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The Great Heights of Dubai

The steel-and-glass oasis of Dubai has seen a period of growth that references only the Pharoahs in its scale.

Vertigo was the last thing I expected to encounter in Dubai, but it hit hard when I stepped out onto the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, which is situated, if that’s the word, in downtown Dubai. The Burj Khalifa, in fact, bestrides the district. And the beachfront. And the old downtown. And the marina. On a clear day, I suspect even Iranians, 90 kilometres across the Arabian Gulf, get an eyeful of it. But I digress.

Prior to travelling to Dubai, I had anticipated heat, sand, sun, excess and opulence—and I found those in abundance—but when I walked out into the open-air setting on the 124th-floor deck, the vertigo swept over me; my stomach plummeted to ground level and I got light-headed. Up and down the length of Dubai, which stretches perhaps 40 kilometres along the coast but goes only a few kilometres into the desert inland, the five main areas of the strip—Sharjah (the emirate to the north), old Dubai, Downtown Dubai, the Madinat and the Marina—offer up at least 100 buildings over 50 storeys tall, but looking down from the Burj Khalifa, they were mere townhomes. With the possible exception of Hong Kong, Dubai might be the world’s most vertical city. Standing there like a god, so high up you can almost sense the curve of the earth, one cannot help but feel that Dubai is a place of significance.

It’s a notion reinforced at every turn, principally due to the sheer madness of the city’s activity level, which itself induces a street-variety vertigo. Numerous people told me that one-third of the planet’s construction cranes are in Dubai and one-third of the world’s population is within a five-hour flight (which feels about right when you’re standing in line at customs in the airport). It all leads to the inescapable conclusion that there is clearly something going on in Dubai.

The question is, What?

The city state of Dubai is, fittingly, a recent innovation. For centuries, it was a sleepy little port for pearl divers, colonial ex-pats, Iranian smugglers and nomadic Arab tribes en route from one trading station to another. Around the time oil was found in the region, the British Protectorate came to an end. In 1968, Dubai and Abu Dhabi agreed in principle to unite, and, over the next three years, the nine coastal emirates—Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Bahrain and Qatar—discussed a formal union. Bahrain and Qatar opted out, choosing to form their own countries. On December 2, 1971, the United Arab Emirates was created. On December 3, 1971, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum of Dubai announced plans to erect the world’s tallest building and create the world’s largest shopping mall. Well, perhaps he didn’t formally announce it. But he definitely was thinking it.

Just four decades ago, if old photos are correct, there was not a single building in Dubai over three storeys tall. Today, Dubai has 22 buildings over 300 metres high, with the next closest city being Shenzhen. With 14. In Canada, we’re still working on number one. Dubai just recently passed Heathrow as the world’s busiest airport. The Dubai Mall is one of the world’s biggest shopping facilities. (Although it should be noted that it’s tied with West Edmonton Mall in terms of leasable area. Yes!) And lest you think it’s just oil money driving the Dubai experiment, think again. The majority of Dubai’s revenues is earned from its tourism and the financial sector, with less than seven percent coming from oil. When asked by a journalist in 2011 what his long-range plan for the city state was, the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (son of Sheik Rashid, and often referred to by locals simply as Sheikh Mo) said, with an imperious absence of extraneous detail, “I want to be Number One.”

Despite the Sheikh’s will to modern power and pizzazz, if you’re willing to look, you can still see and smell and touch the pre-UAE Dubai. You just have to work a bit to find it. The Dubai Creek is less a creek than an ocean inlet, almost a harbour, and it ripples and flows with current and commerce. For a couple of UAE dirhams (50 cents or so), creaky old dhows will ferry you back and forth. I crossed from the south over to the neighbourhoods of the old town, known collectively as Deira, and walked through the heaving Gold Souk (where I was presented with the best sales pitch ever: “My friend, I just saw you in Casino Royale! James Bond! Please, come, you need a gold Rolex for that wrist.”). I met up with Arva Ahmed at Muraqqabat Road. Labelling herself the chief executive muncher of Frying Pan Adventures, a culinary walking tour company, Ahmed, with her sister, runs daily and nightly journeys through the Deira, which is the much-less-glitzy part

of Dubai. It’s in the old town and feels like it could be Lebanon or Algiers. The streets are dirty, fascinating, crowded with locals and full of shops and restaurants, with angular corners giving way to dark alleys and labyrinthine side streets. It’s where Ahmed was born and raised, in these gritty streets that feel like Queens to the Manhattan of Dubai’s modern glitz.

