Dubai is one of those cities that we love to hate. Don’t worry if you’ve never been there or only seen it on television, you can hate it too. And yet, as Bay’s Nick Smith found out, Dubai’s reputation isn’t very accurate at all. So, what is it like really? And what else is there in this strange country called the United Arab Emirates, that so few of us have even heard of?
One of the great advantages of staying at Dubai’s Atlantis hotel is that you don’t have to look at it, which is something to rejoice over, as the Atlantis really is one of the most tasteless buildings ever to make its way out of an architect’s imagination. On the upside though, from your balcony you’ll see the whole of Dubai’s majestic skyline. And that’s because the Atlantis is built on the outer fringes of a man-made archipelago that, when seen from above, is in the shape of a palm tree reaching out into the sea, providing the perfect vantage point from which to view this thrilling city. If this all sounds a bit larger than life, then welcome to Dubai, where everything is a cartoon version of reality, and where everything, depending on your point of view, is either unpleasantly blatant or a testament to how modern cities should be. Either way, the skyline is something to behold. Its pinnacle, the magnificent Burj Khalifa, stands out a mile. Well not quite a mile, but at 828 metres, the world’s tallest building is a tenth of the height of Mount Everest. It’s a vertical city, a miracle of engineering. In fact, the whole of Dubai is a city of superlatives. Everywhere you go, everything you look at – be it a chandelier, flagpole or even a fish tank – breaks some sort of record for being the biggest or most expensive. After a while you just tune it out. We get it. Dubai is a city of success.
For many, this will be all they know of the Middle Eastern country called the United Arab Emirates (or UAE) that’s perched on the southern coast of the Persian Gulf. And there’s a reason for this, which is that apart from a handful of other cities such as Abu Dhabi, there really isn’t very much there. Just open deserts that for millennia were criss-crossed by nomadic peoples until the 1960’s oil boom, that created the financial propulsion for Dubai to take centre stage as the global economic powerhouse it is today. The reason we know of Dubai and none of the other of the seven emirates that make up the country is that it is the most open and welcoming. It is also the playground of the rich and famous. Attracted by sporting events (Andy Murray is a regular on the Dubai tennis circuit), A-list bands (Coldplay occasionally drop in to do a gig) or just good old-fashioned shopping (Lewis Hamilton, Claudia Schiffer and John Travolta are regular visitors), those with time and money on their hands flock to this Middle Eastern oasis to discover for themselves just why it breaks all records. Its growth is astonishing: today, there are more than $50bn-worth of construction projects underway. Not bad for a former sleepy fishing and pearl-diving port that, only a few generations ago, reportedly boasted precisely 13 cars. Now there are more than a million. To overcome the congestion – Dubai is not an easy place to drive around in – a complete rail network with 42 stations was built in less than two years. That’s the way they do things here. The expression ‘go big or go home’ could have been coined for Dubai.
There can be few cities as abused by travel writers as Dubai. Over the years we’ve been forced to read all kinds of derivative garbage about this most extraordinary of cities. We’re repeatedly told that it’s nothing more than a brash, vulgar monu-ment to the vast wealth of an Arab nation that has nothing better to do with its money than show off to the rest of the world. And while there might be a grain of truth to this, travel writers inevitably stick to the line that Dubai is terrible, because no-one wants to put their head above the parapet and say that once you get past the cliché that you can do almost anything with money, there’s the compelling truth that actually you can do almost anything with money. Such as building a futuristic city from nothing, rising out of the desert.
These same journalists routinely tell us that Dubai has draconian rules for western visitors regarding alcohol and public nudity, and yet there are plenty of hotel bars and pools where you can don your speedos and quaff a G&T. We’re told that American celebrities get thrown out of mosques for ‘inappropriate behaviour’ (well, if it’s really that inappropriate then why the hell not? It’s their mosque after all…) We’re told that Dubai has no culture, and yet you can’t turn a corner without stumbling on an art gallery, museum or concert hall. But worst of all, we’re told that every-thing is new, as if that somehow is the worst sin a city can commit. I’ve been to Dubai several times over the past few decades (including during the so-called ‘debt stand-
still’ of 2009) and ‘new’ doesn’t begin to describe it. One year there’s no metro system. Next year there is. One minute there’s no cricket ground, the next Pakistan is hosting ‘home’ international test matches against England in state-of-the art facilities. There are gargantuan shopping malls everywhere – one even has an artificial ski slope running down the middle of it – while stadiums are appearing at such a rate that Dubai has become a global sports nerve-centre. The spirit of enterprise is incredible. While its many critics drone on endlessly about how the UAE doesn’t have a western-style elected government, it’s worth remembering that here in the UK – where our motorways are falling apart and there aren’t enough hospitals, schools or prisons – we can’t build a simple railway across London without it becoming a national embarrassment. There may well be plenty of things we don’t like about how the Arab world conducts its domestic politics. But they sure know how to build a city.
