The truth is, Dubai has a way of flummoxing even the natives, let alone the seasoned traveller. Many who have lived here for decades still seem capable of expressing genuine astonishment at the scale of what has been achieved. So the whole idea of what it means to have Dubai as your home is subject to change — an idea that is, like most of Dubai, still being developed.
In pure architectural terms, Dubai is an impactful, imposing universe. Much more so, in my view, than downtown Manhattan. New York isn’t hemmed in from all sides by howling wilderness, as Dubai most certainly is. The uninhabitable is always around the corner here — only a few minutes’ drive from the skyscrapers are the Arabian sea and the Arabian sands.
The desert was in its element when we landed in Dubai. A short-lived sandstorm had hit the emirate and, as a result, a sepia haze fell over everything. One could see the grand buildings — these secular monuments to corporate money — but barely.
The upward-spiralling form of the Burj Khalifa loomed on our right, with all its aerodynamic might, its 200-plus floors. “That’s the big one…” I said to our guide, Mohanad. “That’s the big one,” he replied. I asked him if he has ever been to the top floor of the Burj. “Nah, never felt the urge,” Mohanad said, nonchalantly. “If you go up the Burj, you can’t see the Burj.”
I couldn’t see the Burj from my hotel room window, which was a bit of a downer. The view before me was a smattering of some under-construction high-rises in the distance, and an eight-lane highway 12 floors below. Still, it was a view I’d come to appreciate. That afternoon (my first in Dubai), while standing at the floor-to-ceiling window of my hotel room, I could faintly hear the azan being sung at a nearby mosque. Musically, it sounded different to my ears. So evocative and beautiful I wanted to record it. The traffic below pressed ahead with machine-like persistence; and the stone facades of those unfinished buildings before me were just coming into view. The haze was beginning to lift, and, though I didn’t quite realise this at the time, I’d just had my definitive Dubai experience before even properly stepping out into the city.
The term “experience” in Dubai works as a shorthand for living it up. To experience something here is to indulge your inner hedonist. Brand Dubai is a pleasure-seeker’s paradise, if your idea of pleasure involves shopping sprees and thrill rides, and if you like being bowled over by how incredible and unusual everything here is.
When most people think about shopping malls,” the director of the Mall of Emirates told us, “they think of what? Same old stores and food and cafés. You go in, you get your things, you go home. But over here, every time you walk in, we want to give you an experience — an experience to remember.”
The term “experience” in Dubai works as a shorthand for living it up. To experience something here is to indulge your inner hedonist. Brand Dubai is a pleasure-seeker’s paradise, if your idea of pleasure involves shopping sprees and thrill rides, and if you like being bowled over by how incredible and unusual everything here is. Take the indoor ice skiing arena (obviously the biggest in the world) at the Mall of Emirates.
We had to wrap up warm before entering this subzero layer — it was minus five degrees inside. The snow is artificially created. It is rained down on the whole complex every night using special sprays installed on the ceiling. Yet it felt as real to the touch as the chill vapour we were breathing out. Aside from all the snow sleds and thrill rides, the centrepiece of this setting was an implausibly high ski slope, with overhanging cable carts to ferry skiers to the top-most point.
If all this failed to impress — and everything in Dubai attempts to impress the visitor — there was the penguin show. “This one here is a six year old penguin and she was born in Dubai,” the presenter said in English. “She is the world’s first Emirati penguin.” I felt a bit sorry for the poor creature to be honest, despite being assured that she was taken great care of, which, of course, was made evident by the quasi-polar ecosystem we found ourselves in. Yet, here was a penguin that was born in exile. “So who wants to touch a penguin? Who wants to hug a penguin?” the presenter asked his audience. And I duly raised my hand, with some reluctance. Because the Dubai experience would be pointless if you weren’t able to include in it the eccentric, outlandish and impossible detail of being able to hug a penguin that was born and brought up on the Arab Peninsula.
When we were on our way to the IMG Worlds of Adventure, an indoor theme park, someone asked, “Is this the biggest indoor theme park in Dubai or in the world?” I was quick to supply the truism: if something is the biggest in Dubai, it is by definition the biggest in the world. They have the biggest building, the biggest mall, the biggest indoor theme park, the biggest artificial island, the biggest underwater hotel suite, the biggest (under construction) Ferris Wheel, and so forth. The Dubai Mall, in downtown area, measures as much as some 50 football pitches. How do you improve upon this degree of magnitude? Well, you make it bigger still. One of the employees at the mall, without trying to be funny at all, said, “We’re expanding this place by another five million square feet.”
