This "5" broke a record as the world's most expensive when it was sold to an Abu Dhabi businessman Talal Al Khoury for Dh53 million ($14.5 million) at a charity auction, snapping up "7" at the same time for his second Rolls-Royce. The man's cousin then paid twice as much a few years later for the number plate "1" – Dh52.2million.
Dubai – Long Read

Oil profits have turned the desert into a city

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Dubai – Long Read Oil profits have turned the desert into a city

Hello Dubai, where the motto seems to be “Why not?” when it comes to excess. Oil profits have turned the desert into a city with the world’s tallest building, its biggest airport and largest shopping mall but both the environment and local culture may been lost in this rush to make a mark on the world. Will Emiratis one day find they have exchanged too much, too soon, for too little?

Kieran Meeke
Kieran Meeke Travel Writer

Penguins in the desert? When it comes to excess, Dubai’s motto seems to be “Why not?” and the flightless birds more usually associated with Antarctic are the latest addition to its now-famous indoor snow slope. While many cities with unsuitable climates have penguins in their zoos, few other than Dubai would make them an attraction in a shopping mall. Once a sleepy pearl diving and fishing village on Dubai Creek, the winding sea inlet that is still the heart of the city, the discovery of oil in the late 1960s brought massive change to Dubai.

The ruler at the time, His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum was concerned that the oil would run out quickly, famously saying: “My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel.” He embarked on an ambitious program to invest oil profits into turning his homeland into a regional trading center.

Joining with the six neighboring emirates to form the United Arab Emirates (UAE), he dredged the creek and built ports, a duty free zone and Dubai World Trade Centre, at the time the tallest building in the Middle East, to lay the foundation of things to come. More than 60 per cent of all imports into the Middle East now pass through Dubai. His son Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum became ruler of Dubai, and has a personal wealth estimated at $13 billion, so it may be quite a few generations yet before there is any danger of the cash running out.

The tower is the centerpiece of Downtown Dubai

Meanwhile, the city the family built has gone from excess to excess and my time in Dubai is dominated by claims to the world’s biggest or best. Its most powerful symbol is the 240-story Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, that featured in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol with Tom Cruise doing his own stunts high on the exterior. The needle-like structure makes it seem even higher than its 830 meters and the cost was equally sky-high: $1.5 billion. The tower is the centerpiece of Downtown Dubai, a $20 billion development that also holds Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping mall by total area, and the $218 million Dubai Fountain which shoots water 50 stories high in the center of a massive manmade lake.

Burj Khalifa is named after the ruler of neighboring Abu Dhabi, who had to step in to help Dubai in the 2008 financial crisis and the many empty apartments and offices in the tower tell their own tale of over-ambition. “Burj Khalifa is not only the world’s tallest building but also its emptiest,” an expatriate friend tells me.

Dominating Dubai’s waterfront is another landmark: Burj Al Arab. This sail-like building soars to 321 meters and houses a luxury hotel that one British journalist, overwhelmed by its décor and level of pampering, called “the world’s only seven-star hotel.” It was built on an artificial island that was the first of several offshore constructions each larger than the last. The first was the Jumeirah Palm, (“the Eighth Wonder of the World!”) which doubled the length of the Dubai’s coastline and is the first of three planned palm-shaped islands, while The World is a series of a 300 man-made islands in the shape of a world map.

The Palm Jumeirah is the world’s largest artificial island and was built from all natural materials – rock and sand – at Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s request. Oddly, the sand had to be dredged from the ocean floor as the desert sand is too fine to maintain stability against waves. The size of the project, and the degree of innovation involved, has raised environmental concerns about the effect on sealife and the erosion patterns on the coastline elsewhere.

The hotel makes fine boasts about its conservancy program

The Atlantis mega resort on the Palm Jumeirah, a mirror of the one in the Bahamas, offers more Dubai excess. With more than 1,500 rooms, the hotel’s opening night fireworks used seven times the amount of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony in 2008. This five-star resort has its own Dolphin Bay for guests to swim with dolphins (a “once-in-a-lifetime experience”) and Aquaventure (“the most exciting water park in the Middle East”), with a 61-meter-long waterslide that takes those brave enough through the shark aquarium in a transparent tunnel. The hotel makes fine boasts about its conservancy program and the care it lavishes on the 65,000 marine animals in its “Lost Chambers” aquarium but the 100,000 light bulbs it uses, most of them seeming to be left on all day, say more.

