Dubai started to interest me in 2012 when I was in Kurdistan, which is just off the top of the map below, above the word Baghdad. I was on a property visit—travelling half way around the world to see a pipe coming out of the ground—and all the brokers and investment bankers from London England on the trip were talking about Dubai. It was clearly the new hedonist haven for this financial group.
Other comments I heard over time was…that it was the Las Vegas of the Muslim world; that Muslim men and women came to Dubai to temporarily drop rigid social regimes and have fun. To this day I don’t know if that’s true but I got an idea of the Sin City metaphor in the first 15 minutes. After we checked into our budget hotel, we walked down the street to a small convenience store to get some bottled water.
Well, I was propositioned not once, but twice by two different groups of young ladies whose dress—or lack thereof—made their intentions very clear. And if we didn’t get that, then they just asked us straight up to our face. On another night in the Deira neighbourhood, right by Dubai Creek, we were also offered other “goodies” for about CAD$4. Shake your head, wrinkle your nose and keep walking.
That trip to Kurdistan was the background, but the trigger for the Dubai trip was… I woke up one day in the spring of 2015 and said to myself—I need more adventure in my life. The first email I see on my computer that day is a Groupon with a 7 day trip to Dubai. I convinced my friend Dave to join me on the four hour bus ride south to SeaTac airport and then a 13.5 hour direct flight out of Seattle to check out Dubai. You fly right over the pole, down thru Siberia, Kazakhstan, the middle of Iran and land in coastal Dubai on the eastern edge of the Arabian peninsula.
4 movies and 3 hours of sleep later, we arrived in Dubai, not quite 26 hours after we left (leaving 530 pm Wed arrive Dubai 730 pm Thursday). As you get off the plane, the 35 degree heat (95 F) swarms you. And that’s at 730 pm.
I already told you about my first experience at our hotel. Other than that, there is essentially NO crime in Dubai; it’s very safe. And it’s unbelievably clean. NO GARBAGE.
The adobe or stucco walls of all the apartments and homes in the gated communities are all immaculate; there is evidently Big Fines for dirty exterior walls.
Dave was in charge of the sleeping pills, and he delivered. That first night I took one of his little white pills and got a great 8 hours sleep—even on the very hard, cheap bed I was sleeping on. (That’s what you get for a Groupon).
The next morning—Friday morning—we were up for breakfast and discovered how cosmopolitan our budget hotel was—people from all over the world were there; Africa, southern Asia, Europe etc. We looked at our map and headed north to Dubai Creek, which is where the old Indian gold, silver and spice markets were—called Souks. We chose to walk, and the heat wears you down pretty fast.
When we got to the spice Souk, we found the area pretty deserted…because Friday is a holiday!
We obviously didn’t want to buy any spices, but I did buy a Tshirt for my son and a hat with DUBAI on it. I put that on, and started walking through the Souk. I saw a vendor selling fresh squeezed orange juice, and got one each for Dave and I. I asked how much and was told 15 dirhams each, or about $6. I gave him 30 dirhams and kept walking. I drank mine all really fast because it was so hot. In 2 minutes I came across another orange juice vendor, and asked him BEFORE I bought any, how much? 8 dirham he said.
Right. I put the Dubai hat back in my bag and put on my regular white hat. My white skin still screamed SUCKER COMING but I just couldn’t wear the hat anymore.
We took one of the several ferries across the creek. It’s an open boat, and only cost 1 dirham, or 40 cents. Different guys at the dock encourage you to go to their boat, and once it’s full you start the 5 minute journey. If you’re lucky, you picked a spot that’s shaded by the small central wooden canopy. The engine is open to the passengers and sends whiffs of diesel all around us as we leave the dock, turn around and move forward.
The gold and silver Souk across the Creek is another tourist trap; I want to sit there for an hour during prime time shopping and see just who goes in there and buys this stuff. It’s the same curiosity my wife would have wandering into a used sporting goods store in Vancouver.
It’s noon now and we have to be back at the hotel by 330 pm for our 4×4 desert tour. So we hop in a cab and head to the Dubai Mall—at 2.6 million square feet it’s the Largest Mall in the World.
