A fairy-tale land in the middle of the scorching desert – the United Arab Emirates is an impossible dream made concrete, a shining metropolis in a forbidding landscape. With its futuristic towers and even grander hotels, endless sands and desert winds, this is a land of breathtaking contrasts.
Dubai: Ostentatious, Ambitious and Beckoning…
I EXPECTED the infinite blue sky. I expected the intense, unrelenting heat. I even anticipated the way the city sprawl would stop abruptly to make way for rolling, barren dunes. What I didn’t expect from Dubai, however, was the luxury, the slick modernity. I certainly did not expect the gleaming metropolis that has sprung up in the desert in the 34 years since seven small kingdoms joined to form the United Arab Emirates.
If there is one word to describe Dubai it’s “ostentatious”. So many of the attractions here appear to have been created simply as a means of saying to the rest of the world: “Look how much money we’ve got”.
Take, for example, The Palm. An immense man-made island — in the shape of a palm tree — off the coast of the fashionable Jumeirah beach district, it will, by 2007, house the homes of multi-millionaires, as well as luxury apartments, shopping malls and the world’s biggest hotels.
Just a stone’s throw down the beach, The Palm 2 is already under construction. Further along is the just-begun The World, 300 individual islands which, when viewed from the air, look like a world map. If I had the bank balance, I could assuage my homesickness by snapping up “South Australia” and building my own modest seven-bedroom palace right where my native Adelaide should be.
Dubai is already home to the world’s only seven-star hotel, Burj Al-Arab (pictured above), which has an underwater restaurant that guests are taken to via submarine. The city will soon also house an entirely underwater hotel.
Other plans afoot in Dubai are Dubailand, a Disneyworld-style theme park which, with its 45 separate “worlds”, will be bigger than Dubai itself. The world’s biggest shopping mall is also under construction, as is the world’s tallest building, and everyone is very excited about the soon-to-be-built world’s biggest indoor ski slope. Notice a pattern emerging?
But Dubai’s feverish cash-splashing is not megalomania; rather, it is part of a very shrewd plan for sustainability hatched by its ruler, Sheik Mohammed, and his family.
Unlike its closest neighbour and the UAE’s capital, Abu Dhabi, Dubai has very limited oil reserves. It has cleverly secured its future by positioning itself as a business and finance hub and, more recently, a tourist idyll. It’s a city with a lot to offer but, above all else, Dubai deserves credit for its unabashed ambition.
At this very moment, there are 2800 building projects underway in the city. Just 20 per cent of Dubai’s population are Emirati — the rest are expatriates keeping the well-oiled wheels of commerce turning — and, of these, a hefty proportion are construction workers who toil in shifts day and night to transform the city from building site to world-beater.
Even the harsh desert interior — for centuries home only to the nomadic Bedouin tribes — is considered ripe for money-spinning development. Forty-five minutes from Dubai is the sumptuous Al Mahaj desert resort, where rooms are in fact stand-alone luxury huts, each with its own infinity pool.
Here, guests rise at dawn — the only time when being outside is bearable — for activities including camel trekking, falconry and archery. During the daylight hours, when desert temperatures top 50 degrees centigrade, there’s nothing to do but indulge in all manner of delicious treatments in the day spa.
At night, when the temperature drops to a positively chilly 30 degrees, there are dune dinners and more camel treks to be enjoyed. Or, if that all seems a little too active, Al Mahaj boasts a deck with sweeping desert views where it’s easy to while away an entire evening watching the oryx, gazelles and lizards who call the 2000 km sq conservation site home.
Dubai is a destination which aims to cater for everyone so it is, of course, possible to have an authentic desert experience without the Al Mahaj price tag. Tour company Arabian Adventures, a subsidiary of the Emirates airline group, offers a dune safari dinner which is not to be missed. Diners travel in a convoy of 4WD jeeps in amongst the rolling dunes which look, ironically, like rippling water. Some rather hairy dune driving leads to a desert camp, where guests sit on intricately detailed carpets and cushions and eat traditional food from low tables. Belly dancers provide the entertainment and there’s camel rides and a henna tattooist to complete the experience.
If all the opulence gets too much, head across Dubai Creek (pictured right) – the modestly named waterway is actually about as wide as the Thames! – to the old town, where haggling over prices at the gold and spice souks (markets) is the order of the day. The Kurama district is also a must-shop for fashion- and budget-conscious ladies.
The Dubai in the glossy tourist brochures is a relatively new invention but a city has existed here for hundreds of years, while the Bedouin and other desert people have lived in the region for millennia. A fantastic exploration of Middle Eastern history and culture, as well as the birth of Dubai as we know it, can be found in the innovative Dubai Museum.
I almost felt like I’d visited Dubai too soon. It’s already an exciting destination and a city of fascinating contrasts — old versus new, ambition versus careful planning, progress versus history. But there’s a pervading sense that in five or 10 years, when cranes no longer dominate the skyline and it’s possible to see and touch all these fledgling developments, Dubai will be truly breathtaking.
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