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DUBAI, a tale from the Arabian nights

Once upon a time, there was a Prince who dreamt of transforming his little fishermen village, found along the shores of the Persian Gulf, into a big rich kingdom. Some thought that his project was inconceivable, others took him for crazy, but the Prince believed in the power of petrodollars and unbridled development. Thirty years later, his dream became reality. The Prince was an emir, Sheikh Rashid Al Maktoum, and his kingdom was Dubai.  When he died in 1990, his son, Sheikh Mohammed, took up the torch and never stop perpetuating the great projects of his late father.
Today, the city is metamorphosed; it is managed like a multinational enterprise, which over the years, has become a fashionable destination and a crossroad between Europe and Asia, like Singapore. Faced with the haunting thought of the depletion of petrol reserves, the emirate has launched new sectors to create wealth. While petrol is being exported to distant destinations, people and ideas converge to Dubai and contribute to a rapid transformation of its society and environment. Luxury tourism has become the first pillar. Nevertheless, Dubai is also a flourishing financial centre and a prosperous commercial port.

The city of superlatives.
In a chaotic traffic, we take the main highway “Sheikh Zayed Road” which links the city centre to the business neighbourhood and make for the seaside zones to the West of Dubai. Skyscrapers, one taller than the other, line up the eight traffic-lane motorway. Behind these imposing towers, vast building sites extend beyond the horizon in the desert. We allow ourselves the question of whether this city will ever be really settled as the new projects, always huge, abound day after day.

Dubai picture - Sheikh Zayed Road - Building construction site

To aim the impossible is the tradition in Dubai. Architectural innovations and technological challenges are the recurrent themes in the development of this city. It is most probably here that the craziest projects of the world take birth. Artificial islands in the form of giant palms (The Palm) or the globe (The World) shelter apartments, villas, hotels and luxury shops. A gigantic waterfront (Dubai Waterfront) stretching over the Golf waters has a surface area, which is larger than Manhattan Island. Awe inspiring attraction parks (Dubailand) make Disneyland look like a child’s playground. An immense sports complex (Dubai Sports City) accommodates several stadiums and pitches for all kinds of sports. An underwater hotel entirely assembled in Germany has been submerged off the coast of Dubai. Moreover, there are many more buildings, which are an ode to architectural creativity.

Dubai picture - Emirates Towers       Dubai picture - Towers under construction

Dubai picture - Madinat and Burj Al Arab hotel

One of the follies of this emirate has been the construction of the Burj Al Arab hotel. This building in the form of a boat sail has been erected on an artificial island within a few hundred metres of the shore, linked to the land by a narrow embankment. 321 metres tall, it has become the emblem which was missing to Dubai, a seven star hotel which is as famous as the Eiffel Tower or The Statue of Liberty.
And to crown this impressive list and gain some more notoriety, the construction of the highest skyscraper of the planet (Burj Dubai) is under way. The definitive height is actually being kept a secret. There is a rumour of 702 metres but it can go well beyond the 800 metres! A Pharaonic project, which will end in 2008.

Dubai picture - Burj Al Arab hotel       Dubai picture - Burj Dubai tower under construction

A shopping paradise for wealthy people.

An unbelievable luxury debauch is the first impression that we have of Dubai: ultra chic 5 star hotels, marinas where yachts compete in size and gleaming chromes, shops offering the most prestigious labels, green golf courses at the doors of the desert. In Aladin’s land, even the huge Japanese 4x4 and the luxurious German automobiles have replaced the flying carpets! There is most probably here the highest world agglomeration of millionaires per square metre.
Moreover, it is not the market of gold that will clear us of this impression. Gold and nothing but gold beyond the horizon. 18 or 24 carats gold by kilos of tens! Bordering a pedestrian street, glittering windows parade gold in all its possible and conceivable forms: lockets, thick bracelets, rings, earrings, pendants, richly elaborated necklaces… Gold is sold per its weight and even if the prices are negotiable and more advantageous than in Europe, they still remain extravagant tariffs for most of the jewellery on offer.

Dubai picture - Gold souk

Dubai offers multiple temptations. It is haven for duty-free commercial centres. Every year, a more vast and dazzling than the last opens up. Dubai targets clearly high-class luxury. Sumptuous boutiques, famous French or Italian labels for clothes, leather goods or shoes, Swiss watches, renowned perfumes, and delicatessen shops. The displayed prices discourage the “broke” from shopping, but here, there is no counterfeiting!
The “Dubai Mall” is presently the biggest commercial centre of the city and probably of the planet.  We can find anything here. But, as though this was not enough to occupy the emirates and other expatriates, the biggest indoor ski station has been created within the centre. It comprises of a chair lift and a ski tow, several courses with a 400 metres one, for a snow-covered surface area equivalent to three football grounds. Decidedly, money from the oil fields allows all whims, even if it goes to creating 30 tons of artificial snow everyday in the middle of the desert!

Dubai picture - Ski indoor at the Mall of the Emirates

The city also celebrates its shopping festival at the beginning of the year and which lasts for one month. On its own, this event attracts several millions of visitors. During this period, the goods are sold at knockdown prices and discounts can easily reach 50%.
Dubai has understood it all! It has put into place an economic model, which functions perfectly: attract an extremely wealthy clientele with wild projects, offer transport with its own airline (Emirates), provide lodgments in its sumptuous hotels, and of course, set up multiple commercial centres overflowing with prestigious labels for the visitors to spend money lavishly!

