In her classic account of World War I, Barbara Tuchman sets the scene for the passing of the prewar era with a vision of epochal pomp, the funeral of Britain’s King Edward VII. Nine monarchs rode in the procession and the pageantry evoked “gasps of admiration,” wrote Tuchman. But when it was over, one British peer reflected that “all the old buoys which have marked the channel of our lives seem to have been swept away.”
In Dubai last month, a very different kind of pageant was held, but if Tuchman were still around she’d have been taking notes. This triumph was billed as a world-beating blowout, a $20 million star-smacked extravaganza with the likes of Charlize Theron, Lindsay Lohan, Michael Jordan, and Robert De Niro in attendance. The fireworks display was so enormous it could only truly be appreciated from the heavens (literally—it was visible from space). The occasion was the opening of the $1.5 billion Atlantis resort complex on an enormous artificial archipelago shaped like a palm tree. The point of the party, its promoters explained, was to show the world that Dubai is a land of fantasies come true, an over-the-top destination for good times. But among many of the guests, the mood was funereal. As the fireworks exploded, the global economy was imploding. Many of Dubai’s overleveraged fortunes were crumbling, and no one was sure where to turn. The old buoys seemed to have been swept away.