Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Dubai - My Introduction to the Middle East

After leaving Malaysia, I spent three days in Dubai, the Middle East's new big thing, wanting to see what all the fuss was about.

Originally I had wanted to see several places in the Middle East...Israel, Jordan, Egypt perhaps. But I wasn't eager to thrust myself alone into a region that could be dangerous for an American, so I decided to just make a quick stopover to a city that sits conveniently on the path between Southeast Asia and Europe.

Dubai thrust itself onto the world stage over the last decade. Fueled by flush oil revenues and easy credit, the city plunged into a building spree which was ambitious even by Shanghai standards. Also having an old colleague there to visit, I wanted to see if Dubai had reached the level of a great international city.

Flying in late on Monday evening, I noticed different dress standards from Malaysia. Emirati men mostly wear a traditional white cloth with a black ring circling the head and leather sandals. These days the look has been modernized by cellphone earpieces -- it seems that Emirati men are constantly talking on their mobile devices. Almost all Emirati women wear black robes, many with face veils, but this is simply a cultural distinction and not a religious one. Islamic law only states that women should be dressed modestly, but does not specify color or even how much of a woman's body must be covered. Hence, though Malaysian women looked far different in their colored headscarves and jeans, and Malaysian men dressed similarly to Westerners, both cultures are in conformance with Islamic standards.

On Tuesday I set the alarm so I could attend a 10AM tour of the Jumeriah Mosque, perhaps Dubai's finest. It also is unusual in that it allows nonbelievers to visit four times a week for information sessions sponsored by the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding.

The session proved to be a good "Islam 101" for uneducated people like myself. We learned about the five pillars of Islam and the timing of the five daily prayers (this explains why I was awakened nightly by a man singing at 4AM) and learned about what goes into the act of praying itself. Though I remain a novice in all things religious, including Christianity, I appreciate learning more about these traditions as I feel it does help bridge cultural gaps.

I made a friend at the mosque who was transiting in the opposite direction, from London to Hong Kong, and we spent the afternoon checking off some must-sees and commenting on how unusual a city Dubai is.

From the mosque, we taxied to Dubai Mall, an incredible shopping palace. Dubaians love to shop. They need air conditioned places to congregate to escape the brutal heat, and they seem to have enormous amounts of disposable income to fritter away.

The Dubai Mall is unlike any I have ever seen. It's unquestionably the largest mall I've ever visited, the size of a small city, containing an aquarium, a waterfall, and every Western brand imaginable. Dubai Mall is a place for people-watching, and you quickly see that Dubai is not very Arab at all -- it's very expat heavy.

Walking the mall and grabbing lunch easily occupied several hours. From there my new friend and I walked outside to get our first view of the Burj Khalifa, the new tallest building of the world. It's so tall that I couldn't even photograph the whole thing on my camera! Looking across the pond which contains the Dubai Fountain, you see the skeletons of unfinished buildings. The global financial crisis has hit Dubai particularly hard, and it's possible that some of these buildings will become carcasses of the recent worldwide speculative binge.

From there we visited Jumeriah Beach, from which one can view Dubai's most iconic building, the Burj al-Arab, the "world's first 7-star hotel". Shaped like a sail, the hotel does look rather attractive, though with all the heat and humidity it was rather difficult to photograph.

My new friend and I went separate ways at the Mall of the Emirates, another grand shopping mecca. However, though it would make a fine mall in the US, even bigger and better than Tysons Corner Center, it looks shabby compared with the Dubai Mall. This second mall does contain one big asset though, Ski Dubai, a 60 meter tall indoor snow hill in the desert!!

After walking around the "boring mall" of the two, I met my old work colleague Marwan Chaar for tea in the financial district. To all my old DC Energy colleagues, Marwan says hi, he is doing rather well for himself these days.

My busy Tuesday finished with a solo dinner at the Madinat Jumeriah, a fancy dining/shopping/residential community near the Burj al-Arab. I had a decent meal but the highlight was getting to hold a man's trained falcon! Though I had a fear the large hunting bird would peck my face off, it was very well-behaved. A professional photographer took my picture and I'll see if I can later scan it into the blog.

On Wednesday I decided to test my luck by walking through the Dubai heat. I bought a 1.5 liter bottle of water and set off for the Bastikaya, the old city of Dubai near my hotel. Even in the morning the outside was a true sauna. Sweat dripped from every pore in the 100+ degree heat. Exfoliating!

