Perhaps the most ambitious experiment in social engineering is under way in the Middle East, and its outcome may have a profound effect on the region’s future. And no, it’s not happening in Iraq. Far away from the car bombs of Baghdad explodes Dubai, the dazzling Emirate repost on which the hopes of cosmopolitanism hinge.

Dubai is truly a place unlike any other. It’s literally a city of strangers; 80 percent of its inhabitants are expatriates, representing 200 nationalities. A large portion of that foreign population is there for really only one reason: to work day and night to construct a modern metropolis from scratch.

Earlier in the year, one of United Arab Emirates’ biggest developers revealed that the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas would provide the master plan for Dubai’s 1.5-billion-square-foot Waterfront City. The plan envisions an artificial Manhattan-like island just off the Persian Gulf, perfectly square, divided into 25 identical blocks, with rows of towers and fantastical structures filling up the skyline.

In a March article in The New York Times, the architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff said Koolhaas’ bold urban experiment embodies “his concept of `the generic city,’ a sprawling metropolis of repetitive buildings centered on an airport and inhabited by a tribe of global nomads with few local loyalties,” a kind of isolated urban oasis for a detached cosmopolitan community.

But can you just erect a city in the middle of the desert without a unifying culture, without historical links? After all, once similarly diverse and flourishing cities like Baghdad and Beirut have disintegrated into bloody ethnic rivalries. Moreover, the driving forces behind the cosmopolitan ideal, wild globalization and unfettered markets are apparently slowing down with populism and protectionism creeping in again around the world.

Certainly, the idea of the global citizen, no matter how appealing, is a fragile one. And Dubai, for all its sheen, is still a place of profound tensions: It’s distinctly Muslim, yet embracing of modernism; traditional, yet forward-looking. And in an atmosphere of unprecedented freedom in the Middle East, some Muslims there have shed old sectarian identities and formed new ones, often giving up religious practices in the process and taking up habits like drinking alcohol and frequenting prostitutes.

In the latest installment of a fascinating series on faith among young Muslims, The New York Times reported that, as a result, religion in Dubai “has become more of a personal choice and Islam less of a common bond than national identity.” For instance, one Egyptian construction worker, when asked by The Times if he feels more comfortable with a Pakistani who is Muslim or an Egyptian who is Christian, offered this answer automatically: “The Egyptian.” What we’re seeing, then, is an extraordinary growth of new local ties that could be formed only in a cultural vacuum.

So does that mean that the ideal of global nomads without local attachments is just an illusion, or does it perhaps suggest the opposite, that one day those bonds might transcend even nationality? I don’t know, but I think we continue to underestimate the power of nostalgia, that yearning for the past as a source of our self-orientation and deepest moral commitments. Interestingly, that same construction worker quoted above declares that he has to go back home every so often to “reconnect with his values.” Whether a city of strangers can ever satisfy that hunger remains to be seen.

When I visited Dubai earlier this year, my group decided one night to go to a club near our hotel. What we encountered was indeed a kind of sanctuary for foreigners: Egyptians, Pakistanis and Jordanians just off shift sipping their beers; American and Asian businessmen mingling at the bar; local girls and guys dancing to a cheesy cover band; and, of course, we visitors to this glittering, surreal place. In a way, maybe it’s the bar that’s the quintessential home of the cosmopolitan, the place where you will always find fellow travelers no matter how alien the land.

Koolhaas, reflecting on his audacious plan, told Ouroussoff, the critic: “You rarely feel that you are designing for people who are actually there but for communities that have yet to be assembled. The vernacular is too faint, too precarious to become something on which you can base an architecture.”

aybe the bar vernacular isn’t a bad place to start, then.

Lukasz Swiderski is a junior in the School of Foreign Service and is studying abroad at Oxford University in England. He can be reached at UNFOREIGN AFFAIRS appears every other Tuesday.

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