The Palm, however, is the least of Dubai’s environmental worries. “The biggest challenge is water,” one engineer tells me. “The country has no usable natural water – none – and very little rainfall. Desalination plants produce four billion bottles of water a day but there is only about a four-day back-up supply of fresh water.”

Meantime, the plants produce enough carbon dioxide to give Dubai and its neighboring Emirates the world’s worst carbon footprint per capita, beating the USA into second place. They also discharge enormous amounts of heated brine, harmful to sensitive marine ecosystems, back into the sea. The UAE is one of the world’s highest consumer of water per capita and currently spends $1 billion per year on desalination plants, a cost that is estimated to rise to $3 billion by 2016. In fairness, part of the increased cost is the price of meeting higher environmental standards.

As I stand in the Mall of the Emirates, it is hard to be convinced that concern for the environment has ever entered into the thinking of this desert city, one that makes Vegas look shy about excess. Ski Dubai – now home the penguins – is the world’s third largest indoor ski slope (but the world’s only indoor black run) and I can see the incongruous sight of snowboarders hitting a 90-meter-long quarter pipe, and skiers in thin Arab robes covered by knee-length padded coats. Lifts carry skiers and snowboarders up, while sleds and toboggans carry screaming kids back down. With outside temperatures of 25ºC in winter and up to 50ºC in summer, the temperature inside is maintained at -1ºC during the day, dropping to -5ºC at night when the snow is made.

It boasts the only Bloomingdales outside the US

Not that skiing is the major sport in Dubai. That accolade appears to be reserved for shopping, with a mall on every corner, all air-conditioned to bone-chilling levels and most open from 10 am right through to as late as 1 am. The Dubai Mall, with its indoor skating rink, giant aquarium and Sega Republic indoor theme park, claims a quarter million visitors each week and holds every brand name I can think of. It boasts the only Bloomingdales outside the US and Candyicious, the “world’s biggest candy store”. (I feel like a kid in a candy store. Oh, wait, I am in a candy store!).

The Mall of the Emirates may have been relegated to second place but remains a firm favorite with visitors, while Dubai Festival City, with its giant Ikea, and the Dubai Outlet Mall, with lots of designer bargains, also have their fans. The malls are a great place to enjoy the usual range of fast food eateries but the serious gourmet action is reserved for the hotels, the only places allowed to serve alcohol with meals. Each of these battles to be more upmarket than the next, from Gordon Ramsey’s Creek-side restaurant, Verre, to Al Mahara (“Highest”) atop the Burj Al Arab, which modestly boasts the “best seafood in the world”.

After a meal, it is time to hit the night clubs which compare with those in any western capital, as do the high prices of drinks and cocktails. Russian girls flirt with Syrians, Iranian women dance with their American boyfriends and the British act as if they never left the bars of home. Is this a melting pot or a tossed salad, a vision of the future when nationalities merge freely, or a nightmare of loss of culture? “Stop thinking and start dancing,” is my friend’s answer.

With three-quarters of the population young males, many on large salaries, it is no surprise to find that prostitution thrives here. Danielle lives in a large apartment on Sheik Zayed Road, in one of the newest and most luxurious business hotels in opulent Dubai. “My girls aren’t the only ones working out of this hotel”, she says, claiming that the escort business is turning over greater profits in this Islamic city than anywhere else in the world. Her girls visit Dubai for two to three weeks at a time and work mainly out of hotel bars. Every international hotel appears to have a bar where “working girls” can easily be found, helped by regular ladies night drink discounts.

Girls like mine can work here quietly

Danielle’s line of business is strictly illegal here, as it is in most countries. Every now and then the national airline goes so far as to lay on one-way flights that deport the girls back to their home countries. “Those girls mainly come from the lower levels of the industry, street-level girls and Eastern European prostitutes,” says Danielle. “They get $200 for an entire night’s work and will do anything a client wants. But this country thrives on tourism and trade and can’t do without this industry. Girls like mine can work here quietly, and that draws in clients with deep pockets.”

