2006: Dubai - Boom town
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Every time I return to Dubai I’m reminded of that great song by The Eagles, “The Last Resort.” • “You call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye,” crooned Don Henley. • I’ve been traveling to Dubai for the Desert Classic nearly every year since 1990. In those days the city limits were clearly defined. The city stopped and the desert took over.
I remember taking a bus out to the newly built Emirates Golf Club, crossing miles and miles of sand, when all of a sudden we came upon this oasis of fairways and greens, the miracle of modern technology producing the first grass golf course in the Middle East.
It didn’t matter that there wasn’t enough rainfall to keep the grass green. They took the water out of the nearby sea, ran it through a desalination plant and pumped a million gallons per day onto the course to keep it lush.
For years there was an aerial photograph of the Emirates in the office of the golf magazine I worked for in the U.K. It showed this surreal, emerald green golf course surrounded by miles of brown sand.
A similar photograph taken today would show a landscape bearing no resemblance to that photo. Nowadays the golf course has been engulfed by what geography professors call urban sprawl.
Blame it on economic necessity. Knowing that the Emirates’ oil reserves will be depleted by 2020, its rulers set out to transform Dubai into an international mecca for shopping and leisure, including golf.
Dubai might just be the biggest construction site in the world right now. Whoever has the crane concession must be very rich, because they dominate the skyline. A fifth of the world’s cranes reportedly are in Dubai, sending towering concrete monoliths into the ether. Everyone seems to be competing with the building that dominates the city, the Burj Al Arab, the seven-star hotel shaped like the sail of a Dhow, the traditional Arab sailing ship. The 1,053-foot building will be dwarfed by the Burj Dubai, soon to be the tallest building in the world at a cost of $800 million. Developers are keeping the exact height of the Burj Dubai a secret, but they have said it will be 164 floors.
The number of skyscrapers under construction is an ugly vista, a scene straight out of “Blade Runner.” One long line of towers blocks stretches from Jumeriah, to the east of the city, all the way to the once-isolated Jebel Ali Port and on toward Abu Dhabi. They remind me of another lyric in that Eagles song:
“Some rich men came and raped the land, nobody caught ’em.
Put up a bunch of ugly boxes, and, Jesus, people bought ’em.
And they called it Paradise, the place to be.
They watched the hazy sun sinking in the sea.”
An army of construction workers, reportedly in the neighborhood of 250,000 men, mostly from India and Pakistan, work around the clock, pushing Dubai further and further into the desert.
Nor is the construction restricted to terra firma. Three vast manmade islands in the shape of palm trees are under construction, full of hotels and villas. The workforce for one of these islands, 7,000 men, is so large that getting them to and from the worksites creates its own traffic jam. They are shipped in by sea.
There are plans for a $4.5 billion project called Dubailand, the UAE’s answer to Disneyland, which will employ 300,000 to cater to an estimated 15 million visitors. Airports are planned for the influx. Emirates Airlines has ordered 42 planes from Boeing at a cost of slightly less than $10 billion to bring people to the Middle East.
In other words, if you’re planning a golf trip to Dubai, don’t expect to find a sleepy little backwater in the middle of the desert. Those days are long gone. This is the fastest-growing city in the world. Where once I came to a Middle Eastern city with a touch of western influence,
the pendulum has swung the other way. Western touches include the Golden Arches, KFC, Subway, Starbucks, Baskin-Robbins, Appleby’s and a Hard Rock Café directly across from the Emirates Golf Club. There’s even a giant indoor ski slope, although why anyone would want to ski in the middle of the Arabian Desert is beyond me.
As you would expect, Dubai has the same sort of problems inherent in all big cities. For example, in the past I don’t remember seeing the thick pall of dark cloud that hung over the city early one morning as I looked out my hotel window. As for the traffic, well, quite simply, it’s a nightmare. Where once it took 15-20 minutes to get from the city center to the Emirates Golf Club, now it can take more than an hour. The infrastructure can’t keep pace with the construction, and gridlock is a way of life, although there are plans for new roads, new bridges and even a rail system.
