15 August 2007

the picture is far too big to look at.

Dubai is perhaps the only city in the Middle East known for something besides violence and terrorism, and it's earned the reputation. With that much money lying around, no one needs to care about anything enough to fight for it. Emiratis walk around with this slow, graceful air about them, like they've never had to hurry for anything in their lives. The men in their pristine white robes, the women covered from head to toe in black. They'll never have to dirty their clothes or actually use their hands or eyes for something - they have people to do that for them. The money is everywhere - the malls really are a tourist attraction. Indoor skiing at Mall of the Emirates (complete with a mock ski lodge serving fondue by digital fireplaces at the bottom), international themed sections at Ibn Batutta Mall (the Middle Eastern Epcot, minus some of the culture and with more shopping), and those are just the ones that have actually been built. One in the works will be 10 million square feet. Given the oppressive heat and humidity in the summer (up to 48C/120F, 80% humidity), the entire town feels like a sauna, so I understand the appeal of enormous air-conditioned malls.

But the city is balancing on several very precarious edges that risk blowing up in everyone's perfectly manicured faces if they're not addressed. Those wealthy Emiratis carousing through the expensive shopping malls make up only a quarter of the population. The rest of composed of other Arabs and SE Asians who drive the cabs, cook the food, and man the cash registers for the wealthy elite. Most of them are on work visas, slaving at long hours to send money home to their families, a situation that I can't imagine can be sustainable for very long. With all of the new hotels and office building being build to attract foreign investment, the wealth disparity will only grow. But at least there's an effort to move past oil - only Abu Dhabi has enough left to keep growing, while Dubai and the other Emirates are transitioning to a business economy, which will probably soften the blow with the oil runs out.

The city is in a constant state of development, with half-finished sky scrapers composing most of the skyline. The highways are a slew of billboards of cheesy developer slogans advertising the next planned housing community or resort: "Your aspiration is our inspiration." "We think outside the box so you don't have to live in one." "Come home to what matters." "We grow around you." It's what Orlando would be if Celebration took over. How they're ever going to fill all those spaces is beyond me - some of the most extravagant hotels could be book solid every night for 20 years and they still won't recoup the building costs. Financial burden aside, the development is wreaking havoc on the natural environment - those nifty little created islands in the shapes of palm trees or the continents of the world are destroying the coastal ecosystems, not to mention the staggering volume of emissions from the energy required to keep the city running. If the wealth disparities or oil supply doesn't break Dubai's spirit, its environmental policies certainly will.

One thing I will say about the city: with modernity comes a new level of respect. Big wide highways where drivers stay in their lanes, trashcans to dispose of bottles, no more piles of trash in the streets, and best of all, men who can walk past a woman without so much as a hiss - it's hard not to love it, especially after Jordan and Egypt.

Greatest thing about Dubai, however: The Gold Souk. It's not really a "souk" in the classic sense of the word, more of a conglomeration of jewelry stores, but it was fabulous nonetheless. Wholesale loose stones, goldsmiths to set them, dirt cheap pearls, and standard jewelry stores, all selling unique (albeit often ugly) items. Extremely well priced, too, especially considering the rest of the city.

Verdict: It's like a train wreck. I want to go back, even though I'm ashamed to like the ostentatious displays of wealth and extravagance. I want to see the city fail, and fail hard. Crash and burn. But if I win the lottery before that, I'm coming back. I can't help it.



Nathan said...

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Best of luck in Ethipoia. I'm going to add you to my blog roll. You can always come and visit me in Senegal for vacation.

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