In the movie Blade Runner, the city is Los Angeles and the year is 2019. With a couple of years of economic downturn one version of Dubai could easily be Blade Runner’s version of Los Angeles. Slightly sinister and anonymous skyscrapers, driverless trains and thriving club-land. But its a lot more than that, and ‘least likely’ to be headed for an economic downturn. Its fun and if you have enough money, it is an easy place to be.
Here’s some adjectives that spring to mind.
Ambitious – it seems as if every now and then someone has an idea like – ‘lets build the tallest building in the world, only lets make it REALLY tall’; or ‘I see an indoor waterfall with lifesized silver people swimming in it (Dubai Mall)’, or ‘I would like to ski, but I don’t want to leave Dubai (Emirates Mall); ‘there is not enough land, so lets build a bit more but make it shaped like a palm tree’, or ‘I would like to encourage people to do exercise by building a 20km padded running track along the beach’; and so on.
Arabic – it is in the middle of the Middle East. Across the water is Iran, and not too far in the opposite direction is Oman and Saudi Arabia. Bahrain and Kuwait are along the coast. There are mosques galore and Arabic text is on all the billboards – alongside English. Here’s a fun fact – Arabic Hashtags read right to left, and Chinese hashtags have a hashtag on either end!
Authentic – along with just about every other type of cuisine there are the local bakeries, e.g. the Reef Bakery, where you can stock up on freshly cooked flat bread parcels with fillings like lamb and labneh (drained yogurt), cheese and honey or zaatar and labneh.
A cultural oddity from a western perspective at least – men and women have separate weddings despite getting married to each other. In some ways an extreme version of hens night vs stag night. Women get dressed up to be red-carpet ready and spend the evening with 800 or so other women, trying to outdo each other at being better dressed. The groom arrives for five or ten minutes, pre-announced enabling the women to cover up before he arrives. He leaves and the party continues.
Celebrity-struck – fascination with the ruling family, and their wealth.
Futuristic – a mirage of skyscrapers sits on the horizon as you look back towards the city from the desert. It looks like a book cover from a 70’s version of Frank Herbert’s Dune. The Burj Khalifa is 163 floors tall or 830m – almost a kilometre, and towers over every building near it and it is beautifully silver and shiny. The lift to get you to the viewing deck on the 124th floor takes about 1 min travelling at 10m/s. If you are lucky on your drive to the desert in the morning you can look over your shoulder and see the sun reflected off the tower.
The metro is not only fully air conditioned, including the approach pathways and the stations, the trains are driverless. I’m sure that Dubai will be one of the first cities to adopt flying cars.
Hipster – more kale and quinoa than you can poke a stick at at Pret a Go, the Garden Centre Café, Tom & Serge and any number of hipster eateries, including a selection of ‘Arab Hipster’ places. At Jumeirah (Kite) Beach there is Salt, a burger joint with a shop front that is a retro chrome plated van. You can sit inside in the airconditioning but it is built on beach sand and you can wear your beach clothes. Oh, and it is adjacent to the padded jogging track.
Hot – for almost half the year it is too hot even to walk outside. But on the on the other hand in winter it is extremely pleasant to verging on having to wear a sweater.
Luxurious – the Burj Al Arab claims to be the most luxurious hotel in the world. The only way to get in if you are not a guest is to go for either brunch or high tea. At AED800 for high tea, or USD220 for a cup of tea and a biscuit it is an expensive experience, but of course if you have to ask the price you can’t afford to eat or stay there. To quote time.com – “gold-leaf is applied as liberally as undercoat, there’s a fleet of white Rolls Royces on the forecourt and dancing fountains in the foyer, and fireworks launch from the bridge to announce the arrival of VVIPs”.
Modern – Dubai is there, its modern and its in your face. Everything you see is no more than ten years old. Locals talk of how they played on the beach at the Marina no more than 15 years ago, and that Barasti was a portacabin with a few palm leaves on the roof. Now it is a split level and slightly notorious club. On either side the beach is lined with luxury resorts and 100m behind them is high rise after high rise. Mostly interesting architecture so its still fun staring at the buildings, clubbing or brunching at the resorts.
‘Mos Eisley’ – it is the name of the bar in Star Wars where Han Solo and Chewy met Luke Skywalker. If you are not a Star Wars fan then the reference might be a bit obscure, but it represents a cultural melting pot. Dubai is at a cultural cross road because it is easily accessible to so many other countries. On any stroll through a mall you will see national costumes galore. Saudi women, completely covered from head to foot in black, Indian women in saris, Arabic men with their spotless white gandoora and red & white keffiyeh. Afghanis and Pakistani in kurtas, East Europeans and Russians, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Philippinos and western people all going about their business.
Sandy – its on the edge of the a big desert, no getting away from that or the occasional dust storm.
Wealthy – cars! Two things that you can do for free in Dubai that never grow old. One is car spotting, with Google as a guide to see the price of them. The game was to be the first to spot a Mercedes G Series-Wagon. It usually took about three minutes and once we struck gold literally – a gold plated G-Wagon. I caught a glimpse one day of a low slung blue car with chrome trim, and was delighted to see it again in the car park of my hotel – a Lamborghini.
The other (unrelated but amusing) secret thrill is using the travellators. Most of the travellators are set to a speed that is slightly too fast and you have to lean into them when you start, and then jog a bit at the end when you disembark. The trick is to time it to perfection and stride out at the end. Did I mention that I have a very high boredom threshold?
The new edition of Star Wars was recently filmed in part outside Abu Dhabi, and Star Trek was filmed in Dubai. The original Star Wars was filmed in Tunisia. Being in Dubai often seems like you are on a movie set. Its a bit surreal, and it is a nice surprise. For a two day stay you can be amazed by all the big things – the Burj Khalifa, the water park at Atlantis on the Palm, the luxury hotels and the malls. But if you are lucky and you can stay a bit longer, then lean in. Whatever that means.