Dubai Bling: Diamonds and Glamour Cannot Hide the Emirate’s Dark Side

Diana Moukalled
Lebanese Writer and Journalist

The Netflix reality TV series on the lives of the rich and famous in Dubai in fact offers very little that is “for real.” In the Gulf countries, art and entertainment increasingly serve as a luminous facade to cover up social and political repression.

A wealthy young woman rushes into a jewelry store and picks up a $3 million diamond necklace as if buying a piece of fruit.  A businessman dispatches his private jet to pick up a beautiful young lady on a first date.

A couple engages in a fraught conversation because the huge closet in the five-bedroom villa, where only three people live, is not big enough for the wife’s clothes, shoes, and jewelry … These are some of the “real” events set in a visually stunning setting of colors, marbles, and expensive clothes. 

Yet, the word “real” in this context is ambiguous. We are talking about peculiarities captured by cameras, film crews, and producers who invested millions of dollars to give us the impression that the lives we are watching are the lives of people nearby – two or three palaces away – and that the tears we see shed are spontaneous. 

It is not necessary to list the names of the ten celebrities who,  in the eight episodes of the new Netflix reality TV series Dubai Bling, brought us closer to their lavish lifestyle in the Emirate. The debate should not so much be about the individuals involved, as on the context that brought them together, and the contradictions and toxic messages the series conveys about life, money, and women. 

The Drama of Wealthy and Powerful

In recent years, reality TV has undeniably and fundamentally altered our perception of the world’s wealthy and most powerful. Reality TV and its stars have infiltrated every pillar of the global entertainment industry. 

The formula, which initially appeared on American TV, contributed to the generalization of such concepts as artificial beauty, cruelty, hostility, superficiality and disloyalty. Its recurrent successes have drawn America’s and the world’s obsession with the vices of affluent and amoral people. 

Indeed, critics, sociologists and even fans never fail to express their abhorrence, hatred, and condemnation of these shows. Yet, the creators of these shows have succeeded in infiltrating mainstream culture nevertheless and won the main prize: our attention. 

And so now live this lavish, elusive world of Arabic drama brought to you by Dubai.

Dubai Bling features a group of very wealthy and successful women, businessmen, celebrities, and members of the Emirate’s elite. They are followed by cameras through their lives as they celebrate, argue, and boast about their private jets and yachts.

It is a life dominated by money, gossip, scheming, derogatory language, and stereotypical and occasionally even racist views. Take the wretched scene of a tycoon saying: “I’ve never been an employee of anyone.” This sentence expresses his superiority over employees and workers, and disrespect for the concept of work itself. 

The appeal of Dubai Bling is not the celebrities’ lives, nor the question of how they became so incredibly wealthy – despite the show’s desperate attempts to exaggerate some personal tragedies. Rather, the drama centers on a lifestyle of glamour and luxury, dominated by Hermès, Chanel, Versace, Cartier, expensive cars, upscale restaurants, and lavish homes. 

The kind of wealth on display makes you wonder: Does one really need all that? 

People in Middle Eastern and Arab countries, where over two-thirds of the population suffer from economic and political hardship, may feel envious of the purchasing power enjoyed in Dubai Bling.

Now, indeed, we are only talking about a TV show. And those who do not like this or any other reality show about the famous and wealthy can opt not to watch. However, the argument is not just about watching. It is also about the glaring paradox that lies behind such a massive production.

“My idol is Sheikh Mohamed”

Threaded through the sparkling moments of Dubai Bling we hear statements such as “my idol is Sheikh Mohamed,” a reference to Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid, ruler of Dubai and vice president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

In another scene, celebrities are dancing, singing, and donning green attire to celebrate Saudi National Day. The gorgeous, wealthy Lebanese ladies in the series have buried their identities inside of them, by being shown as forced to leave their chaotic country and travel to the land of opportunity, wealth, and beauty. 

