Beyond Dubai’s Glitz and Glamour

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“It’s a desert with two big malls in it. You won’t like it.”

Before visiting, my impression of Dubai was based only on these comments from a couple friends who had already been there.

Once I arrived, I realized that the city does a damn good job to erase the idea that you’re really just in the middle of the desert. Still, that fact had been burned into my brain as my plane prepared to land in the Dubai airport–after crossing the red, rocky terrain in Iran and then floating over the flat silver-blue waters of the Persian Gulf, I could see exactly where the city began and ended, and where the beautiful desert returned to being its vast, empty self.

To reach my friend’s apartment near the Dubai Marina, we zoomed away from the enormous airport (one terminal is dedicated to Emirates Airlines flights only) in a desert and merged onto the main highway, Sheikh Zayed. It was the busiest highway in the city my friend said, throwing in the fun fact that it was also known as the “deadliest highway” in town. I didn’t bother to ask for more details. As I had expected, sleek, skinny buildings rose up all around us, luxury hotels, offices and residential towers. I couldn’t see the tops of most of them from inside the car. Everything was tidy and clean, glass and concrete and a scattering of palm trees. We passed a stretch of the highway where all the buildings were simple, one-story shops and restaurants (lots of American chains and Indian food), like a brand new strip mall. This was not what I expected from such a glamourous city.

Gazing out the floor to ceiling window of my friend’s 27th floor apartment in Dubai, I could see, at the foot of this apartment building, the jade green water of a sizeable lake (there wasn’t a single person walking about between the buildings) and a piece of green from a golf course across the highway, slightly visible through a cluster of buildings. A golf course, I realized, that had to be watered round the year to keep its lush green appearance. All around, more tall buildings with tinted windows, and far off in the distance, the ripples of desert sands. For how long it will remain empty, that’s not certain. Already, the city had been expanding at a head-spinning pace. Plans were already in the works to connect Dubai and Abu Dhabi (an 1.5 hour drive, approximately) by train, but I also wondered what was stopping anyone from constructing more buildings all along this route.

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Dubai is well known as a city of the world’s biggest and tallest and best, a city built to impress. At the moment, Dubai still claims the most famous of the city’s superlative features: the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. Rising to 828 meters, over 160 stories high, visitors can only get to the observation deck at floor 148 but not to the very top. The building is apparently a mix of offices and residential—can you imagine living in the tallest building in the world? Another world record–the largest indoor ski lift on the planet (Dubai has an even bigger one currently in the works)–can be found smack dab in the middle of the desert at the Mall of the Emirates, which used to be the biggest mall in the city until the Dubai Mall came into existence—the world’s largest mall in terms of total area. (And yes, you can buy gold bars from an ATM in some of the malls here; it’s actually affordable, since the cost is just the current market price of gold.) The Dubai Mall continues to grow in size, with one extension constructed a few years back, and a second extension in progress, although it looks it’s running right into the base of the neighboring Burj Khalifa.

Dubai also invented the 7 star hotel, skipping right over the 6 star hotel, which now sounds rather meek and pathetic; the 5 star hotel is old news. If you happen to have $2,000 to drop for a night at the Burj al-Arab, a sail-shaped ultra-luxury hotel that stands right beside the sea, you’ll get picked up at the airport by one of the hotel’s Rolls Royce cars. Obviously, because anything less would be embarrassing.
You have to remember that this place is ruled by a king, so instead of building pyramids, you construct the world’s most impressive buildings. The creation of entertaining and appealing indoor environments is important in a city where temperatures can hit 45 C or 113 F (or higher) in the summer–so except for a couple months of the year, people are spending most of their lives indoors.

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In a way, it seems like the desert is the ideal place to build out your kingdom. Start with a blank slate—a vast, empty, fine sand desert in between the congested and chaotic continents of Europe and Asia–and you can create anything your heart, and your royal budget, desires. And so they have. (Although I’ve been told that it’s Abu Dhabi that has all the oil money, not Dubai.)