“This is where I grew up,” Ahmed told our hardy group of intern munchers, pointing to a four-storey concrete walk-up just off Muraqqabat. “And people often miss this part of Dubai. They come for the beaches, the malls, the hotels, but few venture past the typical touristy spots into the back streets of Old Dubai. There is so much more to this city than just high-rises and shopping!”

With that, she led us into Qwaider Al Nabulsi, a bustling restaurant on Muraqqabat, where we ate Palestinian falafel mahshi (chickpea falafels stuffed with chili paste, sumac and onions), hummus with a green chili, garlic and lemon sauce called tatbeela, fūl (slow-cooked fava beans) and kunafa (Palestinian cheese pastry). Ahmed sent us into the night with tales of her mother’s home cooking, imploring us to discover Dubai’s back street restaurants.

“This is a great city for food,” she said, waving goodbye. “Don’t be afraid to walk around and explore!”

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Good advice if you’re in some of the older parts of Dubai (and it’s a safe, and safe-feeling, city), but in most of the modern areas of the city, pedestrians were taken into account during planning about as much as snowplow routes. I was staying—ensconced might be a more fitting word—at the new Four Seasons hotel on Jumeirah Beach: it has a spectacular oceanfront location and it offers quick access to the Deira, the Burj Khalifa and the Madinat, but these are all places you must drive to.

Which is a shame, in some ways, because despite its proliferating verticality (sustained, it must be noted, by suspect labour practices involving immigrant workers), so much of the fascination of Dubai lays at ground level. The Spice Souk beside Dubai Creek is where locals shop every day for their spices, as well as for just about everything else you can imagine. Situated in a maze of tunnel-like alleyways and passages, the souk feels like the setting for a scene in a Bond film where the spy (or me, I guess) flies off in an Aston Martin straight through a cart of colourful spices, sending it toppling and creating a rainbow cloud of cumin and saffron and cardamom and turmeric.

As I was spelunking my way through the cavernous aromatic network, a wedding party abruptly emerged from a tiny flower and spice shop. Bride and groom, attendants, parental figures. They dashed down an alleyway and I followed at a polite distance. Their path spilled us out into a small, leafy courtyard, where they took photos, drank tea, exchanged hugs. I strolled through to the courtyard exit on the far side, which led to another slightly less claustrophobic laneway. I was 10 paces down that lane when the call to prayer began to sound, very loudly, and I realized that the haunting ululations, broadcast from speaker towers in most every Arabic city, were so loud because I had stumbled upon the back side of the Grand Mosque of Dubai (which, all guidebooks note, forbids entry to non-Muslims). More compellingly to me, as someone who had never come close to the inside of a mosque, the back door was ajar. I could see inside. I stopped and peered in, trying to make out what I was seeing.

A young man, certainly not yet 30, walked past me and saw me craning my neck to look inside. He stopped.
“You find this interesting?”
“Oh, yes,” I said, hesitating. “I’m sorry. I was only looking.”
“Come in, then,” he said.
“In?” I said. “Inside?”
“Yes, yes,” he said. “It’s okay. Come in. I take you.”
I took my sandals off at the same spot he did and followed him. He led me to the common washing area. It was like a giant locker room, except with stools and benches and taps at knee height. “You wash first, yes. Feet.”
I nodded, turned on a tap and meticulously washed my feet. He watched me with some bemusement, but gently so. When I’d finished he said, “Good, now you go see.” He motioned past the airy foyer to a set of grand doors.

At this point, he bent over to begin his own ablutions and it was clear that I was meant to proceed on my own. At the entrance to the prayer room, I hesitated, since many men were kneeling in prayer prior to entering the room. But I decided to press on. I opened the door and stepped into a cool and lushly carpeted space interrupted only by ornate pillars. Perhaps a couple hundred men were on their knees facing the east wall, bending forward, then back up, then forward again. Some gave me a puzzled look, but no one said anything. I thought it would be false of me to go on my knees, so I stood at the back, watching, for about 10 minutes, before quietly exiting and returning to the area where I’d left my shoes. I didn’t see the man who’d invited me in, but I wished I had because I wanted to offer him my thanks. I felt welcomed to something intimate. I’d been afforded, through some peculiar stroke of luck, a glimpse into Islam that few non-Muslims ever get. Perhaps it happened because I’d opened myself up to the possibility, or maybe it was simply because I’d been walking a street and not riding an elevator.

I went back to the bustling streets of Al Fahidi and Al Musalla feeling chosen. Before coming to Dubai—the land of aggressive consumption—my itinerary did not include being struck dumb in a spiritual moment. The rest of the trip, I thought to myself, is gravy.

