Dubai, United Arab Emirates
If the United Arab Emirates had a slogan it would be: Go Big or Go Home.
Money is no obstacle in the United Arab Emirates, a country the size of Maine. To prove it they built a ski hill. Nestled in the desert on the Persian Gulf. In the center of the largest city. Inside Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates, not far from Chanel and Cartier. It’s real snow, on a two-turn mountain, shaped like an L. It has a Quad Chairlift. Whether watching, as I did, or skiing as MacGyver did, it is a mind bending sight.
And that’s only one of the over-the-top activities and landmarks in this man-made city-of-the-desert. I won’t even get into the Emirates Hockey League — blame the Canadians, Wayne Gretzky played for the Edmonton Oilers after all — but the Dubai Mighty Camels’ team jersey is eye catching.
Sixty years ago the UAE was a sea of sand, the landscape broken only by the turquoise waters of the Gulf. Straddling Saudi Arabia, the territory was a land of nomads, dating back, well almost forever, dependent on camels for transport, food and milk. Dubai was settled in 1799, the first Sheikdom was established in 1833, the emirates were made a British protectorate in 1892 and cut loose by 1971. Once economically dependent on pearls, that ended in the 30s when the Japanese developed cultured pearls, oil was discovered in the 50s. The first road was built in 1961 and it began exporting oil in 1962.
Petro dollars watered the desert and concrete grew. The UAE has the world’s 7th largest oil reserves and the world’s 7th largest natural gas reserves. The two largest cities are Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the capital.
The economy has matured, generating revenue from tourism, real estate and financial services, in addition to oil. Dubai is a modern playground for the now rich Emiratis, and the rich and famous from five continents, where Rolls Royces and Ferraris are as common as Toyotas and Fords are in America.
The UAE seems to have one hobby, building things. Dubai is home to the world’s tallest building the Burj Khalifa, which has the world’s highest residential floor, 109 and the highest pool, 76. Visitors travel the 163 floors, bottom to top, in one minute.
Impressive as the Burj is, it was the jungle of skyscrapers that spun me around. Driving through Dubai, the visitor is struck by the Mad Hatter-inspired skyline. Look at me, look at me, each building calls in this dizzying architectural wonderland.
In Dubai, every building is wearing a crazy top hat, or a cake topper, depending on your view, some one-of-a-kind far out structural detail. My favorite is the twisted building, still under construction, but at least 60 stories already, twisted like a rag is twisted to wring water from it.
Dubai has a sophisticated transit system, including the bus, the shelters are air conditioned, since summer temperatures can reach 129 degrees, a two-line Metro system with stations architecturally reminiscent of black and gold bugs, giving the whole scene a cartoon appeal, and a 10-land Motorway between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with trucks stops that have inadquate parking for the big trucks. The UAE is building a 1,200 kilometer railway to connect the regions.
The development march came to a grinding halt in 2008 with the Great Financial Crisis. Its biggest developer Dubai World had money troubles, expats fled the country dumping their cars, keys in the ignition, at the airport.
Five years later, the city has an odd half-full feeling, like build-it-and-they-will come. Cranes fill the skyline, but many buildings appear empty, huge For Let (British for For Lease) signs hang.
The extremes, the biggest-the-most-the-largest, are not confined to architecture. Almost 85 percent of the people living in the UAE are foreigners. The country has the highest net migration in the world. The gender imbalance is the second highest in the world after Qatar, way more men than women. Expats, the workers, leave their families at home in another country.
A third generation, Emirates-born, Pakistani woman told me her grandfather emigrated to the Emirates, her father and mother were born in the Emirates, both she and her husband were born in the Emirates and her two children were born in the country. But they are not citizens. It’s not automatic.
“Everything is free for the Emiratis, school, everything” she said. “For the rest of us it is expensive.” A benefit of citizenship that makes the Emiratis think twice before sharing. The population is 8.2 million, but only 13 percent are nationals. Making up the workforce are the 23% other Arabs, 42% South Asians, primarily Indians, 12% other Asians and 6% classified as Others including Westerners.
In early February, the Emirates completed a two-month amnesty for expatriates whose visas expired. They were allowed to leave with no penalty, and presumably retaining the ability to return later with a visa. More than 38,000 came forward, probably a leftover consequence from the 2008 meltdown.
I think of American and British bankers living in Hong Kong or Singapore as expatriates.
Expats in the Emirates are Filipina housekeepers, Indonesian gardeners, Hong Kong Chinese rental car agents, Indian concierges at the hotel, Bangladeshi construction workers, along with the British bankers and the American and Canadian oil executives. And probably accounts for the fact that English is the second language after Arabic.
No one I talked to in six days was an Emirati. And the only Emiratis we think we saw were the 20-something men cruising the Golden Mile in Jumeirah Beach in their traditional dishdasha or thawb (floor length tunics) and kaffiyeh, the headdresses, behind the wheel of Masseratis and Bentleys. Or the families playing at the ski hill, in the aquarium — another big, big, big attraction, a 10 million gallon tank in the Dubai Mall, where visitors walk through a tunnel under the sharks and rays — and shopping in the designer stores.
Like many nations on fast forward to development there is a wide gap in treatment of its workers. The nation has the 7th largest per capita income in the world. But at the bottom end, there are complaints that unskilled and semi-skilled laborers are treated like indentured servants, complaining that employers hold their passports illegally. In the past five years, the government has rolled out mandatory medical insurance for expatriates, but there are no unions, no collective bargaining and no right to strike.
Its airline, Emirates, is the 8th largest in international passengers carried. Terminal 3 at the Dubai airport is the world’s second largest building by floor space. The UAE has the world’s 14th largest mobile carrier.
Dubai has every middle-of-the-road American restaurant Chilis, Applebees, IHOP, TGIFriday’s, McDonald’s, Cinnabon, Baskin & Robbins and one Canadian icon — Tim Horton’s.
Dubai is a huge modern city, but there is a view of the past in Old Dubai, along Dubai Creek, where the Arab dhows, cargo transports dock for loading and unload. In Old Dubai is the Souk, the market place. The gold souk is impressive. Merchandise flashes from store windows. Gold jewelry is sold by the weight and not the piece.
The free market is a rough and tumble place. I bought four silver camel charms stamped 925 sterling. I checked each one to ensure the eye that attaches to a chain or bracelet was in good condition. I paid. Just before the salesman slid the four into a case, he said: “I need to weigh them (I bought them priced per piece).” He put his hand under the counter, in less than 5 seconds, he brought his hand up and slid the charms into the box.” A week later in Bangkok, I noticed that on one of the pieces, the eye was permanently attached to the camel. Did I make a mistake or did he switch one out? We will never know.
Don’t get me started on the postscard vendor guy who was insisting I buy 25 fils stamps for postcards that require three Dirham stamps (100 Fils = 1 Dirham). Too little postage, outdated and useless.
One last thing to write home about. It rarely rains in the desert. Dubai’s annual rainfall is 3.713 inches, a little less than the Mojave Desert in California which has 4.62 inches.
It rained. One entire day. All three inches of it.