Dubai: Caught on the Fly!

by wandering freditor / Feb 22, 2010 /

In 2005, I wrote a laudatory story about Dubai entitled The Pie in the Sky, Really Does Fly, and included it in my 2008 travel collection A String of Pearls. It was written after an early visit to the fabled City in the Desert, a city which had gone from being a small transhipment port on the banks of the Dubai Creek, to a wonder city, largely in the space of two decades. Where Arabs once rode in from the surrounding desert on their camels, traded trinkets, and watched dhows sail into the sunset, it was now transformed into the most modern city in the world, full of architectural splendour and gaudiness, where Arabs and an army of expats, traded in dreams. Dubai’s airport, at a cross road of worlds, never slept. Dubai had all the trappings of wealth, incredibly plush hotels with the iconic Burj al Arab, the world’s only seven-star facility. The biggest this, the tallest that, more Rollers, Bentleys and Ferraris than you see on Derby Day at Epsom, and building islands faster than you could name them! Dubai was forever the future!

Back then, Dubai was running with the financial bulls, no, well ahead of the pack. Everywhere along the way, there were people lined up, ready to run with them, with nary a worry of being trampled. Paper and real fortunes were made in a day, week, or a month, as people sold and resold “off the plan”, and dream lot after dream lot went up in the desert. Celluloid, and cellulite, ‘names’, came to Dubai to buy their million dollar places, the glitterati holidayed there! It was the other Vegas in the Desert, Can-Do Dubai, Dubai rocks and rustles; it was flaunting, pouting, pulsating Dubai, the hyperbole was unending. But as anyone who has ever been to Pamplona, and millions who have never been near the place, know full well, the outcome for the running bulls, is mostly death. A slow, painful, stinging death! Not all, mind you, but in 2008, when Dubai’s bulls ran into the arena, the matadors from Moscow, and other assorted Banderilleros, were waiting! “Give us our money back” they said, threw down their barbed sticks, and readied the puntilla for the coup de grace. And when the bulls stopped running, and the fighting finished, they took more than just the ears.

It is easy to be blind-sided by Dubai, for it is a place that does lots of shimmying and side-steps. While the dazzle now isn’t a complete frazzle, people who know Dubai, will tell you it's much more of a sobering place than in those days when it simply said “Sod ‘em” to the critics who called it a modern day Sodom. Then, Russians arrived with suitcases full of money and it was allegedly ‘cleaned’ in an instant, in a hanger off-limits to most. Then, allegedly, sanctions-avoiding back-door trade with Iran flourished, and then, allegedly, pirate missions off the East coast of Africa were planned in Dubai hotel rooms, and information about shipping, conveyed to distant bad men by satellite phones. Dubai was full of dealmakers, money men, and attractive women, who filled the hotel bars, and were very laid back. A veritable cauldron of conviviality, and for the legitimate traders, business-people and Blackberry bootleggers alike, it was booming.

Then, almost in an instant, credit contracted, and Dubai dived. At first, it seemed that there was plenty of water in the pool, for the ruling Al Maktoum clan scoffed at early claims of an economy in trouble, but in fact, the water was shallow, very shallow indeed. Dubai’s level of debt was beyond its annual GDP, and major semi-government bodies talked quietly of ‘extending loan provisions’ while they sold off assets to raise more moolah to repay debt. It had always been assumed that organizations like Dubai World had full Government backing, but now the Government left them in their underpants, and facing the chill wind of creditors. Suddenly unemployed expats sought to leave, but personal debt traps closed, and they were stranded in Dubai, till the debt was paid in full, a frightening prospect when no income was coming in, prospects of a new job were nil, and savings were minimal. Many, without debt but increasingly burdensome repayments, and no prospect of a quick sale, just wrote off their losses, and the prospects of a lifetime. And those in-between, drove their cars to the airport and made a scramble for a foreign port, any port, lest they too found they were unable to leave and their assets frozen. As always, few had seen the bubble-burst coming, and when it did, all that was left were suds, and a hope that the Government would pick up the slack … till they too defaulted on loan repayments, and the world’s stock markets shuddered. In boom times, everyone sought to indulge in the excesses of Dubai. Now the burns unit offered little help beyond trying to stick it out.

Then, at the very last possible instant (a little suffering focuses the mind!), big brother, the oil-rich Abu Dhabi, the richest of the seven Emirates which make up the United Arab Emirates (of which Dubai is one), came to Dubai's aid with a $10 billion soft loan. The financial markets, to say nothing of the authorities in Dubai, breathed a collective sigh, which rattled window panes around the Gulf, and rapped at others around the world. But as always in these sorts of tawdry affairs, there were conditions, and not just about the repayment regime. There has been much speculation about what Abu Dhabi demanded of Dubai in return for the bail-out, the keep-you-afloat loan, for that was kept quiet. But there have been any number of ‘educated guesses’, usually during over-the-whiskey conversations with people who tap their nose with their fore-finger, and wriggle a lot in their shirt collars, as they look around to see who might be watching, and listening!

