MIrages In The Desert

16th December 2011

Chris Ambrose does Dubai…

Dubai has long intrigued and fascinated me. Vivid images of the city’s spectacular firework displays celebrating the latest in apparently uncapped luxury and architectural-defying innovation spring into my mind whenever I catch sight of the Emirate’s name: a gleaming Westernised destination shrouded in glamour and grandeur, yet with Arabic foundations and a desert setting.

But I couldn’t quite get my head round how it functioned as a visitor destination – at least not in the traditional sense. As a result of headlines referencing how this city has forced itself onto the world map through outlandish ambition and lavish capitalist pursuits – sprung from the sand in a borderline inhospitable climate – I wasn’t even sure that there would be a traditional sense left. So when two of my friends moved out to Dubai for work commitments, I was only too pleased to take up an invitation to visit and thus experience it for myself.

As the plane made its descent, the inescapable silhouette of the world’s tallest building soon announced itself through the murky haze. Warping your perspective of scale and distance, the Burj Khalifa stands at 830 metres in height, and casts its enormous shadow over downtown Dubai.

Before getting too close to this multi-record breaking structure, however, there was important business to attend to. My hosts had decided to kick off my visit by booking us in for a Dubai tradition: brunch. Every Friday the hotels put on a fantastic buffet, and from late morning until mid afternoon you can stuff yourself on a spectacular spread of international cuisine. Freshly carved meat, fish platters, made-to-order pizzas, Mediterranean salads and pasta dishes suddenly make the plates seem disappointingly small, but with five hours to make the most of all the culinary delights on offer, the only real issue is knowing how to pace yourself.

Back outside (and with a slight waddle thanks to the lunchtime over-indulgence) the mid-afternoon heat hit with a sudden intensity. Despite being November (the beginning of the more hospitable tourist season) the temperature was still up in the low thirties. What makes this so noticeable is that you’re rarely given the opportunity to adjust to it, as you move between heavily air-conditioned locations via air-conditioned taxis. I found this troubling – I enjoy the independence of being able to walk about – but Dubai’s sprawling layout and heat unfortunately give little scope to allow for this, and so sustained outside endeavours are rare, and, if attempted, prove a real struggle.

Dubai Mall & Fountain from Burj Khalifa

Speeding south along Sheikh Zayed Road in a fearless taxi, our next stop was downtown – home to the sprawling mass of consumerist indulgence known as Dubai Mall, which is (you guessed it!) the world’s largest shopping mall, and not to be confused with the other giant one down the road – The Mall of the Emirates – home to the UAE’s only ski resort (the aptly named ‘Ski Dubai’). Dubai Mall features 1200 shops spread out over two floors, connected by ornate concourses and features that compete tirelessly for your attention. The giant glass sealife-filled wall of the in-house aquarium is an unexpected twist, while the ice-rink and amusement park add further diversions from the endless rows of shops. But what struck me more than the scale of the place was the way the people bustling around the mall were dressed. Both men and women wearing traditional Arab attire would be strutting about laced in designer jewellery and sunglasses, while holding smartphones pumping chart music into their ears. Women in full black dress with only their faces showing would have their eyes coated in thick rings of liner and vivid shades of lipstick. I found this a bizarre and striking convergence of styles and influence that perhaps best represented my increasing confusion as to how this place operated. Maybe this was the clearest example yet of how a place of often strict, deep-set tradition adapts with a sudden and outlandish burst of westernised, capitalist intrigue.

Having taken in the mild absurdity of the place, I decided to escape the hectic environment that is Friday ‘down the shops’ in Dubai, and swap the dizzying sprawl of the mall for the dizzying heights of the Burj Khalifa.

Burj Al Arab

For 100 Dirhams (about £18), a forty-five second lift journey takes you to the 124th floor, where you are treated to both enclosed and terraced panoramic views of Dubai. Desert heat-haze and sand storms can limit the distance you can see, but I was treated to good visibility that even stretched as far as the more southerly Marina urban centre, with the iconic shape of the Burj Al Arab ‘sail’ hotel faintly outlined off the adjacent shoreline. For the best views of this you can pay a visit to the Madinat Jumeirah – a modern Arabian-style shopping and entertainment complex – where you can sit in the shadow of a palm tree with a coffee or cocktail and watch helicopters delivering the rich and famous to the hotel’s roof beyond.

For those less entranced by the latest in international fashion and five star dining, there are a host of tours and activities that leave the acres of glass-housed consumerism behind. Having indulged in the main capitalist endeavours that I’d ear-marked, it was time for another unique but starkly contrasting activity: a desert safari.

Our excursion saw us in a 4x4, taking on the confusing and often terrifying Dubai traffic where vehicles weave diagonally across the six lane highways while regularly testing their horns. With this in mind, it was a surprise that only a matter of minutes later, the high-rise silhouettes slipped out of vision, and desert dunes soon engulfed us on all sides.

After a brief stop to watch a token falcon flight, we set off for some hugely entertaining ‘dune-bashing’, where our convoy – around twenty off-roaders – was thrown about over mounds of wind-swept sand before we paused to watch the sun set. The cool evening temperatures and gentle rolling landscape of the dunes made for a welcome calm after the in-your-face style of downtown Dubai. The sense of relief continued for the remainder of the excursion, which treated us to an evening of entertainment and traditional food at a Bedouin camp. Despite there being over two hundred people congregating at the site, the open desert setting and the candlelight and the carpets gave it a surprisingly intimate feel; with the all-inclusive food, drinks and live entertainment, the half-day trip provided fantastic variety and value for money.

A final morning outing took me across Dubai Creek on a rickety wooden boat, for a brief stroll around one of the few remaining glimpses of old Dubai. Narrow alleyway networks combine to form the Souqs, where you experience bustling market stalls as sellers hassle you to buy carpets, spices and imitation high-end watches. Some may judge this experience a little daunting and oppressive, but I found it intriguing, and a relief to know that some form of tradition still appears to operate behind the air-conditioned, wallet-draining world that grabs the headlines.

The rate at which Dubai has developed and the feats that have been achieved are undoubtedly remarkable – and based on the cranes on the horizon this shows little sign of stopping. But whether local identity and lightning-fast progression can stay tolerant of each other remains to be seen. There is certainly a huge amount on offer to attract visitors from overseas, and you don’t necessarily need a lucrative career in property development to experience it. Even so, Dubai is a place that needs to be seen to be believed… and even then it may not make a lot of sense.

Return flights from Heathrow to Dubai (via Muscat)
start from £370 return with Oman Air (www.omanair.com).

A half-day desert safari with Arabian Adventures
costs from £55 (www.arabian-adventures.com).

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