Though it was a weekday, the mall was buzzing. The important thing was that these weren’t just idlers. They were shoppers clutching shopping bags in both hands, feeling as much a part of this setting, their natural habitat, as the penguins at the ski point.
On shop fronts one could read the poetry of opulence inscribed in Italian rhyme: Gucci, Givenchy, Versace. Some café was selling tea and cupcakes branded by Armani.
I was being driven around in a golf cart, which was modified to look like an open-top London cab. My driver was called Elmere, a Philippines national who has been living in Dubai for a few years now. I asked him how he was holding up against all this flash and glamour. “If you wanted to buy a pair of shoes from there, for instance,” I said, pointing to a designer store. “Would you be able to?”
“Yes,” he replied, “but I’ll have to go without food for the rest of the month.” Elmere said he liked being in Dubai — its comforts, and, yes, even its glamour. “But,” he added, “I’d like to go back home some day. Because you can’t live your whole life with glamour, you know. Sometimes you have to go back to what you love. And I love nature.”
On my first afternoon in Dubai, looking out of my hotel room window, I too could see those masts and jibs hanging over the unfinished buildings far ahead. The scenery conveyed a sense of promise. It seemed to say to the onlooker: don’t make up your mind about Dubai as yet.
The evolution of Dubai from a fishing village to the megapolis that it is today can be interpreted as an affront to nature. It exists the way it does despite the forces of nature, despite the sun and the sand. At the Green Planet, a sort of indoor natural science museum, you can see what is labelled as the world’s biggest (that phrase again!) man-made tree. It has a hollow trunk that stretches several floors high. Many species of exotic birds nest on the branches of this tree. That’s another thing with Dubai. Here, you’re never lacking for metaphors that point towards the larger sense of what this place could mean.
Another set of metaphors include the construction cranes and many half-finished buildings you see all around. In 2009, after the global banking crisis, a lot of the construction work here had ground to a halt. Stories began appearing in international media about Dubai’s inevitable decline. The emirate has since been struggling to move to a sustainable model of growth, never being as oil-rich as the neighbouring Abu Dhabi. Emirates Airlines, perhaps the most successful business venture here as of yet, has had a shaky few years. And so the tourism industry — kept afloat by all those malls and theme parks — now remains the great hope for Dubai’s future.
Local authorities have redoubled their efforts aimed at getting more travellers to this part of the world. Hence all the expansion plans and increased construction activity. At the Dubai Mall, I talked with Elmere about the charm of living in a city that was still a work-in-progress. It was as though every day you were waking up somewhere else.
I asked him: “How would you feel if they suddenly stopped building Dubai?” “No,” he replied, sounding very sure of himself. “They’ll never stop building Dubai.”
This reminded me of Joseph O’Neill’s 2014 novel The Dog, perhaps the only great work of literature about Dubai. It opens with some fine descriptions of this “abracadabrapolis”, this Ozymandian dreamland that looks set to become a ruin. But as the book progresses, you get the sense that the narrator, and by extension the author, has come to fall in love with the place. At the heart of this love affair is all the construction work going on in the city. The beauty of Dubai’s skyline is to be seen in the construction cranes and the thousands of “masts and jibs and guy lines”. “If I had my way,” O’Neill writes, “they would remain permanently in place, in great numbers. A Dubai that is not under continuing construction would make less sense. I’m pretty sure nobody is looking forward to the day when everything has been built and all that remains is the business of being in the buildings.”
On my first afternoon in Dubai, looking out of my hotel room window, I too could see those masts and jibs hanging over the unfinished buildings far ahead. The scenery conveyed a sense of promise. It seemed to say to the onlooker: don’t make up your mind about Dubai as yet. Perhaps in the next one decade, the emirate would emerge as something completely different to what it is today. Likely much bigger, more splendid and astronomically wealthier (how that’s going to happen, given the current economic scenario, is a moot point). But possibly, Dubai would become a more open, more liberal and more cosmopolitan society than it already is. A new home to new travellers.
The writer was in Dubai at the invitation of Dubai Tourism