The Bastikaya was a ghost town, as only a foolish tourist like me would even consider taking a look around. Nothing to see there but empty white sandstone buildings.

From there I walked along Dubai Creek to the Old Souk, a sleepy textile market in the shade (thank goodness), and then darted in and out of the shade to the Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum residence. The shiekh was ruler for nearly 50 years and just before Dubai uncovered its oil. I got to see a lot of Dubai as it used to be, and before air conditioning I can assure you that the summers were not pleasant!

I tried walking from the palace to Dubai Museum, but I just wasn't going to make it. Thankfully there are cabs everywhere in Dubai who slow down and honk at anyone they see walking (because who really would choose to walk in that heat). After a short ride I was able to take in all the exhibits, including a living replica of an old Dubai village and, more importantly, some great air conditioning.

Slightly refreshed, I walked to lunch at Marwan's favorite Iranian kabob place. The food was delicious and inexpensive and I felt really full afterwards.

Already slightly incapacitated by the heat and now in food coma, I retreated to my hotel room for a nap. When I arose, I taxied back to Dubai Mall to see the evening show at the Dubai Fountain. It's like the Las Vegas Bellagio fountain on steroids...huge and the water dances to Arabic music.

I finished at the Burj Khalifa, which at 160 stories is by far the tallest building in the world. Just finished in January 2010 so the viewing deck in brand spanking new. Flying up the elevator at 2 floors/second to the mere height of floor 124, I was expecting an amazing view of the city just after sunset.

There is a really cool outdoor section where you can actually stick your hand out and drop your camera 30 stories! The indoor view was quite disappointing, however, as the glare of the lights means you really can only see cars travelling down the Sheikh Zayed Road strip. Even during the day you're too far away to view the Palm islands in the Persian Gulf, the thing I had really wanted to see. Check them out instead on Google Earth.

Dubai is a really bizarre place. The comparisons with Las Vegas are not entirely inaccurate -- both are cities of excess that appear to sprout unnaturally out of the desert -- but there certainly distinctions. For one thing, the UAE adheres fairly rigidly to Islamic law, so you're best off avoiding public displays of affection or stumbling around on the streets after too much time at the pub. I didn't find any casinos in Dubai and light sleepers like me are awakened nightly by the pre-sunrise call to prayer.

Also there's a harsh caste system that you notice almost immediately. First you have the Emiratis, less than 30% of the population but with all the power. They all seem to live off trust funds and many appear to live lives of leisure. Then you have the Western expats, all there on temporary contracts probably, pulling in a healthy living consulting to the Emiratis and not paying income taxes on their wages. Then far below the Westerners are the people driving the taxis, constructing the buildings, actually doing the hard work to run the city, mostly Indians or Filipinos. The difference between groups two and three is stark, though immigrants from south Asia are still flooding in at such a rate that the UAE now enforces immigration quotas. So it can't be all bad for them, but unlike Asia where you're not supposed to tip at all, I tipped more American-style in Dubai (we are known for being notoriously generous).

Dubai reeks with nouveau riche decadence. Mercedes and BMW all over and more than your fair share of Maserati, Bentley, and Ferrari. Every luxury brand on earth in the malls -- they love their Armani. In my limited time in Dubai, I couldn't figure out whether these stores survived on expats who wanted a slice of home or by Emiratis with a serious bit of Euro-envy.

Fifty years ago, Dubai was just a speck in the Gulf region, a little village of pearl divers and date farmers. Then oil came and changed everything. The people in charge had the foresight to realize that the oil would run out quickly, so they took an "if we build it they will come" approach to building a city. Get the expats in, make them feel comfortable, and build some hype.

So they put up a lot of tall buildings and drew in some companies with the lure of zero taxation. But the whole thing has a feeling of when the oil money runs out, the party will be over.

The global financial crisis dealt a serious blow to Dubai, and it needed to be bailed out by its oil-rich neighbor Abu Dhabi so it could pay the debts associated with all this new real estate. The dormant cranes now are really eerie, and the place has the feeling of a college frat party that just emptied its last keg of beer. I don't know that Dubai can recover from this -- there just doesn't seem to be anything sustainable about the city.

1 comment:

  1. You know, I'm pretty sure that the man who designed the Bellagio fountain did the ones for the Dubai fountain too. I think I remember that from a piece on CBS.