The following conversation is excerpted from FREEZONE, a discussion organized by Shumon Basar and H.G. Masters for the Global Art Forum in Dubai, March 2013. Featuring commissioned projects and research, as well as six days of live talks, the Global Art Forum brought together artists, curators, musicians, strategists, thinkers and writers under the theme of “It Means This.” Words and terms known and unknown were scrutinized or invented as a way of gauging the relationship between reality and language.
The international participants in this discussion—Turi Munthe, founder of Demotix, an English-French-Swedish online crowd-sourced news platform, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati professor of political science, Manal al-Dowayan, a Saudi artist, and Parag Khanna, an Indian American writer—took on the complex politics of free zones.
On November 9, 2013, the Chinese Communist Party’s central committee met to set out “unprecedented” reforms, what the state news agency Xinhua described as being “expected to steer the country into an historic turning point.” One of the most significant turning points in China’s shift from command to state capitalist economy was in 1980, when the country’s first special economic zone opened in Shenzhen. Deng Xiaoping moved China onto its market economy route by bestowing upon Shenzhen exceptional trade benefits that, in the space of a few decades, saw that city turn into the “world’s workshop.” At the same time, in Dubai, Jebel Ali Port opened, and inaugurated the spirit of the modern free zone. It is now the world’s largest man-made harbor and strategic global transport hub.
Both China and Dubai share a belief in the stimulating seduction of free zones, governed under robust State or royal power, respectively. China now exports its sovereignty to parts of Africa while buying America’s sovereignty in the form of its national debt. Dubai possesses more free zones than anywhere else in the Middle East, including its “Humanitarian City,” “Media City” and “Internet City.” But what are the long term consequences of this freedom-granting process? What does it mean to cede laws that, in Dubai’s case, have evolved into social exception zones and not just economic ones? At what point does the “freedom” embedded in the “free zone” tip, like the doomed Costa Concordia ship, onto its side? The following spirited discussion — the first part of which took place in Doha with Keller Easterling and Tarik Yousef — highlights the pleasures and the paradoxes of twenty-first century free zoning.
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