What would a person do if they were walking in the desert and found a golden coin? Would they keep the new found wealth for themselves or share it with others? Would they purchase extravagant baubles and shiny trinkets to impress less fortunate friends and neighbors? Would they spend lavishly on short-term necessities or might they invest for the future in an attempt to prolong the benefits of their good fortune?
What if that person was a leader of men, who felt a responsibility for the welfare of others? What if instead of a single gold coin, they found a treasure trove of many coins? What if the citizens in their charge, while proud of their heritage, had never known the life of privilege and luxury that great wealth brings? Might that leader attempt to give the present generation everything they had ever desired or dream big and attempt to grow their tiny slice of sand into a grand scale futureland that could generate wealth for not just the present generation but all that might follow?
I imagine these questions occupied much of the thinking of the leaders of Dubai when oil was found in 1966. This dusty hamlet along the Dubai Creek known mostly for its small harbor and port and as a former pearl diving center was suddenly rich beyond their wildest dreams. Difficult questions needed to be answered. Complicated questions that not many countries have been lucky enough to be asked and even fewer have been successful in answering. The world often seems filled with wasted wealth and more people looking to take advantage than do the right thing.
Dubai certainly seems to have chosen to build for the future. Surprisingly Dubai does not have that much known oil. Perhaps only enough to produce for another 20 years. Diversification and investment in alternative sources of income seem to be their chosen solution for continued success. Massive building projects have already taken place and more are planned, seemingly announced daily. Perhaps no other place on earth has produced more “world class” projects in such a short amount of time. Airports, ports, entertainment venues and transportation infrastructure projects are easily visible everywhere. Trade, tourism, banking and real estate are all booming. The development accelerator has been pushed to the floor. Anyone seeing Dubai just 5 years ago may have trouble recognizing it today.
We were excited to get an opportunity to visit Dubai. So much has been written about the city and its gaudy development. The tallest building in the world, largest man-made port, worlds biggest mall and a massive airport have all been built. Towering skyscrapers that create a dizzying skyline and beach resort developments with wide beaches and endless sunshine are popular subjects of breathless travel writers. Desert dune bashing, camel racing, indoor ski resorts and skydivers soaring high over man-made palm-shaped islands have all been topics of glossy magazines and websites. While not the normal place that slow paced budget travellers such as ourselves are often found, it seemed impossible for us to pass up a chance to visit.
We found our apartment on the outskirts of town in a huge development called International City. Created for the workers who have been imported to fill many of the jobs created by the building boom, International City is not the glamorous world pictured in airline seatback magazines. It is filled with Indian, Pakistani, Filipino and other nationalities that have come to take advantage of the employment opportunities created by the building boom. Nine out of 10 people in Dubai were not born here. Probably not a neighborhood of the city seen by many visitors, this is definitely not an area of trendy dance clubs and glitzy Michelin starred restaurants.
We found it convenient for the necessities of life. Barbers, markets and even a mall were all nearby. What we found challenging was transportation. Dubai has generally good, if crowded, mass transit. Boats, trams, buses and subways connect most areas of the city. What we didn’t anticipate was the gigantic size of the entire city. The bus conveniently departed from just outside our apartment building but didn’t connect to the subway system until after a nearly 45-minute commute through the desert. The well organized and modern subway is then 48 kilometers long, so depending on our destination, some one-way commutes exceeded 2 hours long. A good way to see a lot of the city, but not the most conducive way to enjoy our daily explorations.
Nevertheless, we made our way out to see as much as we could. As common for most visitors, one of our first stops was the “Downtown Dubai” area of the city. Featuring the Dubai Mall, Dubai Fountains and the Burj Khalifa, it is probably the most written about area of the city. The Burj Khalifa, as the tallest man-made structure on earth, reaches the jaw-dropping height of 2717 feet. Although impressively visible from everywhere in the city, viewing it from the fountain area below is awe inspiring. Several buildings nearby are over 1000 feet and look positively dwarfed in comparison. Dubai Mall, also the biggest in the world, is uncomfortably huge also. Featuring an aquarium with a 3 story view window, full-sized ice rink, food court with more restaurants than most fair sized cities and every store you can possibly imagine (and more), it could possibly fill a week-long visit for any dedicated shopaholic. It actually has its own taxi service-inside the mall!
