Monday 3 September 2018

Dubai now

A friend once described Dubai as “Disneyland for Adults” but we – the city and me - go back a long way to 1978 when it was enjoying anther building boom but obviously not on the scale of today. At that time, the boom was fuelled by oil if you’ll excuse the pun and I benefited from it. But the current boom, if you could call it that, is on account of the lack of oil and the need to generate wealth by other means. To me, a boom is a “result” of some external factor or other but this one is totally contrived and it intrigues me. The scale of building is astonishing but the part of Dubai, Deira, where I was working hasn’t changed very much. The forests of tall buildings which most people have seen in photos straddle what I remember as a dual carriageway through the desert to Jumiera and ultimately to Abu Dhabi, about 240km away. I was in Jumiera one day where I used to go sailing, watched by just a handful of hotels along the beach. But what was that pile of sand about 100m off the beach, piles being driven? I watched with interest – this was around 1990 as far as I can remember. Can you guess what it became? Yes, you are correct, Bur Al Arab, the hotel modelled on a sail.

So, how did it start? Imagine that you have piles of money, a large empty space which helpfully is mid-way between Asia and Europe. How do you light the touch-paper? You build, and build and build. And persuade companies to come here. And create an airline from scratch and call it Emirates. And build apartments, some of which are in the sea on reclaimed land in the shape of a palm tree. And persuade wealthy people to invest in these properties on the promise that, by building more and more enormous office buildings, the value of the whole model will increase. And then more people will come along and join the bandwagon.

In the 70s, Dubai was enjoying a boom but nothing like that of the past few years. Of course, they knew that the oil would not last for ever so even then they were making plans for Dubai for when the oil ran out. And that is what we see today. A totally contrived city of enormous tall buildings, shopping malls, apartments. I find it astonishing. Most great cities are based on a history of trade or natural resources. It is true that dhows have plied their trade in the Creek of Dubai for many years but the trade in Dubai is finance, tourism, just general commerce. Dubai is mid-way between the Far East and Europe and Emirates the airline has capitalised on that. But I still don’t get it! How such an enormous project can spring out of the desert. Where there was just a dual-carriageway through the desert to Jumeira and Abu Dhabi beyond, there is now a busy 6-lane highway, Metro and clumps of enormous buildings including of course Burj Kahlifa, the tallest building in the world although I do think it is cheating just a little because it is very thin at the top. This is Dubai, it had to be the tallest in the world even if its diameter at the top is that of a very small toilet.

And so it seems to have passed, despite the hiccup about 10 years ago when Dubai ran out of money and had to be rescued by their rival, Abu Dhabi which must have been extremely humiliating. And now, in November 2015, the building continued: Dubai Marina, The Beach, like a huge Butlin’s holiday camp. (If you are too young to know about Butlin’s, ask your grandfather.) Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world and Mall of Dubai the mother and father of all shopping malls which, rather like duty-frees at airports, you have to walk through in order to get to the elevators which take you to the top of the spire. That is providing you’re prepared to pay over $100 to go there. Around this vast conglomeration, there are yet more buildings going up – cranes everywhere.

And the dual carriageway is now a six-lane highway streaming with traffic going I know not where. And next to the road is the driverless Metro, and always crammed like the London Tube at rush-hour.

The buildings to which I’m referring are built in clumps rather like Canary Wharf or La Defence. So we have, Dubai Towers, a rather prosaic title for two magnificent towers facing each other which one sees for the first time after passing the World Trade Centre which has been there for as long as I’ve been coming here. When I first worked there, we were all put up in “digs” right next to the centre and we drove into Diera in little pickup trucks.

Then there was Internet City, Dubai Mall which I’ve mentioned, Mall of the Emirates. These are the names of Metro stations along the way. So, basically, I don’t get it! How one can create such a vast area of residence and commercial property out of nothing? No industry, the oil went elsewhere to be refined anyway. I talked to people about it – a young Russian with an alarmingly short skirt who was a representative for a group called First Group which sells and rents out property. To her it seemed logical – the cross-roads between the Far East and Europe. But in that case it should have happened automatically over time like the trading posts of old such as Istanbul or Baghdad. It is true, it has been on a trading route for centuries but that was in commodities of the old world. Dhows travel long distances loaded with freight.

The Sheraton, Dubai

When I was working in Dubai, I used to walk down to the Sheraton Hotel by the Creek in the evening rather than cook a supper in my apartment. One reason is that there was wine in the Sheraton but not in my apartment. Expats living in Dubai could buy alcohol on licence but the whole centre where I was living was “dry” anyway. So, in 2015, I took a nostalgic walk to the hotel. There is a small bar in the style of an English pub. I ordered a beer and the guy asked me something like hobgobling! I thought maybe this was some kind of food. No, it was one of those English beers with strange names. Hobgoblin. In Spain, things were much simpler: just ask for a beer – Una caña.

Often I misjudge distances in a city because my map is electronic - on a tablet - and it’s all too easy to zoom in and out with Google Maps without paying attention to the scale! I was tempted to walk back to the hotel one night but instead wisely just took a taxi as they are not expensive here and so I’ve arrived back in gentle coolness rather than as a damp rag. The fare is 12 ½ Dirhams (have you worked out where I am am?), I give the driver a 20 Dirham note and he hands over the change. But just as I open the door, he apologises to me and points to the meter which, while I was fumbling among my currency collection, has skipped on by 1/2 . I hand back a ½ Dirham coin and exit the taxi.

Two days before each Emirates flight, I book a chauffeur-drive car and one day before, I check-in online which means downloading my boarding pass either for printing by the hotel or even displaying on my phone. In any case, even if I don’t do that, there are machines at the airport to do that.

From Dubai there was just one small snag with booking the car. All was fine until I was presented with a choice of pickup times, between 2am to 5am! This was for a flight at 9.35am where the airport is only 20 minutes away and I only had cabin baggage anyway. I sent a message asking for a sensible pick-up time but never received a reply. The reply came in the form of a large black Emirates limousine outside the hotel just as I was leaving to catch the Metro to the airport. I am not even sure the car took as much as 20 minutes before it was dropping me off at the Executive entrance.