I spent only 3 nights in Dubai, and though I wouldn’t live there, I found myself kind of enchanted, or rather fascinated, with its artificial world. It wasn’t only diamonds and gold and high end shopping. There were other things attracting my attention, like the food, which is one of the main reasons I travel…..

Dubai’s large expat population actually outnumbers the local population at this point—one reason why it’s tough to find a restaurant serving up “traditional Emirati” cuisine. But the great number of Indian and Pakistani restaurants and grocery stores found all across the city reflect the influence and demand of this major demographic.

In fact, the existence of Mumbai street food in Dubai, like the Mumbai Masti Juice Center, has questioned my need to ever go back to India. I love visiting India, it’s a country that smothers you with good energy, and well, just smothers you. But why endure the heat and smog, the chaotic crowds and possibility of foodborne illness, when I can enjoy that same blissful tingle of flavor and spice in calm and clean Dubai (it’s even forbidden to chew gum on the Dubai metro) that’s just a short flight from Europe?

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I discovered this Juice Center near the Heritage Village (an outdoor museum complex with replicas of traditional Arabic style huts and bazaars from back in the day), in what is also known as the “Old City”. But remember that in Dubai, “old” means it hails from the 1970s (does that mean that I’m old?). The variety of fresh fruits on offer at this Indian juice bar/bistro are impressive–everything in Dubai, arid desert that it is, has to be imported after all, except, as my friend pointed out with a laugh, dates and camel milk. (It’s true, camel milk chocolate bars are popular in the souvenir shops here.) And the drink sizes here are very generous—my mango smoothie (13 dirhams) came in a half liter beer glass! But it’s not just about healthy juices to cool you down on another hot desert day. To my glee, this little corner eatery in the Textile Market district also boasts a large menu full of variations on the much beloved veg sandwich and vada pav, like the Szechuan paneer mushroom veg sandwich, which I ordered (and devoured) without hesitation. Beautiful Bombay street food with a twist.

That’s another attractive quality about Dubai: the diversity of nationalities, the cosmopolitan feel of the city. What this means is that no one gapes openly at visitors, because almost everyone here is a visitor. It’s probably just the short-term visitors (like me) who can’t help but stare at the locals strolling around in their long, flowing robes–the men, old and young alike, clad in white, with red checkered head dress, and the women fully covered in black, eyes barely visible. But it seems that those who live here don’t stare openly at someone with a different color of hair or skin or different style of dress–except unless you wear something too revealing in public spaces, which would be disrespectful for such a conservative Muslim country. Tourists always tend to stand out and get stared at in many countries–not in Dubai. Even if you’ve got your fanny pack and baseball hat on in the metro or at the mall, you’re just another foreigner, like everyone else. In my 5 years of traveling the world, Dubai is one of those rare cities (like New York City) where I felt completely comfortable walking around, alone or with my boyfriend—because no one gives you a second glance. You should’ve seen the stares we attracted in places like Bulgaria and Georgia! 🙂

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Foreigners actually make up the majority of Dubai’s population (Indians are reportedly the largest national group), with the locals comprising less than 20 percent of the population. However, foreigners living in Dubai can almost never become citizens in this place they call home—and UAE citizenship comes with some pretty attractive benefits. Foreigners cannot obtain UAE citizenship no matter how long they reside in Dubai. To reside in Dubai, you must obtain a visa through sponsorship by an employer, and once you reach retirement age, you must leave. The only way you could potentially become a UAE citizen is after 10 years of marriage to a UAE citizen. And if that works out, you must give up your original citizenship as dual citizenship is not allowed.

Having no permanent status probably creates a strange feeling of suspension in a city which you have called home for years, but most of my friends in Dubai have lived and worked there for 8 or 10 years and have no plans to leave. One of my friends who went to the US for his college education believes that in the US, for example, he could never replicate the high quality lifestyle which he and his family enjoy now in Dubai with just a one-income household.

I hope they do stay on for awhile so I can go back again for a visit—and another delectable veg sandwich.

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