Dubai, United Arab Emirates
The idea of going to Dubai actually was launched over three years ago in Monterey. My friend from grad school Susan and her new husband (though they’d been together 13 years or so) Mostafa, were headed there on a new chapter in their lives. Susan had signed on to teach at Dubai Women’s College and they were to make the United Arab Emirates (UAE) their home for the next three years. I had a standing invitation to visit them in their temporary new home.
I figured that the chances of me visiting them from Monterey were slim. I was nestled in my job at CSUMB and it’s a helluva long ways away. Besides, it wasn’t on the top of my list of sites to visit if I were going to take that much vacation and that much expense. Little did I know at the time that I’d end up living in sub-Saharan Africa, a “short” six-hour flight away.
The last time that I’d seen them was at their wedding in the Carmel Highlands. It was the first time I’d met Mostafa and they seemed like a good match. They’d been all over the world and Dubai was going to be a stint abroad before settling back into their life in California. Though he was from the Middle East (born and raised in Egypt) he’d lived most of his adult life in Western culture – mostly in Germany and the US. He liked it and the three years that they would spend in the UAE would solidify in his mind that his adopted country, the US, was “where he’d like to be buried” using his words.
I caught them in the very last days of their life in Dubai. It wasn’t by design; it just worked out that way. I took the night flight from Dar es Salaam via Nairobi and my plane was, as I’m accustomed to these days, delayed. As I sat in the Dar terminal at 2am I was thinking about my 48-hour delay in December. Dar seems to be my Hotel California.
I arrived fairly rested in spite of the sinus infection that I had acquired a couple days before. I would battle it the entire weekend. Flying in I could already see some of the famous construction that’s giving the city its new notoriety. Then looking around the shiny airport I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. This was definitely Oz.
One will invariably use a lot of superlatives in describing Dubai. It’s pretty far out there when it comes to opulence. I’d heard a lot about all the construction, new outrageous hotels, the palm-shaped, manmade islands being built off shore, but this place is even crazier than I’d expected. Driving to their apartment was a treat compared to Dar simply because the roads are all paved. Maybe I’d been a bit less in awe coming from someplace besides Tanzania but it’s still pretty impressive. The roads are full of nice cars and this city in the desert somehow manages to have plenty of green grass around their freeways.
It was the UAE weekend – Thursday and Friday. It’s common in Muslim countries to switch up the weekend to make sure you get Friday off. Other countries choose Friday and Saturday so that they’re a bit more in sync with the West.
The UAE is a fairly strict Muslim country though it’s less in harsh on non-Muslims than others. It’s against the law to speak out against the government but Western clothing is tolerated in most places. Ramadan, the 30-day Muslim fast, is strictly enforced such that grocery stores and restaurants are closed to everyone during daylight hours (pain in the ass for the thousands of non-Muslims who simply would like to have lunch but people make do). Americans aren’t required to have a visa but anyone who has a passport that has been stamped by “Israel” (and they really put it in quotes in their documentation) is not allowed. And so forth.
Susan and Mostafa live in the New Gold Souk building. It’s a glossy, 9-floor structure with a bunch of gold shops on the main floor. Gold is one of the main commodities sold in Dubai. It’s everywhere – the 24-carat good stuff. I refrained from purchasing any but there’s so much of it that it is enticing.
Their apartment is very nice with lots of marble and a good view of the city and Rashid Port, the main port of entry for a place that has to import pretty much everything except sand. The apartment is worth something like $3,000 a month, well above Susan’s housing allowance but that was the going rate for a decent place in a decent neighborhood. I didn’t actually see any bad neighborhoods but that must mean areas where peoples’ Mercedes are from the previous decade.
Actually, there are poor people. The people doing all this construction are primarily Indian and Pakistani workers who are treated badly – so much so that there have been several articles published on the subject and human rights organizations are keeping the heat on. They don’t have affordable housing (they’re allegedly crammed 8-10 to an apartment) and they’re not allowed to bring their families. They work 24 hours a day in either two or three shifts depending on their situation. You can hit traffic jams at any hour of the day or night. It’s the real “city that never sleeps”.
After catching up with Susan and Mostafa, the former and I headed out to the old city to catch a glimpse of what Dubai used to be like. In reality, there isn’t much of old Dubai left. As late as 1970 the city was a tiny village on a small inlet of the Persian Gulf only about 20 miles across from Iran. When the oil wells were located and exploited, things began to happen. Fast. The city grew exponentially and the Western consumption of the “Texas tea” made all the Emirates’ nationals rich. Though they are still very rich, it was determined several years ago that the wells probably only have another 20 years left in them. They needed a plan B and that was to be tourism. I don’t know if they took risk management classes at UNLV but for some reason they thought the desert would be a good place to bring tourists. They set out to reinvest their opulent wealth into creating the most amazing make-believe land since Vegas. And that’s what’s happening now.
However in the process of this modernization, they realized that tourists also like old stuff and the few older buildings had mostly gone the way of the bulldozer. So they decided to create a National Museum, a small area that is somewhat of a “Pirates of the Caribbean”-esque walk-through museum which attempts to portray life before petroleum. It’s pretty interesting and, at least for me, accentuates the tragedy of their bludgeoned physical history. Old Arabia is sadly hard to find in Dubai.