One creditable story is that for some time, Dubai ‘did a Nelson’ blind-eye to the telescope trick, and said “What trade with Iran”, so allowing the Iranian regime to circumvent sanctions. The pickings were good, Dubai was booming and any American pressure to curtail its activity, was ignored in the breach. But Abu Dhabi, long concerned about the possibility of Shite Iran fomenting trouble in its Sunni ruled, but Shite peopled Emirate, had closer ties with the Americans. And for a long time too, the folks in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere in the Gulf, were concerned at the tales of licentiousness and hedonism coming out of Dubai. Now, however, the global financial crisis, and its impact on Dubai, gave them, and through them, the Americans, the chance to set some tough conditions for the bail out. Things are now said to be a lot quieter with Iran, and there also appears to have been a crack down on licentiousness. There was the sex-on-the-beach case and last month a woman who went to the police and complained that she had been raped, was arrested, together with her fiancé, because they had been living together and were not married! The rape accusation, suddenly ‘went West’, and the couple hastily married, so they could at least be thrown out of Dubai, and not stay indefinitely in gaol, as is the lot of a number of expats. There has been a morals crackdown against revealing dress codes, drink and drugs, and while raunchy and racy are still about, it is no longer as overtly ‘out there’ as before, a sure sign that more conservative Abu Dhabi is pulling some of the strings.  

We had not stayed in Dubai for a while, merely transited through its huge modern airport which at various times of the day or night, is like a people sieve as folks from all over the world spend time in Dubai before connecting to somewhere else. It is like an ants nest, stirred up by flights. The new terminal is ultra-modern, functional, high-tech, marble and mirrors, huge, pillared and cavernous, a latter day palace like Versailles. Moving footways, and a legion of helpers, spirit you to the ‘other side’, where a highly efficient, metered taxi service, in Australian manufactured Toyota Camrys, hustle you out of the airport environs, and like a billiard ball, cannon you into the traffic. Now I must admit surprise, because Dubai’s billion-dollar Metro light rail system was supposed to alleviate its notorious traffic dead-lock, but as yet, there is no sign that a myriad of people have switched. True, only certain stations are open, as the network is being opened stage by stage, but at the moment, people still seem to prefer the comfort and directness of their car. The stations all look very futuristic, some as though designed by Gaudi, or the people that design cycling helmets for the Tour d’France, but there is still an awful lot of open concourse and ground to cover when the mercury touches 50 degrees in the height of summer. So I am prepared to reserve judgement on the efficacy of the Metro system.

After sitting in traffic for half an hour, for our ten minute journey to our hotel, we put down our bags, and chartered another taxi for the ‘twenty minute journey’ to the world’s tallest building, and the world’s biggest mall. Yes, even though tourism figures are down, Dubai is still on steroids, although a lot of the construction cranes stand starkly still and many futuristic design buildings stand half empty. Forty-five minutes later, we arrived at the Dubai Mall, ducking down below window-sill level, so that we could look at the Burj Khalifa, at 828 metres the world’s tallest building, and hastily named the Burj Khalifa, surprise, surprise, in honour of the Emir of Abu Dhabi! We then crossed an enormous fore-court and then, beyond the doors, a huge, darkishly-lit dome, which will, I am sure, one day host the Super Bowl. And there it was, all before us, 440,000 square metres of floor-space, virtual boulevards as though running from the Arc de Triomph, lined with ‘high street’ shops which glittered in the gloom, and all displayed 50% and 70% sales signs. Like intrepid explorers, we set off into the urban jungle, eyes darting warily from side to side lest a real bargain lurked behind a shop window.

