Cities Dubai & UAE Poetry United Arab Emirates

Seduced by Dubai – Cool Desert City

Movenpick Hotel Jumeirah Beach Dubai
Written by Kirstie Pelling

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.

Dubai Jumeirah Beach and Marina District at Night

Dubai is a futuristic vision of a city at night.  Here. approaching the trendy Jumeirah Beach and Marina Districts.

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.

Jumeirah Beach Resort Dubai

As the city awakes Jumeirah Beach is one of the few places you can see that this is a city built on sand.

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.

Al Rakhba, The Creek, Dubai

Dubai sparkles at night. Even the “old town” down at Dubai Creek is new really.  It’s a thoroughly modern megametropolis.

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.

The Beach at Jumeirah Beach Resort Dubai

Sand Sculptures down at The Beach, Jumeirah Beach Resort. A city skyline made of sand, in a city built on it. Neither have crumbled. Yet.

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.

Duba Metro Train arriving in station at Dubai Mall

Dubai’s cool new driverless, air conditioned metro cuts through the Dubai skyline and links the many diverse parts of Dubai.

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.

Abra passing mosque on Dubai Creek

Abras (water taxi) ply Dubai Creek day and night, from the first to last call to prayer. A touch of the old amongst the new.

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.

Burj Khalifa Dubai

The Burj Khalifa, Dubai. The world’s tallest building dominates the skyline by day and by night.

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.

Dubai Mall Aquarium Dubai

A giant aquarium in a mall? Why not. Check this one out in Dubai Mall. In Dubai anything is possible. And probable.

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.

Dubai Ice Rink, Dubai Mall

You can shop or skate or ski or skydive in a Dubai Mall. Defy gravity? Why not?

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.

Prayer time or Photo Time at The Beach JBR Dubai

Selfie or Selfless? A public booth at The Beach offers locals and visitors an interesting choice.


Dubai and UAE Arabian Adventures

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. 


Dubai dhows and old town

Dubai is not all shiny & modern. Old dhows still ply old trade routes bringing goods to sell in the old souks off Dubai Creek.

About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


  • When I visited Dubai in 1996 during my university years, it certainly wasn’t exactly a small-town, or at least it didn’t strike me as one. Dhows, water taxis, souks, beaches, and yes, also skyscrapers in the middle of the desert, lining the Creek, you had all that already – though the skyline of today laughs at the measly 39+ floors huts of the Dubai World Trade Centre some daring Sheikh erected where only camel dung had prevailed. The Dubai then was merely a glimpse of the Dubai of today, a “place to be” that pulled itself from the mud by its own scalp like a kandura-clad Baron Munchhausen. For although the entire region is built on oil, the Emirate of Dubai is but the poor cousin, expected to run out of it in only 20 year’s time. Today Dubai is a self-fulfilling prophecy no longer reliant on oil (7% of GDP).

    I remember Dubai more like a Tatooine-type of world, heat and sand were not yet something you had to go out and look for, they were everywhere, creeping into streets, buildings and clothing. For every one building already erected two cranes were pointing at the sky making the next. Dhows laden with building materials were moored right next to the big streets. I don’t remember giant air-conditioned shopping malls like you describe them, though luxury businesses and gold souks were hard to miss, either none of those malls had been built yet, or I was too budget-restricted a student to consider them.

    • Beautifully put Thomas. I think the rate of change and development is one of the most fascinating things about the place, To see such change in the development of a city in a lifetime is mind bending. Amazing what man, vision and money can do. Not that it’s necessarilty a good thing. And still the development continues, the Expo 2020 and Qatar World Cup driving another round of construction. I think I’d have liked a little more of the tumbleweed Tattooine version, although where we stayed on the edge of the desert and development had something of that feel. And the Malls are mostly new, a product of the late 90s and beyond, although a great hangout even on a budget. You don’t have to buy!

  • Like many others I have never been sure whether I would like Dubai or not. That’s why it’s great to read this from you, plus your Facebook updates over recent weeks. I thought this destination wouldn’t suit the Family Adventure Project because of its contradictions and the fact that it isn’t ‘natural’.

    Friends have been to Dubai and loved it but I have dithered about going. I shall read the rest of your posts with interest. Fascinating stuff.

    By the way, which one of you is the poet? Impressive x

    • In some ways it’s the contradictions that make it interesting. It’s not our usual choice of destination but then we preach about leaving your comfort zone to experience things, suspending judgment to explore and in a (rather comfortable way) this was a case of that. In some ways the construction of this city is as impressive as the Grand Canyon, a turmite colony or any natural wonder. And beyond the man made city lies the desert, mountains and coast with plenty of “natural” attractions to take in. And of course you are in the Middle East with all the cultural dimension that brings, although perhaps not as sharply in focus as in other parts.As for the poet, that’s Kirstie, wordsmith in chief.

  • I would love to go to Dubai – and out of all the preplanned and manmade things that are Dubai I find the sand surfing to be the most appealing. Go figure.

    • The sand surfing is fun but not as fast as snow. And you must remember to keep your mouth closed or you’ll be sucking on sand for ever. Takes a few weeks to get it all out of your pockets too.

  • I’ve not been to Dubai and it’s never really appealed to me so it’s good to see how you found it. You’ve shown me that it’s not as I imagined – maybe I would like to go there after all!

  • Wow, what a fabulous place, some fantastic architecture there, I’d like to visit for that alone. Dubai has always been an ‘I’m not sure’ place for me but you have certainly shown me it is possible to have a family holiday there too.
    The aquarium!!! In a mall!!! Amazing

  • It is nice to read an intelligent review of Dubai. I loved how you pointed out that the place is built on sand and that man is winning against nature on this one so far!
    The videos really captured what it is like to be there- I miss Dubai so much. I love it there and can’t wait for my next adventure!

  • […] But then this is Dubai; where the unexpected, the implausible or the downright impossible tends to rise up into the sky right in front of your eyes about every ten minutes or so. This is the city that built a ski dome complete with penguins and chair lift to cool tourists down in summer when it could have merely sold them an ice cream or a blue slush. This is totally consistent with our experience of the Dubai bubble. […]

  • Depends on what you like ..for instance the sea is none too clean.. shopping is everywhere in the gulf so no big deal.. it is not a city for walking that’s for sure and I don’t mean because of the weather. Oman is a much more interesting place for me.

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We're Kirstie & Stuart. We share an adventurous spirit, a passion for indie travel and 3 kids. The Family Adventure Project is our long term experiment in doing active, adventurous things together. Find out more...


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