Tuesday, 4 September 2012

I hate Dubai but it's not the place's fault (actually it might be)

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 Luxury requires an aristocratic setting to make it attractive. Santayana


Kingsley Amis grumbled in the late 1970s that everything wrong with the world could be summed up in the word 'workshop.' I am at peace with 'workshop' but I begin to feel that everything I hate about the modern world can be summed up by the phrase 'five star'. 

I suppose I hate disease, hunger, poverty and war too but Dubai is high up on the list.

I love every country I ever visited with all my heart and I even love the countries I never visited with all my heart, but there are two exceptions: Lichtenstein and the United States of America (but I only spent six hours in Buffalo, New York). I even loved Canada for the sake  of French Canada. The U.A.E., I correctly guessed, would be the third exception.


I arrived in Dubai where the heat in the early hours of the morning was astonishing, took a taxi anxiously to my friend's flat and got deposited outside an unfinished un-air conditioned building, dark and stiflingly hot. Kind people on the street immediately explained where to go and I arrived at his flat where he was fast asleep having forgotten I was coming. Dubai I started to see was easy. People are friendly and all speak English. Cabs are cheap. Steve however, was even less well organised than I am which was important to bear in mind.

My friend lives in rather magnificent style and took very good care of me. It is not his fault that Dubai and I do not really get on. Nor is it the place's fault. We are just incompatible.


My very biased opinion (I didn't give the place a chance). Dubai, dedicated to luxury, shopping and money laundering, seems to be a completely immoral place. Immorality requires style to make it attractive and Dubai does not have any. Beirut has, in spades, and to some extent Istanbul has, though disastrously rebuilt in the 60s and 70s. There are moments when even traffic-choked Cairo has it (the pyramids and the Sphinx are cool). Dubai, by contrast, is just hubris, money, five star hotels and malls. 
Such opulence so close to the Empty Quarter. The history of the Gulf states reminds me of the Beverly Hillbillies, I suppose. 

Somewhere I read that Dubai because it has little oil has built an economy 'built on property, financial services and tourism, like normal countries.' And this is normal? Where is the value in any of them? Dubai needs a Juvenal, but so do London and New York.

Although Dubai is a place where people can normally drink alcohol without any problem, food and drink of any sort is not available before sunset during Ramadan, except furtively, as a take away.  Steve does not keep coffee in the house so I began every day walking through the blazing heat alongside where the beach had been (they are building a five star hotel there now) to Starbucks or Costa to buy breakfast, listening to stories of homesickness from the Filipino or Burmese who made my coffee and taking breakfast home in a brown paper bag. How can one write about travel in the age of Starbucks and Costa? 



17% of the population of Dubai are 'Emiratis' - you usually only meet them, soft-faced, good-looking, languorous and dressed in Bedouin costumes, when you present your passport at immigration. The rest divide into two categories: white people, many of whom seem to come from Essex and Hertfordshire, with good jobs; and brown and yellow people with bad ones, for which they are very grateful. The brown and yellow people often spend years here without seeing their families in the Philippines or Pakistan but speak to them each evening on SKYPE. For the whites, there is always another restaurant opening and alcohol flows like water. Ramadan is the party season.

Dr. Johnson said

'It is a sad  reflection on the paucity of human pleasures that hunting should be accounted one of them,' 

 and this is how I feel about shopping, but this is heresy in Dubai.

Relentless, serried rows of de luxe shops. This is not my world. And how small this world is, with the same brands everywhere. Even Smythson's are here, which was slightly shocking. I should have travelled in the 1980s, as I knew – a sin against the light. Oh dear reader, please learn from me that you almost always have enough money to travel and however much less interesting the world is than it was thirty years ago, in another thirty years it will be much less appealing still.


For four months of winter Dubai's climate is perfect. For four months it is too hot and in the summer months it is horribly oppressive. 

The heat is often humid but sometimes dry. In August the beach is deserted even at night though I am attracted to going in. Steve says it is like a hot bath that doesn't cool down. I see from my balcony that  people play tennis in the open air in the evening but Steve tells me not to walk in the heat and I defer to him – for fear of what? A heart attack? I am later told it was only 41° Celsius and in Bucharest it was 39°. Why does it seem more oppressive in Dubai? Concrete and lack of trees? The feeling of sterility?


Lady Diana Cooper said of the future King Edward VIII:

'No-one ever was or ever will be as common as the Prince of Wales'. 

She could, one feels, have been describing Dubai. I imagine it resembles a Muslim version of Las Vegas and is probably infinitely more charming than Las Vegas. Although I think I prefer the honest vulgarity of Blackpool.