‘Bloomin’ hell’ I said in awe, as the shops loomed above us, as high as a rain forest canopy, and like magic, Bloomingdales emerged before us. “Opening in Spring” said the sign, and it made me laugh because Dubai, like the rest of the Gulf, merely has “Summer” and “Slightly-less-hot-Summer”, so people would be perplexed by the concept of “Spring” although there would undoubtedly be an array of plastic tulips and silk daffodils, just in case of doubt. The walkways were veritable freeways of glistening marble and onyx, and the human traffic travelled at an un-impeding pace. We reached Fashion Avenue, and they were all there, from Armani to Zegna, but except for the occasional ‘curator’, all was as empty as King Tut’s tomb, if you don’t count the in-store accessories! I zigged and zagged to Zegna, where a coat sale beckoned, and I felt like a field mouse in a close cropped field. Immediately, a slick haired eagle, who would have fitted comfortably into the cast of MadMen, a consigliore in a clothes-peg shaped suit and Goofy-sized pointed shoes, was right beside me. Within seconds, he had my arms pinned back, and he slipped on a coat, like a garrotte! He pursed his lips, and gave me that sage look which said “That is you!” I looked in the mirror and dazzled like an asteroid headed for earth, and saw that it was still the price of a Prius, before the recall! Oh what a feeling! I simply couldn’t meet his gaze while I said meekly, “Sorry, but the shimmer-look isn’t me”, and made a dash for the door, gulping in lung-fulls of oxygen, and relief at my escape. At Chanel, there was a guy on the door who looked wired for Afghanistan, buzz cut and wrap-arounds, and I hurried past with nary a worry about my wife. In the ally of the dolls, I was happy to leave her with Dolce, Donatella and Dior – I just could not take any more, and I was as mad as hell that I had even contemplated entry!

Bag-less too, my wife soon joined me. It had been the same for her, the only bird in the boutique. Arabs are night shoppers I know but even they must gag on their gherkins at some of the oil-well prices. Still, there are shaikhs and shaikhas who haul out the plastic without an undue working of their worry beads, and therefore the ‘customers’ like us, who are in for a browse, are just the daily dross. We walked instead, to a huge, 50 metre long aquarium which is about the size of three or four shop-fronts, and maybe fifteen metres high.  Large schools of fish swam around a pier pylon setting, and there were groupers, flat fish, fat fish, and  a good number of sharks, which only served to show that they were not only in the shops! There is also a modern ‘old’ gold souk, to give the place an Arab flavour, but in reality, it was mere garnish and seemed more for foreigners who wanted to ‘feel’ the Middle East, but not necessarily smell it, or see it in its unsightly reality, with Arab ‘Fagins’, lurking in the shadows to rob and plunder. There was also a very high indoor waterfall, with divers diving like swallows as though over the falls, in a hidden jungle stream. We took in its splendour, took the obligatory photo, and headed for Galleries Lafayette!

 
Dubai
Dubai economists, heading for the local Stock Exchange!

We stepped outside, choosing a path between the various restaurant plots, and looked out onto a vast blue lake, where at night, the multi-million dollar fountain sprayed watery globules and tubular spurts to the accompaniment, I felt sure, of something by Handel, or maybe Simon and Garfunkel, as Dubai was certainly in troubled waters. And there, as if prophetic, was a bridge to an island containing a ‘genuine Arab souk’, all modernized and sterilized, to be sure, and surrounded by veritable paddy fields of eateries. Then, sensing something, I turned to my right, and there she was, the tallest building in the world, 160 floors of gleaming glass, shimmering steel, awesome aluminium, like a syringe around which someone had moulded Latin American Pan flutes! My head went back, and back, so that I felt folds of flesh against the boundary of my square-backed locks, and I squinted into a hurtful sky to see the point of the needle. A triumph in engineering, undoubtedly, off-set in parts to allow a few metres of expansion when the temperature touched 50 degrees, a million miles of cabling, more lifts than you see at a gym in an afternoon, accommodation for 12,000 workers and residents, a modern day Tower of Babel, to the power of a thousand! But where-as the Empire State Building, the Willis Tower, or the Petronas building looked strong and robust, the Burj Khalifa looked like a structure which would perpetually have sand kicked in its face! And all that weediness for $1.72 billion!

We toyed with the thought of a trip to the top – well as near to the top as the public are allowed – but decided not to, the $126 fee for instant tripping as off-putting as its height. A fire up that far, and you really are toast, and even if it was the best thing since sliced bread, what is there really to see. “On a clear day you can see Iran” said the advertising, but in the Gulf such days come but once in an Islamic revolution! Who would want to see Iran anyway! Elsewhere, there was just a hazy Dubai, its tall buildings and spaghetti roads, and all the labour camps in the desert. No, best to see Dubai at ground level, especially when a week after the opening, they had to close the building down as the lifts malfunctioned and people were left stranded 124 floors up!

 
Dubai
No tip at the top, or urge to scale the Burj!

We left Dubai thinking that the global financial crisis had changed Dubai, but then again, it had changed it not much at all. This blooming city in the desert, is still unique, and testimony to what can be done with drive and lots of money, although there is still divided opinion on the manner – or mark – of its success. Dubai has paid a price for its avarice, and undoubtedly, future investors will come without the gold-rush mentality of those that came before them, but still come, they will. In so many ways, there is no place quite like it on earth. And that gives it a sense of worth and its sense of worth visiting.

 

Winfred Peppinck is the Tales of the Traveling Editor for Wandering Educators