There is also, uniquely for the Middle East, an underground gay scene in Dubai, despite a penal code that imposes a ten-year sentence for homosexual acts. “I heard of two gay couples trying to check in at a hotel and being surprised when their request for a double bed caused confusion,” says my friend. “Too many visitors seem to forget that, behind the modern shopfront, this is still a traditional society.”

Perhaps the confusion comes from seeing open prostitution in a country that jails a couple for kissing in public, or that professes religious values yet allows the ruthless exploitation of immigrant workers from the Indian sub-continent. “Come on!” says my friend. “Drugs are illegal in the USA but that doesn’t mean no-one takes them. And the urban poor in central LA or the suburbs of Paris hardly feel they are fairly treated by their societies.”

It is worth recognizing the real efforts the country is making to welcome other cultures. Anyone who employs a non-Muslim domestic helper, for example, must allow them time at least once a week to attend worship and, unlike many other countries in the region, there are Hindu temples, a Sikh Gurudwara and at least 30 churches of various Christian denominations. Turning on local TV, I can watch Hadith, Sayings of the Prophet, CSI: Miami or The Bold and the Beautiful.

Precious little of its original culture left to preserve

Does Dubai’s policy of encouraging tourism mean it has to learn to accept tourist behavior, such as drunken sex on the beach or gay couples? While you can argue that it will be a sad day when the world is so homogeneous that every country is like the next, Dubai does on first sight appear to have precious little of its original culture left to preserve from such behavior. While unique for many things, the one that truly makes it stand apart from other major world cities is the fact that locals make up such a small part of the population.

Only 20 per cent of those who live in Dubai were born here. Of the rest, about half are workers from India and Pakistan imported to build the city and do everything involved in keeping this desert oasis alive, joined by another large percentage made up of Filipinos working as maids, waiters and other service sector jobs. The final ten per cent are westerners, most living the tax-free high life that holiday-makers enjoy in the city’s luxury hotels and that gives the city its “Do Buy” nickname.

Searching for the “real” Dubai, I wander alongside Dubai Creek, where brightly-painted wooden boats that trade with Iran and other countries on the Persian Gulf are unloaded by hand. Here, life seems unchanged for decades, with only the cargoes of washing machines, truck tires and widescreen TVs hinting at the modern world. “Abra” ferry boats take passengers back and forth across the creek, while in the souqs nearby haggling for gold is much more fun than shopping in the anonymous malls.

You can glimpse how life once was here and wonder at how the modern city has submerged it. A city has bloomed in the desert to rival the world’s greatest urban centers in a process that has taken decades rather than centuries. Has this speed allowed it time to put down roots that will endure, or is the whole process one giant folly, a monument to greed and environmental destruction of old Testament proportions?

Its layout encourages walking and street life

Neighboring Abu Dhabi has provided an alternative model, aiming to build “the world’s first zero-carbon city” in Masdar, a development that combines classic Arab design with 21st century technology. Its layout encourages walking and street life, something you don’t see much of in Dubai outside the air-conditioned malls. Even so, local writer Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi says: “There may come a time soon when Emiratis realize that they have exchanged too much, too soon, for too little. By then the old generation would have passed on, and it will be a case of salvaging what is left of Emirati culture in a way like walking into a burned house to salvage what the fire has spared.”

It is not until I go off into the desert that I really meet any actual local people. My driver reveals a love of his Nissan Patrol that matches the legendary Arab regard for his camel and a short drive out of the city brings me to rolling sand dunes stretching to the horizon. Longer routes explore remote wadis (dry riverbeds) and desert oases that seem unchanged for centuries.

Dune bashing, driving off a high sand dune at high speed, is a thrill to match anything in a theme park ride, while a night under the desert stars is equally memorable. With no light pollution, and no cloud cover, the stars shine brilliantly. Stare long enough and you can feel yourself falling into them. Over a flickering fire and strong coffee – “Bedouin whisky” – the romance of the desert comes alive in stories of past adventures and a battle of wits over riddles (one I lose as I am unarmed), before a night in a traditional tent.

In the light of day, parts of the desert are less romantic, covered in burst tires, discarded water bottles and other rubbish, the loss of contact with the environment in some ways a metaphor for Dubai itself. Then a gust of wind sends sand to soften the outlines of the man-made objects as it starts to bury them and make all clean again. In the distance, a camel train pads towards the horizon, its bearded herders walking alongside in long robes, silent and timeless.

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