I really don’t think that I understand Dubai. We were warned it was quite westernised but I’m not sure I fully comprehended how that would manifest itself. Our hotel was on Jumeirah walk, known for its beach side location, trendy cafes and restaurants. All of which are alcohol free. In Dubai only hotels and private clubs contain licensed bars. This lack of alcohol is about the only hint that you are outside Europe in this swanky corner of the city. The February weather felt just like London in early summer, a deliciously warm sunshine with a cool air in the shade. The people walking around the luxury marina and working in the restaurants were mainly European and Asian. Later that evening, when we eventually established where we could have a beer, we were forced to breathe in second hand smoke, another small indication that we maybe weren’t in the western world.
With just a day and a half to explore this busy transfer hub I had booked us tickets to go up the world’s tallest building. The Burj Khalifa is a statement, an 828 metre, five hundred thousand tonne statement. It towers high above the city as a mark of achievement. Like much of modern Dubai it glistens and glitters in the dessert sunshine. Its lightening rod spire is so far away it appears like a needle in the clear blue sky. So determined was Dubai to puff out its chest and show off to the world they even had to alter the flight path of Dubai International Airport, curving round this beautiful feat of engineering. If that isn’t enough to blow your socks off the world’s second largest shopping mall sits at the base, with over 1200 shops and what seemed like hundreds of restaurants. If you decide to pick up a guide to the mall’s mind boggling array of establishments you would spot some mall etiquette on the inside cover. This includes dressing respectfully by covering shoulders and knees and refraining from public acts of affection, so a quick snog outside Bloomgdales is a no go. These rules of etiquette didn’t seem to be displayed anywhere other than the brochure and either many of the mall visitor’s didn’t care about them or simply didn’t know about them. After two years of living in South East Asia and being familiar with Islamic values, I had, thankfully, dressed appropriately.
Apart from the occasional couple walking around in local dress we were feeling quite dismayed at the distinct lack of culture witnessed so far. Determined we might be missing some other side of Dubai we headed out on the open top sightseeing bus. This may be tourist central but it does allow you to see a lot of the city from an excellent double decked vantage point. Sure enough old Dubai is where some culture is hiding, although we didn’t have time to fully explore on this trip. Here there is a museum, traditional markets and buildings and definitely some signs of local life. It does seem strange however that a short bus ride down the road there is a palm shaped island with fronds of luxury houses owned by a cast of celebrities. The palm may look stunning in aerial photographs but on the open top bus ride down the central ‘trunk’ highway we had no awareness we were on this rather oddly shaped development.
I can see how people either love of hate this booming corner of the dessert. As an expat you get sunshine, tax free living and all the comforts of home, more perhaps with paid helpers and fancy cars very affordable. I sensed an element of keeping up with the Jones, not an aspect of expat living I enjoy. As a tourist you get something similar with what might be just enough culture for some. The Arabic road signs (also in English), the beautiful mosques that line the roads and a small proportion Arab men and women in their distinctive dress. The service in hotels and restaurants, although provided mostly by ex-pats, is in general exceptional. For us however, something is really missing. Has Dubai sold out its traditions, history and integrity to try to be the crowning jewel of the Emirates? Is it reliant on oil to keep the skyscrapers growing or has it established enough business to survive when the oil money dries up? Watch this space I guess, as development is still going strong out there in the dessert.