It would seem that they sure know how to build fish tanks too, and so before leaving the Atlantis on its man-made island (where David and Victoria Beckham own a house), I decide to check out the one in the hotel lobby. It’s supposed to be one of the largest aquariums in the world and this I’ve got to see. First impressions? Well, ‘large’ is definitely too small a word to describe the immensity of the Ambassador Lagoon at Atlantis. You can try to describe with words a fish tank that’s as deep as two London double-decker buses stacked on top of one another. But since no reasonable person will believe them, only statistics will do. To start with, there are 65,000 marine creatures here in a body of water that’s about four-and-a-half times the size of an Olympic swimming pool. That’s 12 million litres (or 36 million cans of Coca Cola, if you can bear the thought). A shoal this size needs serious feeding, and they munch their way through 300kg of restaurant grade delicacies every day (Atlantis doesn’t serve any of its guests any-thing but the best.) With that much food in the system, the water has to be, well, filtered. The 300
pumps required to change the water every hour generate power equivalent to a dozen Ferrari F1 cars going at full throttle. The glass that holds the water back is 85.44 times thicker than regular fish tank glass. Except it isn’t glass, it’s acrylic, and only one company in the world makes transparent plastics this thick and this good. And, of course, it’s the world’s most expensive. My only other encounters with wildlife in the UAE were a pleasant morning swimming with a friendly dolphin that seemed to enjoy the experience as much as I did, and an unpleasant few days at the offshore Sir Bani Yas wildlife conservation park where sad bedraggled giraffes, antelopes and ostriches – as well-cared for as they were – practically begged me to take them back to Africa.
All this materialism. All this wealth. This opulence and ostentation. Steel and glass. It’s enough to make you wonder where the ‘other’ Middle East is: of cardamom coffees, date palms, apricot-coloured desert dunes, souks and bazaars, camels and watch towers, fish markets and nets drying in the sunset. The truth is that it’s all here if you look for it. But if you’re hoping for the traditional Bedouin trading posts you come across in Libya and Algeria, you’re going to have to look beyond the modern rituals of off-road driving in monster jeeps, known appropriately enough as ‘dune bashing’. What I found was that by far the best way to seek out these reminders of the past is to simply get out of Dubai and head for somewhere a little calmer. And so, after travelling southwest along the E11 motorway in a minicab I fetched up at Abu Dhabi, where in the cool of the morning I made my way to the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, which is (of course) one of the largest in the world. In the morning it is a vision in white marble, while in the evening it is lit up in purple and gold. It’s one of the loveliest buildings you’ll ever see, and a reminder that you’re a visitor in the Muslim world, where some things matter more than mere earthly plunder. But, just in case you’re still on a Dubai-induced stats binge, it has a capacity for 40,000 worshippers, who (of course) need the world’s largest carpet, which at 5,627 square metres is doubtless in proportion to the overhanging 10m diameter Swarovski chandelier that was once the world’s largest, but has since slipped down the league table to third (one can only suppose, much to Abu Dhabi’s shame).
I eventually got closer to what the history of the region was like when I visited Abu Dhabi’s heritage museum, where they do their best to take you back in time by showing you displays of music and dance in Bedouin tents and feed you dates of both types, sloshed down with mint tea. While I lingered over a collection of black and white photographs portraying how the old fishing port looked half a century ago, a museum assistant came up and informed me of perhaps the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. If I were to step outside, he said, I would see the world’s second tallest flagpole. At a shade under 130m in height (it’s since subsided to eighth in the table), it did a magnificent job of holding aloft the black, white, green and red flag of the Emirates, proclaiming to the world in general, as it fluttered in the sea breeze, that this is a nation that takes the business of setting records very seriously indeed.