Everything in Dubai is an ‘-est’: biggest, longest, tallest. The buildings don’t scrape the sky, they pierce it. The Dubai Mall is a labyrinth of the glitziest brands surrounding a four-storey fish tank – with sharks. The ski-dome attached to the Mall of the Emirates refrigerates 22,500 square metres of indoor ski runs – with real snow.
The Emiratis have captured, combed, irrigated and planted the desert, reclaimed the Gulf and filled it with island homes and six-star resorts. In the words of the Sheikhs, magnanimously staring from billboards lining the fourteen-lane highway: impossible is nothing. To most of us, though, Dubai is Disneyland for grown-ups.
Dubai shouldn’t exist. “It gets so hot it makes my nose bleed,” said our Kenyan pool attendant. He recalled the blistered feet of people silly enough to step outside in August without shoes, described how the hairs on his arms singe off every year. That’s when he goes home to equatorial Africa – to cool down. There’s so much water lapping, spurting and trickling in Dubai that it’s easy to forget it should be little more than scorched sand.
Dubai is a bubble of impossible engineering and cultural contradictions that shouldn’t work but somehow does – on its highly polished surface at least. It sits between East and West geographically, commercially and philosophically. Mosques affirm the pervading presence of Islam, while the glitzy hotels and beach clubs attract all strata of celebrities from reality to real. Bikinis and burkhas share the water parks and alcohol is celebrated, albeit discretely – and at £9 for a glass of wine, comparatively sedately. It’s great sunny fun and the food, bars, shisha and sights are spectacular.
My first visit to Dubai was in 1997, en route to India. Back then the only thing glittering was the unadulterated Gulf. My travelling companion and I respected the strict local dress code, the 45C air hermetically sealing our trousers and long sleeves to our bodies. We had more hope of finding Lord Lucan than a cold beer. Nobody holidayed in Dubai; it was a port, a portal to somewhere else, a place to switch planes. Nothing more.
How things have changed. Since then, Dubai has capitalised on its only two assets: its location on the Persian Gulf and hot, empty space. Now, more than 20% of the world’s physical gold is imported and exported through this shimmering Emirate ($70 billion worth in 2012). Most people assume Dubai is built on oil. It isn’t. That’s Abu Dhabi, Saudi, Kuwait – pretty much all the surrounding countries. Dubai had sand. So they have really turned nothing into the impossible.
Sixteen years after my first trip, the awesome Dubai skyline literally sucks the breath from your lungs. The scale of everything is surreal. Beside a vast man-made lake containing the world’s largest fountains, international crowds crane their necks to ‘wow’ at the audacity of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. At 820 metres, you could stick Europe’s Shard on top of Asia’s Taipei Tower and the Khalifa would still win. And it’s beautiful; a cross between an Arabic flower and a diamond stalagmite.
Of course, descend from the rarified Atmosphere bar on floor 122 of the Khalifa, down through the silky Armani Hotel and back to relative normality on the ground, and you see this city’s anatomy is not so different from any other – despite their propaganda. It’s not all about opulence and grandeur and even Emiratis don’t always travel by Maybach. Plenty of them favour the new Metro, which is clean and fast, and street side cafes offer everything but alcohol at a fraction of hotel restaurant prices. Sink just a little further and you notice the rainbow of prostitutes thriving in Dubai’s bloated underbelly; a Filipino manicurist at my hotel spoke freely of ‘business ladies’, which really confused me until I realised what she meant. We even met a heroin addict, in a city where dabbling in such substances can get you killed.
UAE laws are harsh so overt crime is rare. Hookers and homosexuality are illegal but tolerated if inconspicuous, while public snogging or petty theft carry a prison sentence. My boyfriend got chatting to an Emirati in the mall while I browsed. Turned out he was the UAE ambassador to the United Nations, shopping with his enormous family. There was no security detail to alert anyone to his status; why should there be? His safety is taken for granted. He was relaxed and friendly. “Men are always waiting outside shops for their wives,” he sighed. “You’re lucky though. You only have to wait for one!”
When I left my credit card in a taxi, it took the driver two days to track me down. Our hotel room was booked in my boyfriend’s name so I have no idea how he found me. I wanted to reward him, thank him at least, but he’d already left. So different from when my boyfriend had dropped his wallet in London. An opportunist pocketed it in seconds, despite the conscience-tugging photo driving licence complete with name and address they must have seen.
After three visits I still don’t really know what to make of Dubai. It breaks all the rules: it’s grown faster and broken more construction and engineering records than anywhere else on Earth. It welcomes wildly opposing cultures and funds unimaginable progress without imposing tax. That such a place exists at all is amazing; that it exists in the desert makes it equally disturbing. Despite the wide smiles and fragrant shopping malls, it’s obvious that this gleaming illusion is not perfect; the brighter the city, the darker the shadows.
My biggest surprise was finding simple civility still exists in this most complicated of civilisations. And that’ll stay with me long after I’ve forgotten the view from the Khalifa.