After the museum, we caught a boat around “Dubai Creek”. It’s not really a creek but some sort of salty inlet from the Gulf. There is no fresh water in Dubai. The entire city quenches their thirst, flushes their toilets and waters their lawns with desalinated water. I’m not sure how they do it and it has to be outrageously expensive but they do.
The boat took us up and down the creek. These boats are somewhat of a trademark and are one of the few things that are refreshingly old. Many of the wrinkly boat drivers are even older and in considerably worse condition. Our driver cruised around for about a half hour and then dropped us off at the old souks (markets). Susan and I walked around smelling the spices, looking at the gaudy jewelry and fending off aggressive Indian and Pakistani vendors.
After we’d had our fill of the souks, we decided we needed to get back and get ready to go out for dinner. Mostafa is extremely punctual (and he’s an avid weight lifter) so I didn’t want to be late. He’d made arrangements for us to go to this fancy hotel downtown and have all-you-can-eat cheese and all-you-can-drink-wines from around the world. All I could say was woo hoo! I felt like a country bumpkin coming from backwards Dar es Salaam and having all this good stuff available to me. Needless to say we all took advantage of the all-you-can.
Friday morning Mostafa prepared us omelets. The guy even includes all garnish and stuff. He’s become quite the cook over the time that they’ve been in Dubai since he hasn’t been able to work as much as he'd hoped. He discovered substandard pay for his skills and experience and some other reasons so he opted out. In any case, once they’d decided on heading back to California at the end of Susan’s contract, he decided that he’d spend the rest of his Dubai time working out, cooking and running the house. Not a bad gig but it does get old.
We then headed out to new Dubai – which is pretty much all of it. We aimed first for the Burj al Arab Hotel, the only seven star hotel in the world. I think they had six star hotels, looked at this thing and decided that they needed a new category. It’s pretty incredible. I confess that I did not go inside for two reasons: 1) we didn't feel the need and 2) you have to pay just to go into the lobby. We had a full agenda anyway so maybe next time.
Some of the outrageous construction projects are as much a credit to innovation and imagination as they are a blight to the environment. They are endless.
I’d heard about the man-made palm-shaped islands jutting out into the water and loaded with fancy homes. What I didn’t realize is that there are three separate similar projects. All palms. All loaded with luxurious homes. One of the island string “palm fronds” is actually in the shape of a Arabic text – a line from a poem written by Sheik Mohammed, the Crown Prince of the Dubai Emirate – with houses being built on it. I don’t know if I explained that well but if you’re curious, there’s always Google.
Then there’s the 300 or so man-made islands in the shape of a map of earth. No joke. I was told that some of this was Donald Trump’s idea, which wouldn’t surprise me. Either that or it was some guy on crack.
They’ve also begun the new world’s tallest building. They’re about 20 stories into it so far. They’ve got a long ways to go. The builders refuse to announce the official projected height of the building because another building is going up someplace else and there’s a bit of competition.
After cruising among the endless half-built skyscrapers we drove past the indoor ski area smack dab in the middle of the desert. Yep, in case you’ve never heard of such a thing they built a ski run with real fake snow, just like in Sun Valley during the spring. It’s pretty amazing. Apparently they hand out coats, gloves and the works for the snowy desert outing. Didn’t go in there either but I swiped the interior photo off the web.
I did go in a mall after that. Dubai is like a lot of hot cities where people prefer to shop in the great air-conditioned indoors. They have everything you’d ever want and every fancy chain store on the planet. Even being deprived in Tanzania, I still have a short attention span for the shopping mall. We finally took a break and had some Thai food that sent smoke coming out my ears. We decided that was pretty much it for the day and we headed home.
Saturday, with the UAE weekend over, Susan had to work. Mostafa and I did the manly thing and worked out in their gym. Their building has a full gym, two bowling lanes and a spa. They also have a tennis court, pool and barbeque area on the roof. Very cool.
Afterwards we did the less-manly man thing and headed for the mall. Mostafa has a favorite coffee shop in there so after sampling aftershaves and roasted peanuts we set up shop and read the paper. Malls give me a rash so after a while I went in search for a new activity. Off to the grocery store we went to buy things for dinner and so that I could get some stuff to bring back to my deprived African home.
When you walk in the store it looks like Albertson’s or something. A lot of the products are different but the US has successfully exported the concept of the supermarket. There of course is no booze (though you can get it in some restaurants and hotels as I found out). Pork is hard to find in the country though you can find it in a few grocery store “back rooms”. This one had such a place and I ducked in for some swine. I actually don’t normally eat much pork but there was something attractive about the whole forbidden thing. Besides, with my refrigerated packaging and the reappearance of electricity in Dar es Salaam, I’m one of the few people in the world that would think to export a bunch of mortadela and salami from a Muslim country.
For dinner Mostafa whipped up some mean chicken fajitas. It was great and he’s become a pretty good cook. I guess it pays not to work, so to speak.
That was about it. I took my morning cab to the airport and spent the rest of my UAE currency on duty-free wine and chocolate. Back to the rain of Dar es Salaam.