Dubai – Desert Oasis or Mirage?

While Dubai was not on our original travel plans, when we decided to reroute our voyage after Iran towards India rather than Central Asia (more on that here), then Dubai became a convenient and welcome watering hole on our route eastwards.

Dubai is now home to our dearest friends Morgan and Levina Parker, who relocated here from Hong Kong earlier in the year for Morgan to spearhead a massive development project in the heart of Dubai. So a chance to reconnect with friends was the principal driver.

But in addition – after two wonderful weeks exploring Iran – landing in a modern, cosmopolitan city with full access to internet and communications, a selection of food beyond kebab and baked aubergine, and the possibility of accompanying dinner with a little alcohol, all held an immense appeal!

So we flew Emirates from Tehran to Dubai and from the moment we landed, the contrasts from the relative simplicity and austerity of Iran to the gleaming, glittering, multi-sensory metropolis of Dubai was striking.

Firstly, Dubai airport, the incredible and ultra-modern transportation hub is just a marvel of the modern travel experience. Given it’s prime global location and service by dozens of international airlines, this really is the new crossroads of the world. It is clean, spacious, efficient for transport, baggage and immigration, and clearly a state of the art retail experience as well (a harbinger of things to come in Dubai).

Then the drive past the downtown and the gleaming towers of commerce and finance rising from the desert sands were mesmerizing. Our children were particularly captivated by the magnificent spire of the Burj-Al-Khalifa.

Ameline: “Is that the tallest building in Dubai?”
Alan: “Actually, it’s the tallest building in the whole world.”
Ameline: “Ooooohhh.” (studying the building with unspoken, unbroken concentration for the next ten minutes).

Finally, arriving at Morgan and Levina’s brand new condominium by the seaside (that would become home for the next twelve days), the welcome from our friends and chance to put our feet up really felt like arriving at an oasis in the desert after over two months continuously on the road.

With reliable access to internet, a printer and scanner, the majority of our time in Dubai was spent working on admin, emails and correspondence – not exactly fascinating Facebook fodder, but a necessary evil of extended travels. It also coincided with the opening rounds of the 2015 Rugby World Cup which kept Morgan and I busy most nights, feasting on rugby matches, including some encouraging opening games from our beloved Wallabies!

We enjoyed some elements of being back in an international city, including being able to do a little shopping to refresh our provisions, and we were able to dress up and enjoy the more sophisticated delights of some high end restaurants in Dubai such as Zuma, Coya and Jean-Georges. We found that the cost of going out more expensive than expected (compared to other international cities), and if you indulged in a bottle of wine with your meal, the bills were astronomical. But there was the quality and variety of offering of the best from around the world, as you would expect, and if you have the means. Again, it was a dramatic change from the simple, local cuisine and more subtle pleasures of travel that we had become accustomed to.

For the children, Dubai was almost as good as Disneyland with plenty of amusements including the interesting Dubai Aquarium (in the centre of Dubai Mall), the Wild Wadi waterpark which kept us all entertained for a full day, and cinemas with all the latest movies including the brand new ultra-modern VOX Cinema in the Mall of the Emirates (that opened during our stay) which really takes the cinema experience to the next level. We were also able to take them out for a dim sum meal (pork-free version!), which they had been craving.

There was a certain familiarity to Dubai for them – the kind of familiarity common to many international cities due to the globalization of brands and the homogeneous consumer experience – reminiscent of Hong Kong. The girls recognised the brands of many shops and restaurants at each turn, knowing where to go to find their books, toys or food. It was a bit of a homage to (or indictment of) the power of marketing. Anyway, without soapboxing, that familiarity of environment gave them a great deal of comfort, as much as escaping the homogeneity had been a comfort to Cecile and I!

So, for our kids, Dubai rates as one of their favourite highlights of our international travels.

For us… less so. When we weren’t completing visa applications, replying to overdue emails, or preparing tax filings, we set out to spend a bit of time getting to know the city. While we could sense there was a strong corporate culture, with Dubai home to many regional headquarters of financial and commercial multi-nationals, and the construction and investment in the city continues unabated, we struggled to find a local culture or strong sense of identity that united the city. Admittedly, we only had a few days to form this opinion, and longer-term residents may differ.

There were numerous factors we observed that perhaps led us to this conclusion.

