This column first appeared in Malta Today
Just before the pandemic hit, one of the most frequently heard radio spots was by a well-known travel agency which constantly informed us that, “Everyone’s going to Dubai”. This trick of playing on people’s burning desire to be where “everyone” is (lest we miss out on all the fun) has proven to be a successful marketing ploy. In fact, it reminded me of that other frequently played ad about some massive summer party with a seductive female voice in a Russian accent telling us, “All Malta, is going…are you?” (And I bet you did the accent too, while reading that).
Then March 2020 happened and it immediately became clear that no one was going anywhere.
And even now, when travel has cautiously re-opened, it is still nowhere near the heights of 2019 when the airport seemed more like Grand Central station with everyone constantly on the move, hopping on cheap flights with just hand luggage every other month for mini breaks.
Never fear though…because for those who were inclined to visit the man-made city of Dubai, they can just sit back and relax in a staycation, for Dubai is actually here. The most obvious reason I am saying this is, of course, because of this week’s heatwave, when we had barely recovered from the unseasonal early heatwave in June. My lasting memory of a trip to Dubai about 15 years ago was of a city where the wave of hot air hits you as soon as you step off the plane – and this is when we had arrived in the middle of the night in the relatively mild month of May. Another lasting memory was the constant presence of air conditioning, which is not only necessary but vital in the desert. During the day, people did not venture outdoors at all, unless to go to shopping malls, restaurants and cafes where there is artificially cooled air (after driving there in air conditioned cars).
This week, as temperatures soared and our roofs baked, as the interior of our cars turned scorchingly hot and even doing one errand left you feeling drained and wiped out, I was reminded of all this. My immediate thought was: mission accomplished, we have literally become Dubai, and a look at the hellish weather sweeping the whole of the Mediterranean basin, coupled with a story about the desertification of Malta, have continued to confirm this impression.
The problem is that we are already caught up in an endless vicious circle: the hotter it gets, the more air conditioners we buy and the more we use them; and the more we use them the worse it is for the environment. Instead of preserving trees, we chop them down and then spend fortunes on awnings, canopies, enormous umbrellas and tents to provide the shade which nature had given us for free. We complain about traffic but will simply not let go of our private cars and any suggestion to pedestrianise village squares is met by hot objections and indignation.
Climate change is no longer some far off possibility in the hazy future – the climate HAS changed and it is very much our present day reality. But somehow the concept that only we can reverse the damage continues to go over the heads of the public and those running the country as they persist in their destructive behaviour.
My other reason for referencing Dubai is (as you’re probably guessed) because of Malta’s appearance and the penchant of some Ministers to take what is natural and transform it into some kind of picture perfect, Disneyland fakery.
In that press trip to Dubai we were taken around to see all of the projects under construction or in the pipeline, all of them sounding impossible and far-fetched but which (we were constantly assured) would actually happen within the timeframe promised. And they did. From an indoor artificial snow-capped mountain with slopes for skiing and other activities, to man-made islands in the form of a palm tree (the famous Palm Jumeriah) on which 28 hotels were built. Everything was ornate and over the top and dubbed “the best”, “the tallest” and “the most beautiful” including the iconic Burj Al Arab, reminding me of the glitz and gaudiness of Las Vegas (no wonder so many celebrities are lured to this city). And everywhere you looked there was constant building, building, building with hundreds of workers brought over from India or Pakistan, swarming all over the construction sites.
In 2014, Muscat was quoted as saying that he wanted to make Malta into the next Singapore or Dubai and even then it struck me that his vision for our island spoke volumes about his priorities. I suppose if you enjoy a world of endless shopping opportunities and manufactured tourist attractions under constant aircons, then Dubai is right up your street. But I wondered why he would want to tamper with a country which already has its own natural beauty and history (rather than just miles of empty desert) and turn it into something else? And how could tiny Malta ever hope to be Dubai anyway, which has a long coastline of untouched beautiful beaches, whereas we have a handful of sandy beaches and the rest of our shoreline is craggy rock?
When the hints about land reclamation started being sounded in late 2018, it sent worrying shockwaves among those who just want our island to be left alone. An article in Business Today by PKF partner George Mangion in 2019, spoke enthusiastically about Malta’s potential in becoming a “Singapore in the Med”. The pandemic put a damper on things for a while but then in June of last year, Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg was quoted as saying that, “Construction waste from the proposed Malta-Gozo tunnel could be put towards a land reclamation project”.
This insistence on not letting Malta just be Malta always depresses me and underlines once again how the pursuit of money has become an end in itself.
We had another example this week when plans were revealed for the field which used to belong to Ċikku Fenech to be turned into a public garden. Yet again, we were shown a design devoid of any soul or character but just more sanitised blandness. One positive thing about social media is that members of the public can voice their opinion directly to the politicians concerned and that is exactly what they did. Almost without exception, many were quick to tell Parliamentary Secretary Alex Muscat that they want the garden to be left in as natural state as possible without any unnecessary paving, swings or infrastructure. Children desperately need places where they can explore nature, while running free as children are meant to. Indeed, an architectural design submitted by Nidum and Halmann Vella proposed a design with minimal impact on the field of over 100 mature olive trees, which incorporates accessibility with the least intervention possible.
At the time of writing Alex Muscat has promised he will listen to what the public has vociferously said, but past experience has made us wary of these promises. (Somehow, somewhere, someone will be making money out of this we tell each other cynically). So we will believe it when we see it.
Meanwhile, this newspaper also reported that the plans for Ċikku’s field seem to be a mere sop to keep people “happy” because, “A sprawling piece of agricultural land of 40,000sq.m that separates Mosta from the Durumblat Road in Attard, known as tad-Dib, is targeted for a massive development project by a group of landholders in the area.”
Despondency does not even begin to describe my sentiments at this news. When I suggested earlier this week on FB that the only way forward is to ban all further development permits I was told that this would be tantamount to an authoritarian-style of Government a’ la Mintoff. I really fail to see any connection between the two. After seven years of living on a nation-wide building site, the Government owes it to us to put a moratorium on further construction and building. Neither the island nor its population needs any more “development”. The country cannot feasibly sustain it and we cannot take it any more.
Because as sure as heatwaves come and go, so will the annual torrential rains in September, and once again we will be wailing our misfortune and shaking our fists in anger at the Government for the flooded roads and damaged vehicles and homes because there is simply and utterly nowhere for the rainwater to go.