Seduced by the Dubai Bubble? One Cool Desert City
Some friends were shocked when we announced we were off to Dubai for Easter. They warned of packaged adventure, luxury hotels and mass tourism, like they were enemies of the adventurous traveller. “No one ever leaves the hotel swimming pool!” said one friend. And the alcohol situation came up time and time again. Do I really drink that much? But Dubai is a great choice for an unusual, active family adventure: an extremely cool desert city as mesmerising in its own man-made way as the incredible Arabian desert that lies beyond.
Dubai – a visionary city
Whatever time of day or night you first glimpse it, Dubai grabs you, shakes you awake and reminds you that you’re alive. In our case it’s 3 am. After 15 hours of travelling. There are few cars on the road as our snow white Toyota rental zips down Sheikh Zayed Road, lined with dozens of skyscrapers; more per block than Manhattan. We take in this night vision; noses pressed to glass like children waiting for Santa.
Out of night
Wide eyes rise,
scaling silver beam columns that lean and curve and flow,
unnatural angles, metallic tangles,
vast glass giants that stab the stars,
eternally needling sleeping angels.
Each fresh twinkle in the architect’s eye
a fairylit blade of bling and might.
Night guardians, soldiers of the sand,
a ring road of steel
in a golden land.
The city that shouldn’t exist
Dubai is like nowhere else I’ve been on earth. A city that seems like it shouldn’t exist. An irrepressible example of man taking on nature and winning. Although nature has been known to fight back with powerful weapons – ask anyone who has seen a sandstorm Downtown or been fried while trying to work outdoors in the summer heat. A century ago Dubai was a desert. Half a century ago there were huts. Now it’s a multicultural metropolis; a literal melting pot of nations. In the dead of night it has a darker edge than Gotham city, yet you could probably see it glitter from space.
A utopian castle in the sand?
Everything about this Arabic city defies logic. Dubai is basically a giant sandcastle in the desert, covered in pretty shells. It should topple over, but somehow it doesn’t. It sits in one of the most inhospitable environments in the world and yet people come. They come to live (over 75% of its residents are from other countries) and to work and to play. With so many cultures living side by side, you might expect tensions, but if there are they are well hidden. Crime is low (despite everyone dripping with Gucci), the streets are clean and safe, work is plentiful and where-ever we go, people are calm, friendly and welcoming. It’s like we’ve stumbled into some kind of utopian society.
A bubble of contradictions
Dubai is full of surprises and contradictions. In the summer it can reach temperatures of around 50 degrees, yet you might never experience that as you step from air conditioned hotel to car to mall and back again. It’s like living in a bubble, a giant air conditioned dome in the desert. There are no natural lakes or rivers, yet in peak season it manages to consume more than 300 million gallons of water a day, much of it produced in giant desalination plants. It has a limited and very straight coastline, yet manages to feed a never ending demand for holiday real estate. How? Well a room with a view in Dubai isn’t necessarily a room with a view for long, much to the consternation of hotel managers who have to watch next year’s new development rise before their eyes cutting off views from this year’s guests apartments.
And having pulled off a plan to build on sand, Dubai is now eating into the sea, dredging up sand to create new islands to build on. The exclusive Palm resort, a magnet for luxury travellers and skydivers isn’t bolted into the desert, instead it rises out of the water on man made islands that have collectively added 70 km of coastline to Dubai, helping meet the relentless demand for beachfronted real estate. And engineers are currently working on constructing a new island resort, “The World” (shaped like a giant map of the world of course), to join the two Palms that have already taken root in the Gulf. It remains to be seen whether global warming will allow such building work to continue long term or whether erosion or sea level rises will wash them away. But one thing you can be certain of around here is that where there’s a will, they will find a way.
Out of water
Industrial pipes shunt water from tanks,
uphill through concrete roof and floor,
a ready made bank of fresh chilled air.
Assisted breathing, regulated heating.
Pillars drilled deep into tough bedrock
hold each new building fast and hard
while the ground shifts, the sand tilts, the sea swirls
and the future rises up.
New islands dredged from ocean bed
bring new breeze,
cool burning feet
while the heat brands the skin and melts the heart
in a city so bright it can outshine a star,
a city so fast it outruns the sun.
The big personality in the family
Dubai is the most flamboyant personality in a family of states known as the United Arab Emirates. It has grown up quickly in the last five decades, investing oil money into its infrastructure, building a futuristic transport system, making mini cities out of its suburbs and flying in tourists from all over the world. It wants to be the biggest and the best, a theme reflected in every window, and plastered on every billboard.
Unsurprisingly one of its most popular tourist attractions is ‘the world’s tallest building.’ The Burj Khalifa was constructed two years ago, prompting a new wave of souvenir manufacture and multiple daily gatherings of tourists at the entrance to the Dubai Mall, next to the world’s largest choreographed fountain system! The Burj Khalifa is a long streak of lightning in the sky, towering far above any other building in the city. And it attracts records of its own; while we are there two Frenchman get into the Guinness Book of Records for base jumping off it in wingsuits.
Out of sky
Launch of the brave.
Flying like falcons from the wizened hands of bedouin,
hunting not for prey, but record breaking fame.
In winged suits they shoot past deluxe suites;
sheets of fire trailing amber smoke,
while we drive deep into an underground place
park up in bays packed with silver and white
and emerge blinking into the light.
A diamond ring of consumption
this snow globe, when shaken, fills the air with flakes of gold
A wifi world of fun and temptation
A crystal ball where everything’s for sale.
In just moments, I’m sold.
The power of the Dubai malls
Like everyone else, we spend a lot of our time in the Dubai malls. But they are not really malls, they are marvels. Kilometres of spotless shop floors and endless opportunities to spend money, but also exciting centres of entertainment. Like everything in Dubai, they change the way we think about things. A mall is not just a shopping centre here, in the same way that Dubai is not just a desert. It may be hot and our ice cream might melt outside but in here we can ski and ice skate and swim with sharks and make friends with penguins. It doesn’t make any sense but it’s seductive.
Seduced by Dubai
Dubai surprised and seduced us when we weren’t expecting it. And not just Dubai city but the desert too and the surrounding towns, cities and Emirates we visited in the UAE. In the coming weeks and months we’ll be sharing more of our discoveries here on the blog. The culture and the contradictions. The activities and the landscape. The vitality and the vision. For this is a city with a vision like no other; one smoking hot, cool desert city.
But before we get into that and to get a taste of all the strange and familiar things this place is all about, check out this collection of YouTube 15 second micro-videos, shot on location in and around Dubai. Switch your player to HD mode for the sharpest and shiniest view! And if you like what you see subscribe to our YouTube channel for future updates.
Over to you…
Have you been to Dubai? Or would you like to?
What did you make of it?
Do leave us a comment and share your thoughts.
Disclosure Note: We visited Dubai in a collaboration with Expedia, researching, experiencing and capturing in words, pictures and video something of what the city has to offer families visiting the United Arab Emirates. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be sharing more about what we discovered here on our blog. Expedia provided flights and accommodation to enable us to reach, research and experience the UAE. The itinerary, experience, videography, photography, views and opinions remain, as ever, editorially entirely our own.