Firstly, a very small local population (the Emiratis) who tended to keep a low profile. They make up about 20% of the 2.2million resident population of Dubai. The balance is made up of international workers who have made Dubai their new home – including large numbers of Indian, Pakistani and Filipino immigrants who make up the bulk of the population, and then a long tail of expat residents representing most countries of the globe. Tourists, by design, also add significantly to the Dubai population.

Secondly, inequality and significant social divides lead to a highly stratified society, between the extravagantly wealthy few at the top and the large base of migrant workers making up the bulk of society, and perhaps a band of middle class and expat executive types somewhere in between. But the vast gaps in opportunity and income are not necessarily conducive to social cohesion or the formation of a social fabric that may be identifiable as a local culture.

Thirdly, for all the gleaming architecture, there is a distinct lack of public space that provides opportunity for intermingling and public expression of a culture. The main recreational outlet and social focal points were the two ginormous shopping malls – Dubai Mall and The Mall of the Emirates. This is understandable because they are clean, open, air-conditioned spaces (full of shiny things to buy) that offer welcome escape from the heat. But with that also comes the homogeneity of international brands and retail chains, a certain sterility to the experience, and social interaction based primarily on consumption. These are not really environments for stimulating local commerce, small enterprise or artistic pursuits. And any expression of culture is limited to the consumption of imported goods, services and cultural norms.

In short, the beautiful skyscrapers give Dubai a unique skyline and visual language, but at street level it feels somewhat sterile and devoid of real character. The public spaces are dominated by the retail malls, which though pleasant, also lack soul or unique character.

So whatever traditional Emirati culture that still pervades the upper echelons of society, it is largely drowned out by the noise of the multi-national masses. In embracing the investment of global companies, and catering largely for tourism, there has been a lag with regards to shaping the national character of the Dubai and the UAE – the social and cultural development clearly lags the economic development.

One of the examples to me that something is amiss in the philosophy of Dubai development is the indoor ski slope at the Mall of the Emirates. While I am sure it has been hailed as a technological achievement and a top attraction of Dubai, as I watched the punters sliding down the short icy slope, I was struck by how un-fun and inauthentic this indoor ski experience looked, how much energy (from unrenewable sources) must be consumed every day to keep that big space refrigerated, and just the overall absurdity of building a ski slope in the desert.

Just because you can do it doesn’t always mean that you should.

Based on these rather unflattering first impressions, it made me realize the importance of the new development project that Morgan is working on for Dubai Holdings. It is a huge, high-profile project, critically located between the downtown area and the main residential areas – it will eventually be a central focal point for the city.

During our time catching up, he spoke a lot (to me, and also in the press) about adopting a more sophisticated approach to the planning and development. Perhaps introducing a maturity to the development process that was less evident in previous construction booms.

This project had been initially planned as yet another immense retail mall, another landmark location. But the team responsible have really refined the thinking to focus more on the access, public transport, connectivity to the rest of the city, and usage of the spaces take priority over the buildings and landmarks. This will create the sort of public space, public transport infrastructure and accessibility that is sorely lacking at present. It will become a much more people-friendly, thriving centre, more conducive to natural social interaction and cultural expression. Which strikes me, not as a professional in this space but simply as an interested person spending time in this city, as exactly the sort of thinking and development that Dubai needs if it is to become the vibrant international city that it desires.

In our travels through Europe and western Asia so far, we have been exposed now to a lot of architecture and urban environments – from ancient to modern. We have experienced both good and bad examples. It has become tangible to us how the architecture and flow of a city both imparts character and shapes the culture of a city. It impacts the daily lives, movements, and behaviours of its citizens and therefore directly influences the expression of culture.

In this context, it appears to me that taking a more sophisticated approach to development, to temper and shape the continuous construction and growth, is absolutely necessary for Dubai to thrive and to fufill its potential as the oasis in the desert rather than a superficial mirage.

A little part of me was jealous to think of the opportunity and the legacy potential of this project that Morgan is leading – it is quite an exciting responsibility to be not only designing the urban environment, but also planting the seeds of the future culture of the city.

Anyway, random musings aside, we wrapped up our time in Dubai spending time with our friends, indulging our girls in some fun family amusements, doing admin work, watching plenty of rugby, and planning for the next phases of our travel.

India – here we come!

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