Monday, December 29, 2008

Hot and cold in Dubai

Dubai is a place that leaves me cold. And I’m not just talking about the indoor ski zone – perhaps the world’s most unenvironmentally friendly building (click here for video). Sure the forest of cranes shows ambition, the soaring skyscrapers dazzle and the blueprint for the future looks, on paper, to be world beating. And yet it feels so empty, so soulless. The locals are not exactly forthcoming with their friendliness. The expat brigade are a funny bunch too – obviously money obsessed since there is no other earthly reason why you’d chose to live here. And the workers from third world countries are treated APPALLINGLY.
Take a look here and you’ll see part of the reason this place is so soulless. It is all so new; there has been no time for things to settle, to take shape and character. The pictures of the main throughfare from 1991 to the 2005 show the dramatic changes. From desert dustbowl to Bladerunner in the space of a generation.
People in Dubai have size envy. Everything has to be the biggest. Whether it’s the tallest building in the world (pictured) or the recent opening of the Atlantis Hotel (click here for a video of the event), a spectacle so large it could be seen from space and used five times more fireworks than Beijing’s blockbuster Olympic opening ceremony in August.
But this theme of emptiness was all too apparent on my second visit to the emirate this December. Dubai is running out of cash. It has been too lavish. The immense property boom has crashed. The emirate has attempted to build an economy on a grand scale that is diversified away from oil dependence, yet it does not have the hinterland to achieve its aims. Newsweek memorably wrote that the opening of the Atlantis Hotel resembled Nero partying while Rome burned. While I was in Dubai, its leaders had to make a humiliating journey to the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, cap in hand to ask for some urgent oil dosh.
Projects are on hold, cranes are stationary, the normally constantly rising skyline is experiencing a rare moment of monotony, and workers from the sub-continent and the Philippines are heading home as work dries up.
With my parents I boarded an open air double decker tourist bus to get a feel of the city. The prerecorded guided tour relayed by headphones was amusing in that it perfectly encapsulated Dubai’s severe lack of character. I’d say about one in two of the twenty odd places described was a shopping mall – not what I in particular with my aversion to malls (see previous story here) would classify as tourist stuff. (NB The best, most characterful thing to do in Dubai is to take a water taxi or abra to and fro across Dubai Creek.) The bus tour stopped at one of many malls on the tour – in fact the one where we were staying. It had the aforementioned ski resort with snow inside. Environmental guilty secret: I’ve only been to Dubai twice and both times I’ve skied there! Anyway, you think that’s bad: at a beach 15 minutes walk away (or 25 minutes in a taxi through Dubai’s notorious traffic) they plan to build an underground cooling system because, poor lambs, the sand gets too hot in summer! That’s not all that’s burning in Dubai as Newsweek pointed out.

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