The only adjective capable of doing justice to Dubai City and its environs is "Ballardian".
To those of you unfamiliar with the novels of the late JG Ballard, who died in 2009, they tend to be set in futuristic cityscapes, brooding vistas of concrete and steel, endless variations of suburbia, sunk in a spiritless but somehow menacing entropy. Dubai, seen from the top of the World Trade Center tower-block, where the guests of the Emirates Literary Festival are bidden to lunch, is exactly like this: vertiginous skyscrapers, criss-crossing serpentine traffic, dazzling sun, cerulean sky. The whole thing is oddly reminiscent of the covers of early Seventies sci-fi novels. A spacecraft gently descending through the early-morning fog, or a jet-packed stratospheric traveller looming into view between the shimmering plinths, wouldn't be in the least incongruous.
In fact, Dubai scores pretty high in the incongruity stakes: those constant juxtapositions of East and West, tourist and local, Land Cruiser-driving plutocrat and bicycling migrant worker. In the shopping mall cafés, near outsize posters of Paris Hilton and the White Stripes, girls in full niqab negotiate their way through cups of coffee (a fascinating process to watch, involving deft veil-tweakings and lightning-fast sips). Asked to sign a book, after a session at the American University of Sharjah – an extraordinary series of Mughal palaces dropped on to a vast marble surround – I look up to see what resembles a delightful junior version of Queen Nefertiti who, in a pronounced Ulster brogue, reveals that it's for her granny back home in Portadown. Long-term observers stress the distance between present and medium-term past. When she first came here 35 years ago, Kate Adie was heard to remark, as she surveyed the tessellations of brickwork and chrome, that all this was a fishing village.
Still with Kate Adie and her kind, it takes only a few hours in a Gulf state to establish the immense international prestige of the BBC. Back in the UK, the corporation quakes fearfully in its boots at the thought of an incoming Conservative government and makes feeble symbolic gestures, such as the axing of 6 Music, while ignoring the fact that what really irks the licence fee-payer is the astronomical executive salaries. Here, on the other hand, foreign correspondents prowl the hotel lobbies like molten gods. The queue for John Simpson's event stretches all the way through the exhibition hall and out the other side. Mr Simpson, arriving from Iraq in a jet-lagged state and pressed for time, is thought to have spent an hour in his room signing 300 copies of his latest.
To watch BBC Worldwide – one's principal sources of news, alongside CNN – is to be struck by an almost sinister triumphalism, not to mention a fair amount of self-congratulation. Switching on the other night, in search of some hard information as to what was going on in the world, I discovered an exercise in corporate aggrandisement, in which a stream of middle-aged men with such titles as "Digital Platform Manager" droned on about collaborative news-gathering exercises. There may even have been the use of that fatal abstract noun, "empowerment". This was followed by a thinly disguised ad for a Californian rock musician who had invented a gadget called the iWallet. Finally, a small strand of print appeared on the screen, announcing that the EU was preparing to ban the trade in bluefin tuna. There are times when you suspect that the BBC's detractors, who maintain the corporation is too keen on activities beyond its public service broadcasting remit while running an operation with which the commercial companies cannot compete, may have a point.
By chance one of the BBC's chief commercial competitors was making his presence felt down the road. Delivering the opening address at the inaugural Abu Dhabi media summit, Rupert Murdoch apparently spent much of his time warning that Middle Eastern authorities must liberalise media markets if they want to attract foreign investment from international media groups. According to the Financial Times, a copy of whose Middle Eastern edition I confess to having abstracted from the hotel gym, Mr Murdoch also urged his hosts not to succumb to the temptation of censorship, and he noted that he had "endured my share of blistering newspaper attacks, unflattering television coverage and books that grossly distort my views or my businesses or both". Happily, he believed this to be "the price of success".
It is the old Trojan horse of economic liberalism, of course, given an extra dimension by the previously closed Islamic societies outside whose castle walls it now lies drawn up. Let in Western technology and Western consumerism, and with it will come Western debasement and moral laxity. From the angle of the worldly-wise foreign visitor, certain Muslim prohibitions seem scarcely sane. Someone pointed out that in the version of An Education shown on the outward flight, a nude painting displayed on the wall during one scene had been pixillated. On the other hand, if I were running a place like Dubai, I think I'd try rather hard to keep Paris Hilton firmly beyond the border, never mind copies of The Sun.
The newspapers on the flight out were full of the Association of Graduate Recruiters' "manifesto", published to stimulate debate in advance of the impending election. Among other things, the manifesto calls on the Government to scrap its 50 per cent target for entry into higher education. "Growing numbers of students are studying degree courses in below average institutions," it claims. "This does not help people's life chances or represent a good financial investment. It also creates problems for graduate employers who can no longer be sure what the value of certain degree courses and institutions is. The focus must shift back from quantity to quality." Naturally, this proposal was roundly disparaged by students and university lecturers. According to Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union: "The future of the UK is at the forefront of a high-skilled knowledge economy and we won't get there with fewer graduates."
Curiously, there was an echo of this controversy in a festival debate about the book club phenomenon, involving myself and the writers RJ Ellory, Chris Cleave and Rachel Hore (my wife). One reason for the popularity of reading groups, a nearby voice suggested, was the collapse of the British education system. People keen to read books, but having little knowledge of the landscapes in which literature exists and is produced, needed guidance of the kind that only Amanda Ross and her satellites could furnish. This produced a snort of "rubbish" from a fellow panellist and a counter-attack from Roger Ellory, who declared himself outraged by the case of an A-level English literature module in which students were required to read only the opening chapter of a Thomas Hardy novel. There was a feeling among the audience that children, and indeed readers, were being patronised. They weren't. The villains of the piece, as ever, are the education commissars, who value results above knowledge and are more interested in keeping people off the dole queues than helping them to realise their potential.
If a literary festival needs one thing to make it hum, it is a resident "character", some larger-than-life figure who stalks about imposing his (or her) personality on the cowed hordes of the green room. I had a splendid time in Turin once with VS Naipaul, who had expended much creative ingenuity in projecting the persona of the English literary gentleman abroad. At one point, a Chilean novelist joined our table. Sir Vidia glared at him and announced in quite a loud voice: "I do not like the look of that fellow. Clearly a Marxist. Quite possibly a supporter of Allende. I shall have nothing whatever to do with him." He then declared – again in quite a loud voice – that the entire Castilian literary tradition was bogus. "What?" I asked, dumbfounded. "Even Gabriel García Márquez?" "Of no value whatever," Naipaul assured me.
The Emirates Literary Festival, though excellent in every other regard, has not yet yielded up its "character"'. We had hopes of Martin Amis, here together with his wife, the novelist Isabel Fonseca. Would Mart party? Would he "make the scene"? Alas, the atmosphere at his packed-out talk was notably low key. There were even references to the respect he felt for the Prophet Mohamed. Later, he was observed on a mid-evening trip to the desert. Our hearts beat a little faster. Would he ride a camel? Cut a rug with the whirling dervishes? No, he retired to the bar. It was all very sad. VS Naipaul had a much better idea of how to behave.