I was prepared to hate Dubai, even when I arranged for a three-night stopover en route from Shanghai to Amsterdam with Emirates. I was sure I’d be turned off by the excess, the contradictions and the rules. I was so wrong.
I was surprised to hear that my hotel (twenty times more expensive than my $4 beds in China) was totally booked out during my stay. I was unwittingly in town for the Dubai Shopping Festival, a month long celebration of all things retail. I couldn’t even get up the top of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, as it was booked out for four days. I had to simply admire the building from the outside, which, strangely, doesn’t look huge until you see it in the context of the whole skyline. The thing towers three or four times higher than the next biggest buildings.
So I spent a lot of my time shopping. I fell head over heels in love with the Dubai Mall, the biggest shopping mall in the world with over twelve hundred shops, an aquarium, an Olympic-sized ice-skating rink and an indoor waterfall. I graced this establishment twice in twenty-four hours, picking up a laptop, Marc Jacobs bag and cake from the Magnolia Bakery. So I was quite the fan. I visited Wafi Mall and the Mall of the Emirates later (complete with indoor skiing) but nothing came close to my beloved Dubai Mall.
Despite being distinctly Middle Eastern, Dubai really reminded me of a heap of other places. Sheikh Zayed Road was in parts like the Gold Coast’s Esplanade with its insane high-rises lining solely one street, the Iranian Bastakiya Quarter felt similar to Santorini’s white-walled lanes, the Dubai Mall resembled Chadstone in parts and absolutely nowhere reminded me of the only other place I’ve been in the Middle East; Marrakech, nor China, which is in the middle of a similar construction boom.
Dubai itself is spread along the Dubai Creek, mainly encompassing old Dubai, and then makes a sharp left with its major new development along the beachfront. I spent my first day and a bit getting around by taxi and the new metro, as walking seemed nigh on impossible due to the insane traffic and vast distances between sights. I ended up succumbing for the first time ever to the feared Big Bus Company, which was able to whisk me around the weirdly-shaped city; from the excellent Dubai Museum, to the Gold Souk, along the Dubai Creek in a wooden dhow, down to the iconic Burj al Arab surrounded by dozens of private clinics and oxymoronic ‘dental spas’, and finally to the man-made islands of the Palm.
The further you ventured along the waterfront, the more chance you had of bumping into Dubai’s famous ‘ladies who lunch’. They mainly fell into two camps – Brits or Arabs – with the Brits all decked out in the uniform of white capri pants, and the Arab women all clutching their Gucci and Louis Vuitton shopping bags. This made me wonder – surely this is the image of the triumph of capitalism, when you have women buying such extravagent clothing of which only a small amount of people will ever get to see.
I escaped the city one night, heading out for a desert safari. Just over half an hour out of the city and we were bundled out of our four wheel drive for the tires to be deflated. We stepped out and I was amazed to see that we were in the middle of desert, without a building in sight. You forget that in Dubai, with its manicured lawns and sprinkler systems. That night we were treated to dune-bashing (I was convinced we were going to roll over), camel riding, henna tattooing, belly dancing and Middle Eastern feasting. It all ran like clockwork and later I realised why – the company I went with was owned by Emirates, which is in turn owned by the Sheikh.
So why didn’t I hate Dubai? Maybe because it’s a huge social experiment that seems to be going all right – no, they’re not democratic and websites such as Skype are blocked, but people would still have a whinge about bureaucracy on the radio and their blocked messages politely ask you to contact the Ministry for Information if you reckon they’ve gotten it wrong. The fact that the Sheikh thought ahead in the 1960s and thought “okay, we’ve got this oil now and it’s not going to last forever, maybe we should use it as an investment into infrastructure” makes you think pretty well of him. It makes you look at the entire country and their meagre beginnings and think “good on ’em”.
On the other hand, perhaps it’s quite simple, it could be because nobody stared at me anymore – unlike in China, everyone’s from somewhere else. Or, quite possibly it’s because I flew in to a place where everything seems to work – from the Metro to the clean toilets to the perfect weather. All the planets were aligned.
Maybe I wouldn’t have been so accommodating in the 45+ degree summer.