Leaving the Souks and whizzing across a 6 lane bridge and down a 6 lane highway to midtown—the first thing that hits me is the futuristic architecture—I thought I was looking a CGI (computer generated) screen for a city on another planet, not a real city, right now.
In 12 minutes we drove out of the 19th century into the 22nd century. I can hardly verbalize how awestruck I felt looking up at the incredibly tall buildings all lined up as we drove by. And they weren’t just boxes with windows, they had designs on their cladding, or they twisted or they curved or they had real interesting peaks or tops to them. And they were all 50 stories or higher.
What a blessing to live in a city with such amazing architecture…it really does impact your psychology. I’ve been to Eastern European countries and walked among the never ending rectangular apartment blocks…even after they’ve been painted varying funky colours, they’re still a box…and you can feel the oppression that must have been there.
(photo taken on the elevated Metro coming from downtown to midtown; the working class neighbourhood to the business district)
But in Dubai, I felt freedom. It’s interesting that all the towers in Dubai are truly in the middle of nowhere (as Dubai is)…it’s a very flat, long linear beach with hardly a natural bend…it gave the city and the towers an…other-worldliness. It was like walking into a sci-fi book.
The other contributing factor to this was…there was nobody on the streets. From a pedestrian point of view, Dubai is deserted at this time of year. Despite having 2.5 million people in a 20×2 mile rectangle, it’s still too hot at 37 Celsius for people to be walking outside. It made for a bit of an eerie experience.
From November-March the cafes and streets are full, and it is the most cosmopolitan city I’ve ever been to. People from all over the world are here—beside the dominant Indian & Pakistanis, there were Africans, Europeans/North Americans, Indians, Chinese (though not as much as I would have thought), South-East Asians, and Hispanics. I saw them all…just in my own budget (CAD$50/night) hotel.
But from April to October, when the temperature rises from 30-45 degrees Celsius during the day, everyone takes the air-conditioned walkways from the towers to the Metro. So the streets are basically empty.
I thought of the movie Inception with Leonardo di Caprio. He and his wife go into a self induced dream and spend 50 years building cities, just the two of them. It’s a paradise. That’s what Dubai felt like to me.
The heat was certainly too much for me and travelling companion Dave…us 50 year old white guys don’t tan, we burn. (And frankly, at our age even at the best of times it’s not pretty on the beach). So there was no way we could go out and walk the beautiful beach .
So we spent some time at the Dubai Mall, where the big attraction—other than being BIG—is the ice skating rink with massive movie screen above it, and the two storey aquarium that is like two stacked Olympic sized swimming pools. There are all kinds of large fish and manta rays swimming there, and you can see divers in there feeding or cleaning I guess. You can pay to wear a head gear with an air hose and go in.
Then we headed back to our hotel to catch the desert tour. This was pretty cool—even though there are roughly 4000 4x4s out there each and every day. That’s what our guide said—four thousand trucks. And I believe him—we were careening up and down steep hills, taking corners and spinning wheels like mad– only 30 feet away from the truck in front of us. When you looked out across the dunes all the white trucks (they were almost all white) looked like ANTS going to and from the colony. Sadly the couple in the back of the van threw up about two-thirds the way through so we had to go pretty slow after that.
Our tour finished just before sundown, and we were then taken to another set of dunes where there was a big buffet dinner of Middle Eastern food (think Lebanese or Turkey), and we could buy a beer, which was nice.
The entertainment was a male dancer with a colourful sequined coat and skirt. He twirled to traditional music—and kept twirling. Then the sequins lit up and he twirled even faster. He finally stopped, and didn’t even fall down or waver as he left the stage. I’ve been less sure-footed after half a beer.
The next day, we got a 4 hour city tour as part of our Groupon. When our city tour drove us to see the beach—at 1 pm—it was almost deserted; again because of the heat. The beach spreads for miles, and there was probably only 30 people that we could see. We walked halfway to the water from the street across the sand, and turned around to get back in the air-conditioning.
The main midtown (business district) and uptown (Marina, Palm Jumeirah) streets are empty but the Metro is full—all day. (There’s a city map on page 8 below).
And an 8 car train comes by every 3 minutes. The big Metro, or subway system (it’s actually elevated throughout the city except for the part under the Dubai Creek) has huge, spacious terminals that are a great model for other cities. Now of course, they actually have the room to build it like that, being a new city. The main streets are very wide.
