The world’s tallest tower, artificial palm tree-shaped luxury neighborhoods extending into the ocean, skiing on real snow when the temperature outside is over 100 F. This was the image that Caity and I had of Dubai as our bus pulled in late at night after a long ride from Oman. We came to visit not because we love shopping and fancy hotels, but because we felt as if we should see the place that has been the source of so much hype and contention over the last decade. A spot that has quickly become an emblem of consumerism where people often say, “I came. I saw. I maxed out my credit cards and had to fly home in economy.”
Visiting the surprisingly well-designed Dubai museum located in old Dubai at the beginning of our stay made it clear that “old” can be a relative term. The history of the city began in roughly 1800, making it the first place in the region whose grand history did not begin thousands of years before the United States, in contrast to Cairo, where many of the buildings are older than the US itself! Although known for its pearl industry, Dubai used to be a tiny walled town with fewer than 10,000 residents and no significant international importance.
That was however, until oil was found (a change so significant that the museum divided history into the pre and post-oil discovery periods). The documentation of the change is dramatic, with buildings, highways and marinas springing up in incredibly short periods of time, transforming what was once largely sand and scrawny trees, to a booming and green financial capital.
Although the old forts, traditional souqs and the recreated home of the ruling family made for an interesting first day and provided some historical background, our experience in the new Dubai on the second day proved to be the most fascinating. This new Dubai very quickly communicates two things to you: with money, anything is quickly possible and for those with lots of money, everything has VIP options.
We saw both these themes in the Dubai subway. Not only was it conceived, planned and built in around two years, but each train had a special luxury section for “Gold Members” which must have been filled with champagne dispensers, massage chairs and free imported truffles, although I did not get a chance to check :)
Our first stop was the Burj al-Khalifa, which is currently the world’s tallest building and can be seen rising majestically into the air from almost any point in the city. It does not seem so big until you start walking closer, at which point it becomes almost impossible to take in the entire height of the building at once and I had to literally lie on the ground to get both Caity and the top of the building in the picture. Although they do not let you enter the building from the front, as that portion is reserved for the luxury residents and businesses, the Dubai mall sells tickets to ride to the top. After finally making our way in however, we discovered that regular tickets were sold out for the next four days and the only way we could get to the top was to get an “immediate entrance” ticket for over $100!
Deciding not to pull out our magic credit cards just yet, we instead headed over to the Emirates mall, one of the largest in the world, for the next adventure. I didn’t come to this mall to shop, however, I came to ski. The Emirates mall is home to Ski Dubai, the wildly successful ski resort with an 85-meter tall slope, snow tube run, snowball shooting gallery, ice cave and 3D theatre, all kept just below freezing year round. After paying around $50 for two hours on the slopes, I headed into the fitting room where the staff struggle to provide thousands of daily visitors with jackets, snow pants, boots, socks, and skiing equipment. People can come in dressed in heels and miniskirts (I am not including myself here…) and head out to the hill decked out in full winter regalia!
Riding up the four-person lift was a surreal experience. There is real snow on the ground; the walls and ceiling are painted blue with large air conditioning units sticking out of the wall every forty feet; and Christmas music is playing throughout the indoor complex. This is made all the more odd looking out the windows at those inside the mall walking about in shorts and tee shirts; all while my fingers are starting to shake! As the hill itself was not exactly impressive when you had grown up skiing in Colorado, taking about thirty seconds to ski from top to bottom and the “black” run for advanced skiers maybe qualifying as a blue run back home, I soon began to focus on the people. Riding up on the lift I met tourists from Italy, France, the UK, the US and others from around the Middle East, including one Iraqi boy who told me “Dubai is the best place in the world!”
When my two hours were up, I met Caity outside for some shopping and more people watching. Dubai is an international city, and this is certainly represented in the population roaming about the malls. Only seventeen percent of the population of Dubai is native Emirati, with immigrants from mostly Asia making up the vast majority of the remaining portion. This distribution makes English the lingua franca, even though Arabic is the official language, and demographics that are skewed so that the population is largely composed of younger males who travel here for work. Adding in the tourists, this creates a mix where a fully veiled woman will be walking beside another wearing a revealing top and short skirt and then passed by a third wearing a brightly colored sari while the call to prayer plays over speakers throughout the mall. Although you can find signs encouraging mall goers to wear modest clothing, there is no sense of the enforcement you would find in Saudi Arabia. After all, that would be bad for business.
Our next stop was the Burj al-Arab, Dubai’s famous sail-shaped seven star hotel. After receiving some misinformed advice that the building was only a ten-minute walk from the subway station (clearly the subway guard had never tried), we caught a taxi to the entrance gate. Without a meal or tea reservation however, this is as far as you can go and as Caity and I were not about to give up our $65 hostel room to rent one which could cost anywhere from $1000-8000 a night! We instead took free pictures and headed over to our next stop, the Ibn Batuta Mall.
On the ride over, our taxi driver took it upon himself to tell us how much better Dubai was than America by listing all of the structures and creations that have outstripped our puny attempts. Despite his confrontational style, in many of the cases, I would have to agree with him. I have never seen malls, towers or marinas in the States quite like what I have seen here. Although we may have created the “bigger is better” contest, places like Dubai are starting to win it. Unfortunately, this unsustainable consumerism is one of America’s least attractive traits in my opinion and no matter who builds the tallest tower or most expensive hotel, ultimately the world is losing out.
Leaving behind our contentious driver, we got out at Ibn Batuta mall but instead of entering a regular shopping center, we stepped into medieval Persia. We walked through the doors to be greeted with a massive decorated dome, a beautiful chandelier and walls adorned in a beautiful Persian architectural style. The entire mall is themed to follow the famous explorer Ibn Batuta’s journeys, which carried him across the Middle East and all throughout greater Asia, making Marco Polo’s trip seem like an afternoon stroll. We explored ancient China, whose main room was filled with a massive traditional boat, ate dinner in Lebanon and then proceeded through India, which even had a distinct smell! We then ended by forging through ancient Egypt and meandering past the beautiful white houses of Tunisia. The architecture was incredible and with the addition of exhibits on the contribution of Islam to world civilization, this was by far the best stop.
We spent a much more relaxing third day at the beach, watching a movie in the HD theatre and eating food from a different nationality for each meal. After three days however, we were ready to head back to Cairo with its familiar, albeit dirty, streets and the continuous traffic sounds outside our bedroom window. Although Dubai was certainly more complex and interesting than we had imagined before arriving, it was tiring spending too long in a place centered on consumption and spending. I feel much more comfortable in the role of a producer, whether it be healthy meals, research papers or blog entries that are entirely too long :)
To see more pictures of Dubai and the rest of our trips to the outside Egypt, click here.