It's funny how things change. A short 45 years ago, the huddle of fretful fiefdoms now known as the United Arab Emirates were a British military protectorate known as the Trucial States. Not too long before that, these pirate kingdoms had been seized by the Royal Navy to protect trade routes to India: the government of Her Majesty was represented by the grey menace of battleships out in the stink and shallows of the Persian Gulf, ready to meet raiders or pirates with big wedges of high-velocity lead. Now, the UK is proud to announce that its visa application service in the UAE will also be operating a premium lounge out of a rented space in Dubai's Wafi Mall.
Here, instead of queuing up at the embassy to apply for a UK travel visa, Emiratis willing to spend £435 for the privilege will be able to drop into what's been described as a "Platinum Lounge" – via a dedicated chauffeur service, naturally – which offers "privacy and comfort, away from the hustle and bustle of the main application centre," and where "faster processing, of course, comes as standard." (If you're happy to drop a full £750, an "on demand mobile biometric service" will actually come to your home and gently flatter you as they sort out your forms.)
The service is the first of its kind, but its arrival was pretty much inevitable: as pointless bureaucracy slowly seeps into every facet of daily life, it was only a matter of time until somebody tried to market the filling out of paperwork as a luxury consumer product. At the Platinum Lounge, visa applicants can flop around in their own dedicated private booth, enjoy high-speed wifi, peruse complimentary drinks and snacks, and will receive a free Oyster card with which to pick their teeth as they race their Maseratis around the streets of Kensington.
This is, obviously, a case of geopolitical unfairness in full comic-book luridity. Britain's attitude to migrants from the Middle East is entirely schizophrenic. The government continually drags its heels in its duty to take in its share of Syrian refugees fleeing a war we helped to inflame; as teenagers die atop Eurotunnel trains trying to cross over from Calais, as hundreds desperately climb into the tunnels, we fume about delays.
Meanwhile, the Emirati ruling classes get to have foot massages in their private booths as an army of Jeeves clones process their application at the speed of obsequiousness. Right-wing demagogues grunt about tighter border controls, liberal thinkers gush about the incoming of a new, open borderless world, and none of them have the full picture: the world is both entirely open and entirely closed off. It all depends on who has the money.
The UK government's platinum lounge is a pretty decent symbol for the stupid state we're all in, but it's still worthwhile to look at the particular spaces it inhabits: a glitzy shopping centre in an arid emirate; a sad gang of waterlogged islands off the coast of Europe. Why here? From its description, the lounge sounds like nothing so much as those first-class areas in airports, the ones coldly emanating password-protected wifi to which you, the pathetic economy-class peon, will never be able to connect. Inside, of course, the places are all shiny, aseptic, and utterly boring. Airports are non-places, big dustpans of accumulated late-capitalist detritus, that look exactly the same everywhere in the world. They all smell the same too: jet fuel, panicked last-call sweat, and bureaucratised high security.
The Wafi Mall is something similar, something entirely hyper-real. It's themed to look like an ancient Egyptian palace, shaped like a big blasphemous pyramid, with gold-topped columns and animal-headed statues – the new visa application lounge may be plonked not too far from imitation frescoes showing some third-dynasty king working his peasants to death – but if you look up, the whole thing is suspended beneath a lattice of steel supports, the same kind of thing you'd see in an aircraft hangar. It has a historical theme, but no actual history. In other words, it's somewhere very similar to Britain itself.
The right likes to complain that immigration is destroying British cultural identity, as if British cultural identity were anything other than a set of fussy proscriptions. Don't talk about sex, don't put tea in before milk (or milk in before tea, I forget), and most important of all, don't jump the queue. Could there be anything more essentially un-British than a luxury lounge in a hot and dry country dedicated entirely to queue-jumping? But Britain, faster than any other country, is turning itself into one big airport, an interchange hub for the world's torrential streams of finance capital. We invented the visa playground for rich Emiratis because our national identity is having lots of money. This is what they mean when they say that refugees from our wars in less glamorous corners of the Middle East might not be able to adapt to our way of life: they don't have lots of money.
British values are measured in pounds and pence. We've become a chameleon-country: after Dubai, it's not hard to imagine similarly caricatured immigration centres popping up all over the world. One in Paris, where the staff are rude and the air smells of stale piss and garlic; one in Rio, where you're served by bureaucrats in neon pink bikinis; one in Moscow, where the walls are one big Swarovski crystal. But all of them will be cold and clean and utterly lifeless, because that's just the British way.