Lynne Barber called a spade a spade:

"Imagine an expanse of dusty desert beside a greasy sea, sweltering under a pitiless sun. Now cover it with six-lane highways, flyovers, spaghetti junctions and all the nastiest buildings you have ever seen. Think Birmingham without its beauty, Las Vegas without its culture. Dubai is unquestionably the ugliest city in the world - there should be a socking great sign at the airport saying 'Abandon all taste, ye who enter here.'"

it sounds like she liked Dubai less than I did. It is much better than Birmingham.


Dubai marina where I stayed, seen from the air.


We had a truly wonderful Pakistani dinner at the famous Ravi's, a very cheap dive with legendary food and that overhead neon lit basic feel - something real, amidst the expensively cheap luxury of Dubai. This was fun - and $12 for the two of us. But no alcohol, tediously. Then at my suggestion a joyless bar full of working girls and Englishmen of – I hate to say this – my age – but much less style. We have a beer and leave.  How boring and how sad dissipation is. 


I have seen the future and it works as Sydney and Beatrice Webb said of Stalinism. It's Dubai, consumerist, materialist, post-national and, among the whites, without class distinction or religion.

I conquered my lack of interest in Dubai - I am here just as a stage on my visit to Ethiopia and Zanzibar - and took a cab and went to the famous mall with a wing devoted to Gucci and Louis Vuitton, recommended to me by the most materialistic woman I have ever known in my life (she comes from a very distant, very cold planet and wants to eat the whole world). I went inside to change money to pay the cab and realised I did not want to stay. So I got him to take me to the old port where the spice market is and some small shabby shops and I saw the outside of the museum which is the only old building in the city but felt no desire to enter. An unremarkable mosque. The bridge.

I wondered for a moment whether Dubai was the Anti-Christ but decided this was unfair. Dubai makes people happy, after all, provides employment for sex starved Asians and does no harm. Here property development and tourism, the two scourges of our age, have run rampant but spoilt nothing, because there was nothing here to spoil.

I found Dubai only became interesting when I asked the taxi drivers their stories. All the taxi drivers I spoke to were content but alone and missing their wives or sweethearts and without female companionship. One told me he liked English customers best because they treated him with respect, as did Americans, and disliked most Russians. Another, from Pakistan, complained that there were too many churches in Dubai – twenty, he said, including Buddhist ones. 

I feel I am getting slightly bored by Islam, though Muslims, a few of them anyway, are fighting like me against globalisation and Americana (they are not doing a good job in Dubai). But the profound acedia that Dubai induces is lifting and I am happy at the thought that tomorrow I shall have escaped Ramadan and the heat and the malls and be in Ethiopia.

37 comments:

  1. You ht it right on the mark with Dubai. What a dump. One of the most lack-luster meals I ever had was at the Burj-ala-arab hotel. Service gave me the wrong utensiles. The view was fine from the top floor resturant, but I felt like I was in a socialist building project, and that the walls might come down around me. I can recall that they had trouble with the water pressure with the fountains in the lobby.

    Best wishes,

    Jim

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  2. "Dubai... has built an economy 'built on property, financial services and tourism, like normal countries.' This is normal? And where is the value in any of them?"
    Am 1000% with you in this assessment not only of Dubai (which I have never visited and have absolutely no intention to in the following decades.. perhaps after it becomes a ruined and deserted ghost city), but of quite a few other highly civilized and temporarily prosperous places.
    Too many people are just losing that good ol' common sense.

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  3. Paul, I so agree with you !
    But it ;s not you, its Dubai, I felt the same everyday day of my 5 days visit (please dont ask)

    I searched for beauty and humanity every minute of my staying.. and put all I could find in this blog post.
    http://dianablinda.com/2012/04/29/my-dubai/

    Maybe it helps you, in case you need to spend another day upon your return from Ethiopia and Zanzibar.
    best wishes

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  4. Diana, thanks. Your blog is cool and I love the format and the way the pictures change but I couldn't see how to follow you. Why do you blog in English not Romanian?

    I am back. Diana please read my account of Ethiopia which was quite the opposite of Dubai in most ways and therefore fascinating. Please follow my blog.


    http://pvewood.blogspot.ro/2012/08/ethiopia-and-zanzibar-diary.html

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  5. Paul, you visited in Ramadan and at the height of summer. You were also located in the indeed ugly concrete residential village around the man-made marina - I was in the hotel room at the top right of your second photo. There exists a part of Dubai that is not all about luxury and 'in your face' wealth but perhaps you did not have the time or perhaps the right guide.

