June 12, 2014

Dubai is the most modern of modern cities I have seen. It has a sleek skyline dotted with sophisticated, sharp, and silken skyscrapers. It is glitzy and glamourous with a glossy sheen. It is lavish, lustrous and luxurious; it is opulent but not obscene. Yes, Dubai is worthy of all of these superlatives.

Then again, you would not expect a new city to be something other than modern. And make no mistake, Dubai is a new city. Fifty years ago it was a sparsely populated desert oasis based around a creek with a fishing and pearl-diving economy. Dubai has always been a port city, but historically it never came close to rivaling the ports on the northern shore of the Persian Gulf or the ports of Bahrain or Muscat.

Today, Dubai is the closest thing to Singapore or Hong Kong in the Middle East; and it took the vision of the ruling House of Maktoum to transform this desert oasis into a thriving, dynamic financial and shipping hub. Here, there are no shortages of attractions or distractions: from the super-malls (Dubai Mall with its aquarium and indoor skating rink, Mall of the Emirates with its indoor ski slopes, and the travel theme-based Ibn Battuta Mall) to the 7-star hotels and exclusive watering holes of the financial professionals. But when you scratch the surface, you notice that this pseudo-cosmopolitan city lacks the depth that only time can bring. I say pseudo because I struggled to find an identity in this city of expatriates. Dubai has the feel of a place that people transit through, not a place that is really home. People flock to Dubai from around the world because of the opportunities on offer. People come to Dubai to make money. As a case in point, Pakistanis come to Dubai because they can earn more as taxi drivers here than as doctors at home. Financial juggernauts setup hubs to take advantage of the liberal financial regulations and zero taxes; and they fill the jobs they create with Western and Western-educated professionals. African and Southeast Asian labourers pour into the manufacturing centers of the economic free zones and fill the menial roles in the growing service sector. It’s also a playground for playboys and a resort for the rich. For those in low-skilled roles, Dubai is the place for which you leave your family back home and send them back your pay cheque. For all these reasons, it would need another 100 years for Dubai’s identity to break through the surface.

I really did enjoy my time in Dubai. The best experience I had was an evening taking a desert safari. We drove for miles until the glistening yellowish sand turned into baking red and then drove some more until the flat surface turned into rolling dunes. We then proceeded to drive our humble Toyota Land Cruiser across the undulating surface charging up 60° slopes and maneuvering down 50° declines. We drove deeper into the desert, stopped at a camel herd for some pictures, then further through until we reached a desert camp where we were entertained by dance performances and delighted with a hearty Arabic dinner. Another highlight was embarking on the Abra – a wooden river-crossing boat – at the heritage village and crossing the creek to the traditional souks on the other side. Unfortunately the gold and spice souks themselves were a little underwhelming due to their tiny size but the aromas of fresh cinnamon, cardamom and any other spice you can think of was worth the venture.

I wish I can live for another hundred years so I can come back and see what happens to this immaculate sheikhdom and the people that inhabit it, to see if they stick around and what kind of society they form. For now, the dynasty ruling this stretch of desert seem to be doing all they can to make it into something the world will remember. As with many things, only time will tell.

Out of the desert and into the rainforest. Next update from Kuala Lumpur.

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