Which was a good attitude to have, given that I took the metro back to the hotel. I nearly missed the train and sprinted onto the last car as the doors hissed shut. A couple of teenage girls were giggling at, I thought, my slapstick entry. Then a Russian-looking woman aged about 30 gave me a bemused look, which I immediately took as a sign that she found me a mysteriously compelling foreigner who she probably ought to get to know better. Five seconds later, a stooped-over old woman with a couple of bristly hairs poking out of her chin near her head scarf gave me a sour look and barked a few words at me.

“Excuse me,” I said, noticing for the first time that I was the only man on the car.
“Are you a woman?” she said without a trace of humour.
The teen girls laughed out loud. I looked around and finally saw the signs.
“This car . . . women only,” said the old lady with disgust.
“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t notice.” I squeezed my way past many more women of all ages and shapes to reach the next car, which had men in it. The first man I came across was British. He’d seen the whole thing.
“Live and learn,” I said.
He nodded wryly. “You live and learn a lot over here.”

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The learning continued in the desert. Dubai is, of course, situated in one. A real desert. A serious desert. The southernmost corner of the UAE is made up of a vast space known simply as the Empty Quarter. It’s 650,000 square kilometres in area and covers parts of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen. It’s the world’s largest sand desert. And the emptiest.

Yes, Dubai is coastal, which means it has stunning beaches (most of which are man-made or at least heavily manicured), but it is populated only on the outer fringes of what is a vast and largely inhospitable terrain. I rented a car one day and drove southeast, toward Oman, to see what there was to see. Which was not much. Vast (and empty) highways led straight to the Oman border and the craggy Al Hajar mountain range, which offered a stark backdrop to the flowing sand dunes of the UAE. Travelling south along the Oman border and back to the sea via Abu Dhabi was fascinating principally for the roaming camels, epic dunes and stiff winds. Although significant portions of the drive through the interior of the country were filled with feelings of isolation and praying for the car to not break down, the only aspect of that day’s journey that put me in harm’s way was driving the busy freeway between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Twelve lanes of traffic pulsed north and south at alarmingly high speeds, with no respect for or even awareness of basic rules of the road. The posted speed limit was a generous 140 kmh, but driving in the right lane, I was passed numerous times by Bentleys and Ferraris doing 180 kmh in the shoulder lane.

Once safely back in the elegant confines of the Four Seasons, sitting, with a gin and tonic in my hand beside one of the numerous pools facing the glassy calm of the Arabian Gulf, the jitters from the drive finally subsiding, I turned my attention back to what Dubai represents in our modern age. Dubai’s blending of cultures is certainly not insignificant. It’s trying to absorb what it thinks is the best of the West while also trying to make the West conform to its ways (no chewing gum on the subway, no public displays of affection, no homosexuality, no public alcohol, no gambling, no pornography, no press freedoms).

When it comes to the standard tropes of tourism, Dubai scores highly. It is a pleasant and frictionless place to visit: the hotels are fantastic, the weather is perfect, the beaches are long and clean, the water is safe, the food is varied and accessible. You can get alcohol if you’re staying in a hotel. There are numerous activities and nightlife options. Dubai has essentially ascended to the ranks of one-word equivalencies among cities. Paris equals style. New York equals vibrancy. Rome equals chaos. And Dubai? Extravagance, of course.

But is it really that simple?

What makes Dubai different is that it actually symbolizes something besides cross-cultural pollination or high-end tourism. What it finally tells us, or at least wants us to believe, is not so much that we can have it all—because the world’s travelling elite already know that—but that we actually deserve it all. Dubai is not about excess, because the word excess implies too much of something. There is no such thing as too much in Dubai. Dubai wants us to believe that our desires are not disproportionate, not fantastical, but achievable and rational. As Sheikh Mo said, he just wants Dubai to be Number One. In what? It doesn’t matter. Just Number One. You pick the category.

In this regard, Dubai might just be the world’s most modern destination. It’s a frantically busy, spirited, venal, tender, garish, ancient, new, deep and shallow place, but it’s also a place where aspiration is not so much a word as a trigger code encrypted into the collective cerebral cortex. It knows best what today’s global citizen wants. What do we want? We want to be Number One.

Even simple things remind you of this pervasive sense of entitlement. The day I drove out into the desert toward Oman I had rented a mid-size Toyota, giving it very little thought. But the attendant doing my paperwork was utterly mystified by my choice, nearly to the point of exasperation.

“We have BMW, we have Mercedes, we even have Bentley. You want a Bentley?”
“No,” I said. “The Toyota is fine.”
He stared at me for some time. “But why? You can drive a Bentley. Why would you choose the Toyota?”
“I’m okay, really. This is fine.”

He thought of saying something more, but finally shrugged and returned to his forms. He’d given up on me. It was as if I was speaking a different language, which, in retrospect, I suppose I was.

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