I never thought I’d love Dubai. But the first time I went I was curious. Years ago I’d been staying close by but never made it. And now, living in Muscat, Dubai is our London. It sings a show tune across the mountains. How could we resist?
We reached the city late. Sand ghosts crossed the motorways, a reminder of what lay beneath. Towers lumbered, concrete dinosaurs. We saw swimming pools balanced on rooftops. The breeze blew our gaze across the most competitive skyline in the world. Tallest, Highest, One of a kind. A ski slope in the desert.
Dubai is the Middle East’s Marmite; visitors like and loathe in equal measure.
The city is a mimic. Big Ben’s replica stands like a gift from a cracker. New York’s Chrysler juts to the sky nearby. A post-modernist mickey take? Or maybe all these buildings are just a loving tribute to the old metropolises of the world.
A giant Duty Free curated to entice. Dubai. Where they opened up the box of What Was Possible, used cash, brains, shiny western toys…I wonder, if like a cat, the city herself is secretly laughing into her whiskers.
What would Sheikh Zayed make of it? He who put the first stones in the sand, as progress spoke to him in easy signs. Did he, could he, guess at what would come?
A single road he built, across the swathes of desert dust. Need, no more to swat away the flies, the sand became not home but holiday. While Europeans wore flares and Beatlemania was almost passé, a desert rose was rising from the dunes, nurtured by the leader, Zayed’s hand.
The city’s soundtrack is technology’s hum. Its people, visual chess pieces robed in black or white: uncommon doves, giant eyelashes fluttering like jazz hands.
We dine at the top of the tallest tower. The elevator rocks as the floors reach into the 100s. The staff guide us around a building shaped like a needle. There is no pat down here, no airport style security. I try to ban the zeitgeist from my mind.
The world has changed since Zayed built the UAE. I want to ask him what he thinks. Say that wars are fought on ground no more, but ideologically, illogically by computer grid, rocket, splinter group, so many hidden interests, when most are pleased with peace. The building sways a touch. We focus on the menu. I shake a little like the tower, see swathes of lights across a sea of navy blue. Planes pass the building at our level. Horrified. Exhilarated. What were they thinking these architects?
Before leaving the city I hope to buy a lipstick. Three people rush to help before I’ve even reached the counter. By the rack of plums and pinks I’m offered water, juice, ‘Shall I take your bags?’ Led to the counter as though I’m the only customer in the shop. ‘This one looks nice,’ she holds out a brownish nude. I agree, head for the tills, ‘Special price, today,’ she smiles for commerce here is art.
Zayed was a reformer, a visionary who advocated dialogue above arms. In the second half of the twentieth century he brought schools, hospitals, basic infrastructure to a diseased people and harsh climate.
What would he say to Dubai’s commercialism, her bare faced architectural cheek? My guess is that were Zayed here today, he’d see the city’s skyline and he’d smile. Dubai innovates with flair, a whim in a world too filled with frowns. A city state of swaggering imitation, while at the same time, tongue-in-cheek unique.
Have you been to Dubai? What’s your ‘Marmite’ take on it?