That’s not to say the old Dubai doesn’t exist. It does. You just have to look for it.
The gold souk, the spice souk and the perfume souk still exist. Indeed, stand on the corner of Old Baladiya Road and Sikkat Al Khail Road, one entrance to the gold souk, watch the traders pushing carts laden with all manner of goods and you get a faint whiff of an earlier time.
In fact, one way to view the huge melting pot that is Dubai is to sit on one of the benches in the gold souk and people watch. What you get isn’t a homogenous mass. Every manner of dress is on display, as people of all nationalities walk past window after window glittering with the stuff that made Dubai, mesmerized by the array of gold on display.
The place to find the old Dubai is down at the Creek, the waterway that helped put the city on the map in the first place. An easy way to get a feel for the real city is to take an abra across the water from Deira to Bur Dubai.
These old water taxis have been carrying Dubai residents back and forth across the Creek for generations. It’ll cost you 50 fils each way, half a dirham, the cheapest boat ride anywhere in the world. Don’t worry if the pilot appears not to be driving the boat. Look closer and you’ll see he’s probably using his feet to steer the craft across the water. The trip takes just minutes, so you might want to take a few, but it will give you a rare insight into Dubai.
A whole way of life revolves around the Creek. Years ago pearl divers and fishermen were the ones to wash in from the Arabian Gulf. Nowadays all manner of goods come into Dubai via the Creek. Those seeking more than a snapshot of life on the Creek should invest in a chartered tour for around 60 dirham.
Or if you want to view the traditional Arab Dhows, and their importance to Arab life, then visit the Dhow Wharfage north of the Al Maktoum Bridge. Numerous Dhows, some of them a century old, dock there to unload their cargo before heading to other ports around the Middle East.
So explore. The easy thing would be to sit in your hotel and only go to the golf courses. Many do just that and miss out on the heart of the old city, never see the real Dubai. Get yourself lost in Deira’s labyrinth of winding streets. Take a meal on the sidewalk with the locals. One of the best meals I ever had was on a sidewalk in Deira. I couldn’t tell you the street – I’m not even sure it had a name – but I ate freshly cooked Indian food served by a friendly waiter, among men dressed in the traditional dishdashas who didn’t mind that I was there. It certainly wasn’t fancy, that’s for sure, but it was traditional, tasty, cost about a tenth of the price I’d have paid in a five-star restaurant, and I got to sit and watch the ebb and flow of Dubai life. You can’t do that from the confines of your hotel.
You’ve no doubt noticed my ambivalence about Dubai – my love of old Dubai, my reservations about what the city is becoming. But when compared with other Middle Eastern destinations, it’s relatively open and liberal, and quite safe. Besides I have friends who rave about the place. I got a text message from a friend who was in Dubai at the same time saying: “Isn’t Dubai fantastic?”
It used to be, back when it was mostly Middle Eastern in nature, before it was subsumed by the outside world. There’s buckets of money to be made in Dubai, and that has brought all sorts of characters to this port city.
They include Marina from Kazakhstan, who started talking to me in the bar at the Rotana Towers Hotel, though I doubt she was interested in me because of my graying hair and pot belly. I might be doing myself a disservice here, but I suspect she was attracted to me because she thought the wallet in my back pocket held enough greenbacks to pay for the world’s oldest sport.
Marina wouldn’t say what she did in Dubai. “What do you mean, what do I do in Dubai?” she challenged me, placing her glass of straight vodka on the bar.
“How do you make money in Dubai?” I asked.
“There are many ways to make money in Dubai,” she replied.
“I bet there are,” I said.
I finished my beer and left, my marriage intact, and the $200 it would have cost me for Marina’s company still in my wallet. She was right: there are many ways to make money in Dubai, and spend it. It’s just that the whole world seems to want part of that action right now.