Dubai picture - Shopping

The quest for some authenticity.
Moored in the quay of the creek, which divides the city in two, the “abras” (taxi-boats) chink with each other.  Early in the morning, Saïd and his colleagues are relishing a peaceful moment before the arrival of clients who would like to cross to the other shore. They do not worry much about the cranes that punctuate the horizon or the gleam of the rising sun on the gigantic glass and steel towers. They are used to it now, since these last 15 years, the building sites have gone on multiplying in the four corners of the city, symbols of the unbridled development of the emirate. In the effervescence of the city, the creek is quite nearly a peace haven. It is crisscrossed by several small boats; old wooden dhows and luxurious yachts travel alongside each other. A striking contrast between the past full of humble traditions and the galloping affluent present.

Dubai picture - Old boat et modern yacht

In Dubai, tourists adept of culture and traditions can look elsewhere! It is fruitless to look for anything genuinely “ancient” and “typical”. The city is anchored in the present and turned towards the future; it has kept few traces of its past. There still remain some relics in the Bastakia neighbourhood. The houses are accommodated with wind towers destined before the electricity era to ensure air conditioning. In the narrow alleys, old sculpted doors still subsist in certain residences. To immerse in a more traditional atmosphere, take a stroll along the harbour where Iranians, Indians or Pakistanis sailors load and unload their freights before setting off to other ports in the region, or instead, take an abra and go shopping at the market of spices, which is a real feast for the olfactory senses. In addition, try the visit to the Patrimony museum to discover the facet of Dubai in the past.

Dubai picture - Old wooden door       Dubai picture - Spice souk 

Today, we do not know which is the leading identity since the Arabs are in minority. The foreigners make up for more than 80% of the population. You will come mostly across Indians, Pakistanis and Asians, as well as thousands of tourists! But, finally, the influences of the Indian sub-continent and Asia are more greatly felt than the ancestral traditions of the Middle East.
At the bend of an abandoned land, a few dromedaries remind us that the desert is not far away.  You are maybe thinking that this is a good way to discover the traditions of Arabia and escape the noisiness of the city. Not at all! Forget the dromedary caravan and climb into huge 4x4, which will take you climbing over the dunes in the true “loaded-Bedouin” custom.  Even the nearby desert is aseptic!
Without wanting to speak in praise of the neighbouring countries retreated within their traditions and refusing systematically the occidental modernism, we undeniably conclude that Dubai has sold its soul to the dollar God.

The other side of the coin.
In this shopping paradise, where the flashy is in fashion, another city is hidden, another dimension to reality where serious ecological and social problems are emerging.
On the outskirts of Dubai, in a place where tourists and investors never come, hundreds of thousands of workers are crowded in insalubrious quarters. They have come from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or even China to work on the numerous building sites, which operate round the clock. These are workers who wear themselves out relentlessly in the scorching sun: in the peak of summer, the temperature can climb up to 50°C. The security norms are not always respected: scanty scaffoldings, insufficient equipments, and absence of harness. Work related accidents are frequent, at times proving to be mortal. This is besides the fact that there exists a high level of psychological distress due to nightmarish working conditions; a high rate of suicide has also been noted among this section of the population.
The authorities are demanding that the workers must be well treated by the employing company, but numerous societies do not bother themselves with these recommendations. Their passports are kept with their employers so that they cannot abandon their place of work. Their monthly salary barely goes beyond 200 euros.  The right to strike does not exist in Dubai, and the same applies for syndicates and any other form of social security.

Dubai picture - Men working in construction site       Dubai picture - Worker on scaffolding

Behind the scintillating skyscrapers of the city centre, another glaucous world exists: prostitution, money laundering, arms dealer, human trade, slavery. But, hush! We must not talk about it for fear of frightening off the tourists.
It is inconceivable not to think about the ecological impact that these gigantic constructions can cause. The creation of artificial islands may look like a brilliant idea in business but from an ecological point of view, these projects have annihilated the coral reef, destroyed the fauna and unsettled the marine ecosystem of the region.

Squeezed until the last dime!
It is now time for us to leave this crazy emirate! In the precincts of the airport, Dubai still turns on all the charm to extract our very last dollars. The duty-free shops encircle and assault us with several of their luxurious articles. Travellers seldom resist these temptations. If the prices do not look attractive to you, try participating in one of the lottery draws where the prize is a famous German sports car.  A car, which is freely delivered to your doorstep, if you are lucky enough to win.

Dubai picture - Duty free shop in Dubai international airport

What to think finally of Dubai? Either you visit it as unusual stopover before moving on to other more captivating horizons, and you will be fascinated by this frightening mixture of capitalism, absolutism, and urban follies entirely dedicated to the ostentatious consumption; or you decide to visit this region for its culture and traditions, but in this case, it is imperative to leave the city and go in quest of authenticity in the perpetual peacefulness of the desert, far, very far from Dubai!

Text and photos: © Fabrice Bettex / Mysterra

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