The Burj Al Arab and Jumeirah Beach Hotel
I’ve been away for the better part of the last two weeks on a trip to the other side of the world. My business partner lives in Dubai, which is part of the United Arab Emirates. It’s on the coast of the Persian Gulf, tucked in between the capital, Abu Dhabi, and some lesser-known emirates. The UAE itself is bordered by Saudi Arabia and Oman. Iran (f/k/a Persia) is just across the gulf.
Here’s a link to a good map. Go ahead and take a look; I’ll wait.
Yes, it’s a very small country. You can drive from Dubai to Abu Dhabi in an hour (traffic permitting). Dubai itself is long and skinny; most of it hugs the coastline. That makes sense because you don’t have to drive far in the other direction until you’re in the desert. Way out in the desert.
I went to Dubai to get some face time with my partner and friend; it had been at least 2 ½ years since we’d seen each other. We’d done all of the foundation work for the business mostly over Skype. We’d accomplished a lot, but we’d reached a point where we really needed to spend some time in the same room. So, armed with a pile of airline miles, I made my way to the Middle East.
To say I didn’t know what to expect is an understatement. My friend has lived there for the past ten years; she’s British, and has always said that, for the most part, she likes it. I was curious and a little nervous about going to an Arab country for the first time. I’m aware that Americans aren’t wildly popular in a lot of places in the world, and I always feel as if I have to be on my best behavior, just in case I have the opportunity to change somebody’s mind about us. And I was really not looking forward to the heat.
My first impression of Dubai was that the parts I saw, which initially were the downtown area and the marina, don’t look entirely real. It looked to me like some futuristic version of what somebody thought a city should look like. As we were driving into downtown one afternoon it struck me that if you bunched up the buildings a little more and painted them green, it would look a lot like the Emerald City from “The Wizard of Oz”. See for yourself.
Ok, well, maybe that’s just my fancy getting the better of me, but I did feel like Dorothy come to Oz. Everything was new, and fantastical. But also unsettling in a way I wasn’t prepared for and couldn’t identify at first.
It took me days to figure out what was really bothering me about the city, but I finally realized it’s because everything is new. Nothing I was seeing was more than 15 years old. Not one skyscraper in the marina area had been there only twelve years before. This is the skyline I mean:
Let that sink in a moment. Not one of those buildings was there in the year 2000. I don’t know why, but that thought gives me shivers.
The other thing that made me feel off balance is the sheer wealth of the place. There is crazy money there, so much money you can almost see it floating on the gulf breeze, or hanging in the shimmering heat. Or being sucked into the air conditioning vents (which is where a lot of it must go – keeping the denizens of Dubai cool is a colossal undertaking). I don’t live in that world of luxury high rises and expensive cars and marathon shopping. It was hard for me to not feel self-conscious about my modest means when surrounded by so much opulence.
My friend, thankfully, lives in the real world, so staying in her home was a welcome refuge from the overwhelming excess I saw every time we went out. Her house is lovely; it’s in one of the “older” neighborhoods, which means she’s only minutes away from anywhere. Her villa is surrounded by a high white wall (as is everyone’s) which encloses the house, the drive, and the yard. In front of the house is a beautiful tree that is full of birds; you can hear them singing even through the sliding glass door. One evening as I stood looking out at the tree, the sound of the birds chattering underscored the call to prayer from a nearby mosque, and the mingling of those songs gave me an unexpected moment of joy. After that I started to feel friendlier towards the place.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like Dubai, it’s just that I couldn’t relate to it. Until I got into the old part of the city.
Dubai was originally the home of fishermen and pearl divers. The oldest sections surround what the locals call the “Creek”, which makes that body of water sound much more modest than it really is. Here’s a picture so you know what I mean:
Finally, I found something that looks like what I you’d think a Middle Eastern city should look like. I was so relieved! Here are some images of the city I could finally relate to:
Dubai has a lot of history if you go looking. The culture is deep and strong and beautiful. It is truly a melting pot; different people began coming to Dubai long before they found oil under the sand. There is a lot to recommend it, truly. And don’t let me fool you, I did get a kick out of some of the crazy new stuff, like the indoor ski slope (“Ski Dubai”), and I was completely obsessed by the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. I couldn’t quit gawking at it. It’s amazing, an incredible achievement in design and engineering, and worth the trip just to see it towering above the downtown skyline.
But being totally honest, I can’t say I loved Dubai. I liked it, and I’d like to go back, but I didn’t fall in love the way I love other places. London is my home away from home. New Orleans is my favorite city in the U.S. I left a piece of my heart in Venice. I’ve been so blessed to have been many places and to have had so many experiences, and I am constantly grateful for them. I find I’m intrigued by Dubai, but I’ll never be more than a tourist there. Or that’s how it feels to me.
All photos except “The Wizard of Oz” and Dubai downtown skyline (C) 2014 Amanda Taylor Brooks