Each Metro train has 1 or 2 cars for women and children only, and one Gold Class cabin, which is twice the price of a normal fare. Our day pass on the Metro was CAD$8 to hang with the Mass of Great Unwashed, or $16 for the Gold, with cushy vinyl seats. No question for me what to buy on that one. Dave and I did most of our touring via the Metro, and walked around from one of the stations.
One of our activities was going up to Floor 125 of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. We paid the $50 to go up the Burj. I wasn’t paying the extra $100 to go to the 148th—and that was the right choice as our day was so hazy you couldn’t even see the Palm Jumeirah 7 km away; we could barely see the Burj Al Ahrab hotel.
The one thing you could see—on a clear day—from the 148th floor I’m sure is The World—the 300 island development in the ocean off mid-town that is in the shape of the continents. The cheapest island was $15 million (I assume they come plumbed and wired…) and our tour guide said the most expensive was $40 or $50 million, I can’t remember which. I wasn’t going to even spend the $50 to go to Floor 125, but one of my expat contacts in Dubai said no, it was really worth it…and he was right.
The Metro and the Burj Khalifa—both started construction in 2005 and finished in 2010. I got a window into how it was built by my cab driver on the way back to the airport to return home.
He’s from Pakistan, and he got into Dubai via an “agent”. He arrived in 2002; 13 years ago. I’m sure there are hundreds if not thousands of agents who are charged with bringing in cheap foreign labour for the (tens of?) thousands of workers needed in Dubai—even today; mostly from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Phillipines (in that order—that came from my half-day tour guide ). I would bet $100 there are 1000 active cranes in Greater Dubai right now (let’s say within a 10-15 mile radius) and I would bet $500 there are 500 cranes. So there is still LOTS of work.
My cabbie paid an agent to get him into Dubai (I didn’t ask how much). He says the agents make great promises of full employment and 3 meals a day and great clean city that’s safe. He says the city is clean and safe, but he didn’t get to live in the city at first. He lived in what was little more than a refugee camp on the outskirts of Dubai—with no air-conditioning.
He came from Pakistan because he says there is no money there. I asked him why that was—because the politicians catch it all, he said. Probably some truth there.
His initial work visa was for 3 years, and he was paid CAD$160/month or 400 dirhams. After those 3 years, he was able to get 2 year working visas. It sounds like you are tied to your sponsoring employer for those work visas. He has switched employers almost every time his work visa was renewed.
He earned 1000 dirhams a month with his second construction job. During this time he learned how to get his drivers certificate, so that when work visa #2 expired, he was able to get a drivers’ job. That paid 3000 dirhams a month, but because he had no experience the employer said he would only pay 2000. He took that, and after that next visa expired, he already had another drivers job lined up—the one he has now—that pays him 4000 dirham a month (CAD$1600)—or 10x his original wage 12 years ago.
He sends money home when needed. He calls his family back home once a week, which he says is very expensive. He usually communicates with them via What’s App, which is free. (I have heard of this app, but confess complete ignorance of how it works). I wish I had another half hour to talk to him. I had about 18 minutes.
Dubai is one of seven Emirates that make up the UAE—United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi, 150 km (100 miles) down the road is the main one. Abu Dhabi has the oil, and Dubai has the trade. Only 4% of Dubai’s GDP is oil, my tour guide said. It has always been a tax free zone, attracting capital and shaving a small piece off of an ever bigger pie, as opposed to carving big pieces out of a small pie (attention newly elected Prime Minister Trudeau!)
I’m not sure that just being a tax free zone would explain the incredible—truly epic—growth that Dubai has enjoyed for over a decade now. I think there has to be a lot of offshore (euphemism for ill-gotten) money here. But then part of me said…well, if all that money had been paid in taxes in the host countries, it would benefit the citizens of those countries…but now it allows people like this Pakistani cab driver to escape hopelessness and abject poverty. Sadly, it likely still contributes to a widening of the income gap globally, but the point is capital is still being spent. Not a justification; just an observation.