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    1. Yeah so what else is there to see?

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    2. I also went to less de luxe places as mentioned in my post. Where I stayed was ritzy and by the sea and marina and near very smart shops. If you are going to be in Dubai it was a pretty good place to be but I only felt I was really in Dubai when I stayed a night in a 4 star hotel on my way back from Ethiopia - very luxurious, incredibly obsequious staff and a very reasonable price.

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  6. I read this and fell on the ground in laughter – very funny observations that are mostly true. Such a gifted writer! Jim

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  7. This is not so different from what I said. It's possible then that you are the contrarian between us. Joel

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  8. I am sorry. Would you like to relieve your feelings by saying why?

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  9. Dubai is the most hypocritical place in the world. I lived there for 5 years. The police are incredibly corrupt. Every month at least 20 police officers are sent to prison for committing rape crimes, dealing drugs etc. I am not anti Islam but never ever tell me that Muslims don't do bad things. Locals in Dubai drink lots (even during Ramadan) and pay money for sex. In fact Dubai has lots of red light areas. Also, the fact that homosexuality is illegal is a joke considering most of the locals are sleeping with men behind their wife's backs. The innocent pretence doesn't work. The Western world knows what is going on. I just wonder why Westerners still want to go to such a corrupt, backward thinking country. The land of sand is not all it's made out to be. Not worth it. Westerners, live your life. Money is not all that. Don't even consider going to Dubai. Not worth it. Make one mistake and your done for!

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  10. I'm afraid Dubai cannot truly be said to do no harm. As I understand it, a great many of the yellow and brown people who work there are, in effect, slaves. People brought to work in horrifying conditions with no rights, no legal protections, who have their passports taken away upon arrival, who are not paid and have little hope of escape. Dubai is a place that unquestionably should not exist, has no excuse for itself whatever.

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  11. All the many people I spoke to in menial jobs expressed their gratitude for being there where they made enough money to send money home. Paul

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  12. How many did you talk to who worked in construction?

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  13. None but I doubt conditions are worse than in Burma Pakistan or the Philippines where the people come from though I am sure many people are ill treated in Dubai. But perhaps you know better? It seems unrealistic to judge Arab countries by the standards we apply to Western countries? Still I did not like Dubai at all.

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  14. Same feeling, after visiting twice. Even the luxury accommodation did not make me feel that I am in holiday. Emptiness is the feeling I had all along....Nicoleta

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  15. Nicely done. I think you may enjoy my post on Dubai

    http://acollectionofmusings.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/dubai-the-city-of-cities/

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  16. Paul, that was another incisive and riveting article. You laid bare the place. I somewhat like it but I can see merit in your criticism of it. Some places grow on me. Other places I soon get tired of. George

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  17. A sober point of view. Never been to Dubai myself, but photos of it disgust me - artificial, soulless place.

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  18. -) love this :" Immorality requires style to make it attractive and Dubai does not have any."

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  19. Though your experience is interesting to read, I stuck with the comment of yours about istanbul. I really wonder,when you have visited the city, which parts and did you really embrace its culture and ''real'' people - istanbulians. I myself a one, and I argue you cant compare istanbul to beirut or cairo etc. The city is just UNIQUE on its own way and because the turkish people are indeed european folks that shaped with islamic cultures/traditions, though it does not mean that you can count istanbul with those so-called muslim countries and their people.

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    1. I just came back from Istanbul and love the Fatih area which for me is the true Istanbul - working class and full of greengrocers, barbers and men drinking tea on little stools. However every city is unique - Beirut and Cairo are too. Why are the Turks European? 97% of Turkey is in Asia and why should people decide it is somehow a European country? And as for Muslim countries Turkey has a far higher proportion of Muslims than have Egypt or the Lebanon where many Christians live.

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  20. Why did you dislike Liechtenstein so much?

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    1. Hard to say. Something to do with money laundering, fat young men in suits with large briefcases, a toy train which took Japanese tourists round the centre of tiny Vaduz, the 1980s five star hotels.

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    2. And what do you mean your friend came from a 'cold and distant planet'?

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    3. My name is Sandy....male, 24, Romanian, now living in the UK.

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    4. She was a Romanian female psychopath, as it happens/

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    5. Thought so.

      So when you met these psychopath acquaintances of your's, did you just tell them at one point 'I know you're a psychopath' ?

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    6. I told this to two women. They both knew they were.

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    7. That exchange was bit awkward

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  21. I hate shopping and have no inclination whatsoever to visit the concrete monstrosity Dubai. Your very interesting blog adds to my resolve to never ever visit the place.

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