Dubai Bling are Arab. These are, according to the rules of Emirati society, not the actual top rung: these would be the royals or adjacent royals. They are the ones who have to work for their money: real estate agents and wealthy businessmen, a DJ, a radio “personality”, the young widow of an old Saudi tycoon, etc. They come from places like Lebanon or Egypt, better than South Asians according to the Emirati value scheme, but even less than the lowest Emirati aristocrat. An Indian businessman and a social media influencer meet. When it comes to the DJ’s wife, most of the cast doesn’t seem to care much.
The genre of society ladies who dine and create reality TV gold is now of an advanced age: The Real Housewives of Orange County, which began in 2006, has spawned every possible iteration one could think of. Now influencers have appeared on the scene offering self-produced reality television that attracts millions of viewers from around the world. The cost of production has become so low and has been so internationalized by various streaming services that niche shows, and Dubai Bling would be a good example, are relatively easy to produce.
The storylines of most episodes seem to be set up by the producers focusing on things like loyalty disputes and betrayed secrets and shifting alliances. The setting, which is an artificially contrived metropolis where most brown people are relegated to a slave-like existence, some with better amenities than others, seems particularly suited to the content.
There are some differences, however, and they are quite telling. In one episode of the show, an Arab character (dubbed the “Queen of Versace”) argues with Indian influencer Farhana Bodi for not wanting to be her “content”. The joke, along with the other slights Bodi endures early in the series, seem to establish the caste system of the city-state, and thus the show.
The sum of life in this city is the consumption of goods and the spectacle of money. The rich buy apartments in the Burj and the less rich a single Chanel bag and a few bottles of perfume.
Naturally, the richest and Arabs are at the top of the Bling hierarchy – this is the young widow of Saudi billionaire Waleed Juffali, perhaps just one of many. Being a young widow is the second tragedy to befall Loujain, who was abandoned at a young age by his mother, a person he seems to try not to connect with at various points in the series. LJ endures a few failed dates in several episodes. Pakistanis will be happy to know that he is dating Pakistani model Hasnain Lehri. It’s a shame that this recent development took place after the show had already filmed its first season.
There are some interesting views of Dubai life in the show. Unlike Housewives and other similar shows, there seems to be a bit of desperation in the characters’ attempts to stay within the small “circle” they’ve created. The need to belong seems to control not only everyday dramas, it also seems to control careers and therefore futures. The DJ has to be nice to the real estate agent and the influencer has to bow to the widow with a fortune.
Appearances count as expected, but they matter more to those in careers such as radio talk show host. In Dubai Bling, it’s a Lebanese-Australian man with an exaggerated Australian accent and a Mexican woman who used to be his office manager. The accent, and the suggestion that it may actually be white, seems to matter a lot.
Dubai Bling reveals a lot about Dubai that its creators probably didn’t consider. Most of the action takes place in private settings, homes and offices, which is unusual for a series with the name of a city in the title. The sum of life in this city is the consumption of goods and the spectacle of money. The rich buy apartments in the Burj and the less rich, the Pakistanis, for example, a single Chanel bag and a few bottles of perfume. Everyone, however, is showing up to those they perceive to be below themselves on the social ladder.
It is also interesting to see that while consumption habits and lifestyles are changing in the Western world (social trends are defined by a more health-conscious lifestyle and less flashy choices), Dubai remains stuck in 2000. Americans have stopped going there. in malls as the goal of a less consumer-centric life becomes more popular (shopping can also be done on your laptop and goods can be delivered to your door). A large number of shopping centers are empty, the lights still flicker in old-fashioned chain restaurants.
The anti-capitalist atmosphere is not ascendant, but there is a certain shame around acts of blatant consumption in a world at war or in the face of the threats of climate change. Some of these malls are rumored to be converted into indoor parks.
In Dubai, however, things remain stuck in a time zone where “fossil fuel” is not a dirty word. This allows for a strange kind of nostalgia of its own: one where tall buildings were supremely impressive and consuming obscene amounts of designer goods wasn’t a character flaw. In Dubai, desi workers keep things looking good, children fed and hedges trimmed. The sheer artifice of the site is job security for the invisible lot who never appear in Dubai Bling: those who make money catering to the whims of the rich so they can send money home to this poor country. One unexpected reassurance that comes out of Dubai Bling is how impossible it would be for this “Jewel of the Middle East” to survive without the labor of South Asia, and for that we can be thankful.
The writer is a lawyer who teaches constitutional law and political philosophy.
Posted in Dawn, November 30, 2022