Dubai, April 4, 2011
With my western background and outlook, spending two days in the Emirate of Dubai has been a strange experience. It was only this morning as I prepared to leave that I realized I hadn’t seen a single beggar anywhere in the city, nor had I seen any buskers like the street musicians I’m used to.
Another unusual thing is that the city is so clean, relatively spotless. Of course, one reason for this is that everything is, or seems to be, new. Even the historical former residences of the wealthy that line the neighborhoods along the Creek and are now museums and art galleries seem to have a new life.
Yet, newness isn’t the only reason for the Dubai phenomenon. It’s as though a single mind and will imposes itself on the entire city, which, in fact, is so. The al-Maktoun Dynasty has ruled Dubai since the 1830s. It’s 20th-century scions were bold and progressive individuals that turned a village of fishermen and pearl divers into a monstrous engine of wealth and development. Today, Dubai boasts (and this is the mot just) the world’s tallest building, it’s largest building in acreage, its largest shopping mall, and soon, its largest airline and largest amusement park.
Scattered among the myriad commercial skyscrapers and apartment towers are several large parks where Muslim family values predominate. For instance, there are many attractions for Dubai’s children.
There are great highways and boulevards, spotless buses and taxis, and what may be the world’s youngest metro, a gleaming marvel opened in 2009.
How did it happen, and what keeps it running? Oil, discovered here in 1966, is part of the answer. The color “black” in the national flag symbolizes this black gold. Oil money pays for the modern infrastructure and the legions of cleaners and gardeners that keep the city looking the way it does. Oil money is also responsible for a social support network that, for instance, subsidizes the outlandish costs of Emirati weddings with their large dowry payments. This encourages the Emirati men to seek brides among the Emirati women and not marry foreigners.
Foreigners, — expats and guest workers – run this country. Less than ten percent of the population is Emirati citizens. The rest come from western countries and from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
The other reason for Dubai’s calm and antiseptic atmosphere is Rules. Here, no one speeds; runs red lights, or drives recklessly. Traffic laws are rigorously enforced and fines can be steep. There is also no crime to speak of, a strange fact in a place containing so much money. A police drama set in Dubai would be pretty dull.
Of course, the cost of this heavy social control is a society that seems to lack vitality. Here, lacking the traffic chaos and funky street life we both love and hate in other cities, Dubai seems surprised, at least to the casual observer. Such discipline and order set among a fantastic collection of modernistic buildings and urban spaces lends the city a curious “science-fiction” quality.
Dubai is rich — very, very rich! There are virtually no taxes, a fact that has drawn many large corporations and high net-worth individuals. And Dubai grants these people the lifestyle they want and expect. There are private seaside villas galore, scores of five-star hotels, and world-class restaurants run by celebrity chefs. The Palm Islands, an artificial group arranged in the shape of a date palm leaf, are sold to individuals for between 10 and 100 million dollars apiece. A property named Atlantis sports a 28-meter tall ziggurat with seven kid-appropriate water slides. To live up to its name, it also has a fantastic network of underwater passages and fish tanks that simulate the imaginary lost continent. The Dubai Mall (world’s largest) besides giving access to the Burj Kalifa (world’s tallest building) has a designer’s waterfall several storeys in height and a huge two-storey aquarium with schools of large fish. It also contains shops whose luxury products and level of interior design are beyond anything I’ve ever seen in a shopping mall anywhere. In short, if money can buy it, Dubai either already has it or will get it.
Now, I interrupt this list of superlatives to mention an aspect of Dubai that most of us would consider a negative: the weather. Dubai is hot! I’m here at the beginning of April and the daily high is 90 degrees. A couple of months from now the city will be a furnace and no one will be walking the streets. All the oil money on the planet can’t control the weather.
Oops! I’ve forgotten to mention Ski Dubai. In another shopping mall, behind high glass walls and a vast, high ceiling Ski Dubai is a permanent, snowy, winter environment. There are short, gradual slopes for children, a special area where snow-boarders can do their stunts, and conventional ski runs served by a chair lift. These runs are nearly as long as some I used to ski in the local areas around Detroit. With ninety-degree temperatures out of doors, Ski Dubai is a sight to see.
By now, dear readers, you must have gotten the point. Dubai City is a fantastic artificial creation. It’s science fiction made real and Las Vegas without the sin. It’s a place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here.