Dubai without a doubt has emerged as the most well-known and alluring Arab city for people looking for work and a better life. It is a city of many faces, and it would be inaccurate to suggest that Dubai Bling embraces it all. Actually, despite the show’s glamor and attractive people, it is accurate to say that this series only exemplifies the worst of Dubai. 

While the series was receiving praise, British newspaper The Sunday Times published: “The dark side of Dubai: Instagram stars sell sex to fund lavish lifestyle.” 

According to the article, some of the influencers promoting Dubai’s rosy image are also selling sex. The paper claims it is a business showing the dark side of Dubai’s sudden rise. The city has attracted thousands of influencers who have flooded social media platforms with posts celebrating the emirate’s luxury and many dazzling opportunities. 

The posts show a world of  beach parties, copious amounts of oysters and Champagne Bollinger, and fantastic nights spent with the world’s wealthiest, including thousands of Russians who fled to Dubai following the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war.  

According to The Sunday Times, social media plays a crucial role in how the UAE is presented to a global audience. The Emirati government has rolled out the red carpet for influencers, and even provides financial support to a number of them. Some were granted “golden visas,” ten-year renewable residency permits. As a result, Dubai is portrayed as the ultimate consumer paradise. 

Sheikha Latifa

As a sharp contrast to the glitter of Dubai Bling, Finnish national Tiina Jauhiainen recently filed charges against Sheikh Mohamed and other Emirati officials in Germany. She claims she was “abducted and tortured.” Jauhiainen is a close friend of Sheikha Latifa, daughter of the ruler of Dubai. 

Jauhiainen was instrumental in Sheikha Latifa’s 2018 attempt to escape from the UAE on a yacht. Yet, the vessel was captured and Latifa returned to the UAE. Her case is one of the many featuring human rights violations, revealing a dark side of Dubai and the UAE.

The abduction of Sheikha Latifa and the subsequent escape of Princess Haya bint Hussein, Sheikh Mohamed’s second wife, combined with the details made public by the divorce petition Princess Haya filed in Britain, including death threats, are not openly discussed or spoken about in the Emirates. There is no “reality drama” here.

Similarly, there is never any mention of the detention of prisoners of conscience and human rights advocates. Anyone who dares criticize a member of the ruling family or the authorities in the UAE risks being denounced, accused, imprisoned, and even deported. It should not come as a surprise that the UAE is a major investor in electronic surveillance of journalists, dissidents, and activists. 

The Entertainment Mutant

With the emergence of new ruling elites in the Gulf countries in the past years, a frenetic scramble for locally-produced drama and artistic productions has been gaining momentum. The UAE and Saudi Arabia especially have succeeded in turning Dubai and Riyadh into cultural hubs, all the while exerting an iron grip over the media’s political coverage.

Saudi Arabia, which promotes itself as an emerging art hub, recently announced it would invest over $64 billion in the entertainment industry by 2030, starting by spending billions to tempt actors and musicians to perform in Riyadh. 

Saudi Arabia’s transition to more openness, its rejection of radicalism, and its freedom from fatwas coincided with an extraordinary crackdown on activists and dissidents, which included mass executions earlier this year.

In these places, art and entertainment serve as a luminous facade to exaggerate the glamorous and cover up repression. The mix of “openness and entertainment” is an attempt to camouflage human rights issues and remove political opposition from the scene, branding it as a kind of luxury not appropriate for the present moment. 

Therefore, the reality drama presented by Dubai Bling and other upcoming productions – Saudi Arabia is in the process of producing its own version of the series – are a form of soft power aiming to impose more control and corruption, and to waste money in the guise of “art.” 

It is still not possible to renounce the legacy of fanaticism and conservatism without enjoying genuine freedom and an artistic approach free from political constraints. All we witness now is the imitation of Western models to create visually stunning cultural mutants. 

We may never stop wanting money, or anything else that will ease the intense worries we have for the future of our children and our crisis-hit nations. But, surely, we honor our values  such as freedom and self-esteem as much as we desire wealth and luxury.

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