Business owners in Dubai—my tour guide said—are in almost the same order of nationalities as the workers—Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi. Iranians were down the list quite far, despite being right across the ocean. Of course, the Iranians are Shia Muslim compared to the Sunni Muslims on the Arabian peninsula, but my tour guide said in Dubai it’s all about trade and money and Iranians are more welcome in Dubai than any other place on the peninsula. Abu Dhabi, for example (he says)…do not have so much love for the Iranians. So the different Emirates (kingdoms) do have slightly different cultures.
The things to do in Dubai are:
1. Bur Dubai—the old downtown/Dubai Creek area with the gold and spice markets (Souk)
2. The Malls (midtown)—Dubai Mall with its skating rink and Biggest Mall in the World title and Emirates Mall with its Downhill Ski Slope. We did visit the ski-ing but it’s more like a toboggan hill. I didn’t ask how much it cost.
The Malls are actually quite entertaining due to the wide mix of people—traditional Arab dress for both men and women (burka/niqab) only account for 5% of the crowd, but because they are so different they stand out. The Dubai Mall is attached to the Burj Khalifa.
3. The Mid-town Towers (including Burj Khalifa; Burj means Tower).
4. Palm Jumeirah (uptown)—you know, the man made Palm tree out in the ocean—6 km up the middle and 11 km around each side, with each frond hosting about 100 homes by the looks of it. I have no idea what they cost. This was the last stop on our city tour, so Dave and I exited there and visited The Atlantis resort which is the Marquee attraction of the Palm, right at the end of the stem. The Atlantis has a huge 20 storey archway in the shape of an Arabian dome (think Ace of Spades).
It’s a long way off the metro line, and they charge you $15 (dollars, not dirham) to take their tram from the Atlantis to the metro line. Keeps the riff-raff out I guess. After a quick tour of the Atlantis—we couldn’t even get into the lobby without being a guest—we trammed down to the metro, and headed farther uptown to the Marina.
5. The Marina/Lagoon area—it’s just south of the Palm Jumeirah, and I couldn’t make it fit on the map below. It’s where most of the high-end, western hotels are located. The mall that’s at that end of town is all WASP-looking (White Anglo Saxon). Beers are CAD$20 and wine is CAD$30 a glass. If you come, enjoy. I’ll be in Bur Dubai where beer is $11.
Again, as we walked along the Marina, there were lots of open air, water side cafes…and the walkway was empty. And this was really eerie. This is clearly THE PLACE to be during tourist season; all the big name western hotels are here. But there was NOBODY on the boardwalk. And we were sweating like pigs when we finally got to whatever mall is attached to the Marina 30 minutes later.
Also uptown is the 7-Star hotel Burj Al Ahrab—with the iconic sailboat architecture—it’s not quite as far as The Palm. Plebes like me can’t actually go into the Al Ahrab, even to look. The cheapest thing you can do to get you in there is US$300 high tea. Dinner will be $500/person. The cheapest room is US$3,000. They used to allow you in to gawk at the lobby for $160 (400 dirham) but the guests complained about all the hayseeds with their big cameras. Now you can’t even do that. You get turned away at the guarded gate to get in.
I haven’t done much research into where all the fresh water comes from to feed Dubai, but our guide said half of it comes locally drilled artesian wells. I find that incredible, but there ya go.
I wrote earlier how cosmopolitan Dubai is…people from all over the world. You see every race and colour of people. Everybody dresses…western…except for the traditional dress you see, which truly was 5% or less of the people I saw.
And in one sense, that is what you would expect—because Dubai is the Vegas of the Muslim world. But is it really Sin City?
When I was in Istanbul in 2012, I toured The Big Three—a row of mosques and museums, and tourists—both male and female—were given proper clothes to put on, overtop of their own clothes, so as to be covered up in the shoulders and down the legs.
So when I’m doing some research on travel forums for what kind of clothes we should wear…I had no idea. Istanbul was the only thing I knew. And the forums said women had to cover up, and men should wear pants. Well, that clearly only applied to mosques, not the street. But I took too many pants and not enough shorts.
I got that I misjudged the clothing part first day.
I am so glad I did this trip (and that I did it with Dave, with whom I have great chats on religion, history and politics). Dubai is the most different city I have ever seen. It’s certainly the most cosmopolitan. It has just exploded onto the international scene in such a short time. New York did the same after the Erie Canal was completed. London was already there but the 50 years after The Great Fire made it.