The entire waterfront area, chock-a-block with soaring, architecturally mind-blowing spheres that don’t so much reach for the sky as aim for the stars, did not exist before the beginning of this century. In 1979, the World Trade Center was Dubai’s tallest building and everyone thought that it was crazy to build something like this in the desert, far away from the city.
Now the trade center is dwarfed by the buildings hugging around it, and it is at Dubai’s center.
As for tomorrow, you can’t take a photo in this city of two million without a construction crane getting in the way. The international airport, a gleaming massive configuration out of a science fiction writer’s wildest fantasy, currently lands two hundred planes a day and through the night.
That’s not enough, apparently. In order to accommodate the visitors anticipated for the World’s Fair here in 2020, they are building a second airport that will accommodate one thousand planes a day.
The Dubai Mall is already the largest in the world with over one thousand shops drawing seventy million visitors a year. That’s not enough, either. The mall is currently expanding to accommodate—so it is claimed—one hundred million shoppers a year.
You think America is the new world? Ha! Think again, pal. The East is the new and thriving world. We’re the old world with a crumbling infrastructure, bad internet, lousy taxis, and a few spaces that are not filled with advertising. You cannot spend any time in Dubai without starting to suspect you have seen the future and the future is nowhere near where you live.
What does the future look like? Kind of like Blade Runner without the grit and grime and lousy air, but with lots of Jumbotron-type television screens and huge billboards encouraging you to buy sleek cars and expensive watches you will never be able to afford.
The future works. The public toilets are pristine and constantly being cleaned, the taxis are immaculate and driven by polite drivers, the bus shelters are—get this—air conditioned.
The future gleams and shines, reflected in vast towers just visible through the haze of an overcast day that fails to obscure the glittering sheen of a perfection that, on the surface at least, dazzles.
In the future everyone is rich or had better be rich so those watches can be bought and the cars purchased. There does not seem to be a lot of room for the poor in this New World. After all, what can the poor buy in those shopping malls?
In North America, the mall is an endangered species, but here in Dubai, it flourishes. You have only to visit the Dubai Mall on a Friday night to see that. You can hardly move for the surging multitudes. Friday night at the mall is practically a national pastime, and it isn’t only the Dubai Mall. Just down the road, the Mall of the Emirates contains five ski hills, in case you miss the snow and the cold, or, more likely, have no idea what they are. You can actually go skiing—there are lifts, and if you don’t have your ski equipment with you, that’s okay, they will happily supply it.
There are shopping malls everywhere, and God help us all, they are building more, although what exactly they are going to put in them is anyone’s guess. Does the world, let alone Dubai, really need another Zara outlet? Apparently, it does.
Not so long ago, Dubai was a pearl diving village on the edge of the Persian Gulf fallen on hard times. All that changed when oil was discovered in the 1960s. Now Dubai is the commercial center of the seven Arab states that make up The United Arab Emirates.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum rules with a more or less benign hand, although there have been raised eyebrows over the treatment of the thousands of construction workers who must be brought in to help realize the sheik’s grandiose dreams, and environmentalists are up in arms over a number of issues including water consumption (huge, and it never rains), and the arbitrary way an entire crescent-shaped island was created off the coast.
Lest you have any doubts that Dubai remains very much a Muslim country, you are reminded there are over five hundred mosques. During the holy month of Ramadan, things tighten considerably and you can’t even drink water in public.
Otherwise, though, everything is comparatively free and easy. You see plenty of people wearing traditional Arab garb—the thawb for men, the hijab for women—and the tourist brochures and guide books urge women to dress conservatively. Even so, large numbers of young women in various states of western dress don’t seem to have got the message, and no one seems unduly alarmed.
Supposedly, one can’t drink except in the five-star hotels that cater to foreign tourists. But everyone flocks to the hotels on weekends and drinks anyway—the number one cause of traffic accidents here is said to be drunk driving.
Not surprisingly, Dubai’s much more conservative neighbors can’t wait to visit. “This is paradise for them,” says one local. “Here they have freedom.” Each weekend the well-heeled from Saudi Arabia and Qatar drive the thirteen hours down Sheikh Zayed Road to enjoy some of what they can’t have at home.
On a Friday evening the Dubai Mall teeming with shoppers, the traffic hopeless along Jumeirah Beach Road, one gives in to his touristy impulses and arranges for a sunset visit to the Burj Khalifa, the silvery sphere dominating Dubai’s skyline that is the world’s tallest building at 2,716.5 feet.
However, even with a reserved time and elevators that rise and fall with such speed you don’t feel you are moving at all, the crowds are so thick that it is well past sunset by the time you are finally allowed onto the 124th floor observation deck. Everyone is crowded at the windows taking selfies, obscuring the view of Dubai by night.
When you do glimpse the city twinkling in long, colorful necklaces of light far below, the thought again occurs that you are seeing the future. Sort of like an image on one of those Jumbotron screens. Makes you want to buy an expensive watch in Dubai.