I have just unpacked my loot from the Exchange.  On my bed sits a USB-powered, flexiplastic-bladed fan from Dubai e-government, pens from the Dubai International Finance Centre, which has its own legal system to serve the needs of its resident businesses, and a (feels like) twenty-pound, wooden book from the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, covered in glorious photos and vaguely creepy-sounding quotations from Sheikh Zayed.   As I look  at this cargo, spanning our ten days in the Emirates, I have to wonder,  what the hell just happened?

Geologic bloody good fortune.   To me it’s an open question whether the Emirate’s oil reserves, which ultimately make it everything it now is, are really a blessing or a curse.  Regardless, it’s clear that oil has catapulted a nation that prior to 1962 had little in the way of anything into arguably the most dynamic place in the entire Middle East-North African region.   It’s hard not to be somewhat impressed: the Emirates has ambitions of a scale increasingly rare elsewhere, and, even more rare, the money to maybe pull it off.  Less obviously, the Emirates provides capital, relative tolerance and resources to entrepreneurial classes from South Asia and throughout the Middle East-North African region, raising the fortunes of many a merchant family.

But against those positives stand huge negatives, and above all some great unanswered questions.  The negatives include harsh treatment of foreign laborers, the status of women, the immunity of the ruling classes (see last week’s torture allegations), and the hugely unsustainable lifestyle lived by most Emiratis, which apart from producing one of the world’s highest per-capita carbon footprints also includes free housing and utilities, luxuries that would be impossible to sustain were it not for the country’s reserves of black gold.

But these challenges seem to me less important than some fundamental questions about the UAE’s approach to nationhood.  Can you sustain what’s basically a tribal system of government and patronage in a global economy?  Can you hope to become a knowledge economy (as the government says it does) while refusing to grant citizenship, or the rights thereof, to the expatriates who must build it?  Finally, can the UAE really create a post-oil future out of the desert wastelands?  So far, oil bankrolls everything else.

My bet in answering these questions is no.  Most things about the UAE seemed to me to have a mirage-like quality, and I think there’s much about the place that’s illusory.