Friday 24 April 2015
After more then 24 hours of traveling, we arrived in Dubai very late Wednesday night (about midday on Wednesday for you left-coasters). We spent Thursday morning walking along the corniche and getting our bearings.
We are at a lovely 5-star hotel in the Deira area of Dubai city. Just across the corniche is a huge docks area, much still being developed. Cargo dhows and fishing boats are moored along the mole. It is hot (nearly 40 degrees Centigrade) and muggy, and the sky is gray with airborne sand and humidity (and, one suspects some pollution).
Dubai is an amazing place in many ways. Shirely, who helped us book an afternoon city tour, is from Sri Lanka. When he came here in the early 1970s, everyone and everything moved around the city on donkey-back. Now there is a maze of modern, interconnecting highways, a metro that serves much of the city, an extensive bus system, and there are many, many cars.
Development really began here after the discovery of oil and the formation of the United Arab Emirates in the early 1970s. Although Dubai has only 10% of the region's oil, the revenues and shrewd investments and development by the government, including a coordinated influx of foreign nationals on development contracts, has transformed Dubai from a small but bustling port to a world financial and trade hub, and a thoroughly modern city.
Citizens of Dubai account for only about 16% of the population. These are the “Emirati”. The rest of the population is ex-patriates, a very large proportion of whom are from India and Pakistan. Our guide today is from Holland. She has lived in Dubai for 18 years. She tells us the Emirati are well cared for – free education through college, free health care, free housing or land to build a house. She says nothing about inequality among the population, although it is hard to imagine how the Bedouin have fared.
Dubai is distinctive for its architecture. There are more than 90 towers (burj), many designed by world-famous architects, and every one different. These include, of course, the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa.
Our small bus tour takes us first from Deira into the Jumeira district. This mostly residential district was built to house the influx of foreign nationals brought here to help build the city and its trade and financial centers.
We pause briefly for a photo op across the street from Jumeira Mosque. Then we have another photo op at the “7 Star” hotel Burj Al Arab. There are a total of 202 suites, each two stories high. A night in a “standard” suite costs approximately $3000.00. Opulence. Wealth.
We spend some time at the Dubai Museum, in the old Al Fahidi fort. The walls here were built using coral dug from the banks of Dubai Creek, then plastered or stuccoed. Scores of swallows are swooping overhead and ducking into their nesting places within the thick walls.
In the courtyard is a reconstruction of a typical creek house, built of palm and thatch. The outer room, used during the hot months, features a wind tower, an early form of evaporative cooling. An x-shaped construct in the top of the tower directs winds downward, and below hangs wetted burlap. Standing under the tower, even with the burlap not wetted, one can feel a gentle stirring of air, refreshing in the hot, muggy afternoon.
We take a water taxi across Dubai Creek and walk through the spice souk and the gold souk. A few of us go all in for the lovely-smelling saffron at very moderate prices. I also invest in a few Iranian green cardamom pods. The amount of bling on display in the gold souk is astounding. Much of it consists of pieces intended for a bride's dowry.
Next we pay a visit to the bustling vegetable and fish market. The fresh herbs in the vegetable market smell wonderful, and the variety of eggplant is stunning.
The fish are fresh and varied, and there seem to be more fish vendors than customers. Porters are here and there with their clean, shiny, brightly colored wheelbarrows, ready to take your bundles to your vehicle. Vendors pull open the gills of their catch, displaying freshness.
One vendor waves a live shrimp at us. Another, when I tell him his shrimp are beautiful, tells me I am beautiful “mami”. There are squid and shrimp and salmon and calamari and sardines and … the variety is stunning. It is Thursday night, the beginning of the weekend here, and the markets will be bustling through midnight.
We are dropped at the Dubai Mall, where we stroll past the expensive stores (pick a designer name). Here as everywhere in Dubai, one sees everything from fairly modest modern dress to the burqa. We continue past the Dubai Aquarium to the Dubai Fountains. Here every night there is a light and sound show on the manmade lake, and across the lake the Burj Khalifa towers above all.
We have some mediocre seafood at a restaurant recommended to us. The upside is that we sit outside and get to observe the fountain show every half hour.
We taxi home, taking a somewhat roundabout route, talking to our Pakistani taxi driver. He is from Islamabad. He has been in Dubai on work contract for 5 years, only the last 4 months as a taxi driver. I am sorry I didn't ask him what he did for the first years.
We have talked to workers in the hotel from all over Asia and the Pacific – Kathmandu, Nepal, India, Pakistan, The Philippines – who are here on “training programs”. At the end of one year they may be offered a job, or may be sent home, where their skills may or may not be in demand. The training seems very formulaic, and I suspect one works ones way up from cleaning rooms to more front-of-the-house jobs. Where do they live and in what circumstances?
The expats (we have had no dealings with Emirati at all) all ask us what we think of Dubai. They tout the growth, the modernity. I'm not sure what bothers me so much about this city that oil built. And I wonder whether Abu Dhabi, which controls 90% of the oil of the UAE, is even more fantastic – and I mean that in the sense of it being a fantasy world.
Some of our fellow travelers are taking a tour this morning that includes a trip up the Burj Khalifa and a trip to Ski Dubai, an indoor facility with five ski runs. In the mall that adjoins our hotel, there is an indoor ice rink. I haven't seen anyone skating on it in the several times we have been by.
Down the way is an artificially built spit of land called Palm Island, with a central causeway and palm-frond-like appendages. There are apartments and houses and luxury resorts. A bit offshore are the World Islands, a collection of restored islands that resembles a world map. Development has been slowed by the financial crisis, but is picking up. There will be luxury resorts, accessible only by boat. That the financial situation is improving is evidenced by an 80% increase in rents in the past year.
So we have a rapid transformation enabled by money and intelligently guided by the Emirati, enabled by a huge influx of non-residents. Luxury, opulence and live-your-fantasy, whether it be skiing or a four-wheel-drive Safari into the desert or an afternoon on a golf course or a visit to an oasis or a stay at a seven-star hotel. Why don't I like it?