Wednesday, March 05, 2008


(I tried to cram some kind of "Du as you would be done bai" pun into the title here, but just couldn't make it work, even by the low standards I have set for myself on this blog)

It's been a while since I got back from the place, but it is so bloody weird that it does deserve a post. I ought to begin by mentioning that I actually lived in the UAE some time ago (and by some time, I mean a lot of time - the "Gulf War" that was ongoing at that time was the one between Iran and Iraq, to give some sense of the blood that has passed under the bridge since then). I wasn't living in Dubai but in Abu Dhabi, which at the time was kind of an equal rival to Dubai (richer as it still is, because that's where the oil mostly is, but less thrusting internationally).

Anyway, I had occasion to go to Dubai a few times, and it is interesting to see the changes. To give an example, when I was there 19 years ago, Dubai airport was in the middle of the desert, surrounded by some roads and a lot of empty scrubland. Now, Dubai airport is basically in the middle of the city, surrounded by hotels and other manifestations of the rampant urban sprawl that seems to characterise the place. They're actually building a new airport out in the desert again so they can free up the space from the one they currently use. Presumably the plan goes that in 20 years time the new one will have been swallowed up again, and they'll have to start building a third one further out. (For anyone familiar with Dubai now, I spent a day at the "Academic City" out in the middle of nowhere - that's what the airport used to look like).

I read somewhere that such is the scale of the construction that one quarter of all the world's cranes are in Dubai. I find that impossible to believe frankly (isn't the entirety of China also undergoing some kind of similar boom?), but anyway I found a link for you, so as to prove that I didn't just make it up. Outside my hotel room (just across the street in fact) the world's tallest building was under construction (it's already the world's tallest building, even though it's not finished yet). Here's the wikipedia page about it. I couldn't actually see all of it from my room, obviously, I needed to stand outside on the balcony to do that, but I can assure you that it is big. The hotel, by the way, was the most ludicrously ugly one I think I have ever stayed in - it was extremely well appointed and fancy on the inside, but the architect had gone for a kind of Kubla Khan meets Disneyworld look on the outside. It looked terrible. [Photos 6 and 7 in this slideshow if you really want to see it]

You'd think in such a modern city, with all the money at the disposal of the planners and so on that some thought would have gone into its growth and expansion, but apparently none has. They've only just realised, for example, that some form of public transport infrastructure is desirable, and have therefore started putting a metro system in. Now obviously would have looked a bit silly building a metro from nowhere to nowhere 25 years ago, but they might have considered putting one in the city that existed at that point and then been able to extend it as the sprawl sprawled. This lack of forethought pales, however, beside a story I heard of a new residential district that was built - new homes for hundreds of people, with roads, garages, etc etc. Except that they forgot to put any sewage system in, and so all the new residents of this nice new neuighbourhood were forced to put up with a year of digging while the streets were dug up again and a sewage system was put in place, while a kind of cess-tanker sat at the end of the road into which the residents' sewage was temporarily pumped.

I went to a shopping mall (this, judging by the literature left lying around the hotel, is the chief tourist attraction of Dubai) which contained a ski-slope. A real one, with snow and all that. Contained within some kind of glassed in winter-world, but possible to be viewed from the shopping area and traditional globally-available appalling "food court". It was dead strange - especially the small sledging slope down the bottom in which children were obviously forced to wear helmets. It was a long way from the steep hills around here which children careen down wildly on plastic bags or toilet seats. When I got home and told people of this story, I was asked a few times if I had tried it out and gone skiing. I had to confess that given my trip was in January I didn't feel the need to seek out a ski-slope while in Dubai, especially since I live where I do. Overall, the impression given by Dubai is of a place that's trying really hard to be all things to all people. Maybe one day it will get there, but at the moment it all seems a bit desperate.

But is this how all cities will look in the future? Walking round the mall, for example, while not exactly my favourite leisure activity, was at the very least a full on multicultural experience. More so even than places like London and New York. That side of Dubai is pretty appealing, even though the hierarchies based on nationality within the system are obviously very present and not especially hidden. But at least in places like the food court of a shopping centre, those strata are buried in the varied hues and clashing languages of a reasonable cross section of humanity. It was (momentarily) uplifting, actually. Obviously the other side to the "mall-world-as-future" thing is that we will all be expected to spend all our free time shopping, which is a significantly less rosy view of the world-to-come to my mind, but that seems to be mostly just me.

Obviously you've heard about some of the other stuff (the artificial island neighbourhood shaped like a palm tree, the other artificial island neighbourhood shaped like a map of the world, the world's only 7 star hotel - how do they know? what is a 7 star hotel? did they just define themselves as such? - and so on and so forth.), so I won't go into it. The best bit of Dubai though, is what passes for an older area of the city (you know 30 years-ish) down by the creek (and in fact involving the chaotic and fun shuttle boats across that creek). Partly because it reminds me vaguely of what it used to look like, and partly because it seems more real and less like you're walking through an artist's impression.

No comments: