Baking in Bling CityIt’s almost inevitable that at some stage anyone in the IT industry will be pulled in by the magnet of Dubai.
Dozens of major hi-tech companies have regional headquarters in Dubai’s Internet City, while the giant Gitex trade fair is unmissable for many. Or maybe you’ll just pass through when your budget-conscious company looks for the cheapest airfare to Europe.
Whatever the reason, it’s well worth spending a couple of days exploring its fascinating flavour.
Hopefully you’ll go in winter, when it’s a balmy 35deg rather than the barmy 50deg of summer. When you’re swimming in the rooftop pool beneath the stars it really is quite magical.
The heat makes Dubai a city where you just want to chill out rather than explore, since you’re in danger of spontaneous combustion if you step outside for long. Yet there are always expats on the beach, a welcome strip of sand overlooked by endless skyscrapers.
Dubai has got its boom back, and the best new development is the metro rail, which runs on raised viaducts to the major malls and office areas and the airport. It’s a doddle to navigate and at 4,50 Dirhams (R12) a ticket it’s the best bargain in town. Just don’t chew gum or take a sip of water, because you’ll be slapped with a serious fine.
Dubai is a bizarre and thoroughly fake place were everything fits in as long as it’s ridiculous. Like the ski slope and penguin encounter created in the humungous Mall of The Emirates. Hot as hell outside and genuine snow indoors, complete with a jaunty snowman.
Since it’s not a city for pedestrians it took me ages to find the entrance to the mall, even though it’s the second biggest in the city. Eventually I followed the cars and went in through the car park.
The shops have mannequins wearing shorts so skimpy you could get arrested, while the shoppers are an eclectic blend of women in full hijab and men in smart business suits or dazzling white robes. It seems hugely incongruous when the muezzin prayer call rings out in this mecca of materialism.
There’s a newly opened Nando’s too, as sassy as ever with its slogan of ‘The heat has arrived.’
But I was eating at the popular Reem Al Bawadi restaurant, where you quickly remember it’s a Muslim country so alcohol is generally only available in hotels. The restaurant is licensed to serve shisha pipes though, so our party arrived early before the fug set in. We tucked into delicious Arabic platters of grills and kebabs, hot flat breads, roasted vegetables and pungent dips, all washed down with a delicious lemon and mint cocktail.
Dubai has an enormous disparity in living standards, with Lamborghinis cruising around a ludicrous development modestly called The World – man-made islands that form a miniature world map so the super-rich can buy themselves a country.
Meanwhile the migrant workers are living three or more to a room in dingy apartment blocks. Foreigners make up 88% of the population doing work the Emirates won’t touch, but they never gain residency. My Indian taxi driver wondered what would become of him at retirement age. After sending all his money back to his family in Delhi for 22 years he has nothing here to show for it and no right to remain once he outlives his usefulness.
Mine was a short visit, with no time for a boat trip on the creek or to haggle in the old ‘souk’ of streets selling spices and gold.
Next time I’d like to visit the cultural centre, where Muslim leaders will apparently answer any questions that visitors have about their religion. How intriguing that would be.
One popular activity is a dune-bashing jeep ride in the desert followed by an Arabic braai and belly dancers who encourage audience participation. That’s not really the authentic Dubai, but it’s no more fake than anything else about the place.
First published in Brainstorm Magazine