We spent another day touring the original downtown area of the city. Bur Dubai and Deira are areas on either side of the Dubai Creek that contain what is left of the original city. We enjoyed touring the Dubai Museum. Housed in (and below) the Al Fahidi Fort, the oldest building in the city, the museum recreates some of the history of the tiny desert port and tells the very interesting story of different eras of the development of the emirate. It was a smoking hot afternoon and we were grateful for the airconditioning inside. Afterward, we journeyed across the creek to the Deira side. We travelled via the traditional small ferries, called Abras, that ply the route. On the other side, we toured the many souks found there. Gold, textile and spice souks offer visitors and locals traditional items associated with the cities past. Ancient wooden dhows still line the creek where they are loaded with all manner of trade good destined for India or other Arabian Sea ports.
The best way to view the development of the city is to get high up in one of the many cloud touching buildings of the city. Of course, many visitors choose to visit the viewing deck of the Burj Khalifa, the highest in the world. The high cost deterred us and we decided to do some research to find decks we could visit for free. Several restaurants along Sheikh Zayed Road have outside seating and we timed our visits to coincide with sunset so the crowds were small and the lights of the city were at their best. A benefit of not going in the Burj is that you can get the massive tower in your photographs. Also, you can use the money saved to have a trendy cocktail while you enjoy the nightly light show as the city comes to life. Open air sunset views over the city from more than 40 floors up were truly breathtaking.
We made day trips to some of the more famous beach areas of Dubai. We enjoyed Jumeirah Beach and the area around the super exclusive Burj Al Arab Hotel. Most of the beach areas here were private but we managed to wander the grounds of some of the hotels. Like window shopping in designer stores, it was fun to imagine ourselves enjoying the 7-star luxury that these hotels offer. The harps in the atrium and smells of exotic scents in the lobbies made it easy for us to imagine the life of luxury the guests must be enjoying.
Another day we made the long commute to the Jumeirah Beach Residences beaches and the Dubai Marina. The JBR, as it is called, is the largest single residential project ever completed in a single stage. The towering residences line a spectacular beach and boardwalk where, of course, they are just finishing the worlds largest Ferris wheel. The nearby Dubai Marina is a massive man-made waterway with multiple 1000 feet plus towers surrounding 7 kilometers of walkways lined with restaurants, shopping and grandiose yachts. A modern tramway whisks visitors in air-conditioned comfort through the canyon-like streets.
Dubai is one of 7 emirates that make up the UAE. We made a long day trip to its most famous neighbor, Abu Dhabi. Equally as well off and almost as flashy, Abu Dhabi is about a 2-hour bus ride through the desert from Dubai. The highlight of the trip was our visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Easily one of the most spectacular religious buildings we have ever seen, the Grand Mosque features domes, minarets, courtyards and chandeliers that top any Arabian dreams you could ever have imagined. The mosque is said to hold 40,000 people and has the worlds largest carpet which weighs more than 35 tons. Witnessing the sunset over the majestic domes as the mosque magically illuminates in perfect soft light was a highlight we will not soon forget.
Dubai is an interesting place to visit. We were glad we had a chance to see more than just the tourist side of the emirate. It felt as if we were witnessing something that had never been attempted before. In one of the harshest climates in the world with almost no natural water, they are busily creating a mega city of over 3 million people in a very short period of time. The achievements are incredible but not without some noticeable problems. Workers living conditions and wages were not great. Much has been written about the environmental effects of so much building in such a fragile landscape. The energy requirements to make this harsh land livable is immense. The environmental hazards of construction of artificial islands and desalination plants have been reported. However, Dubai is at least addressing these issues.
Dubai has set huge goals. There is a true go big or go home spirit that is easily felt. Much has been done and much more is planned. Dubai has set the lofty goal of being the happiest place on earth in the near future. In the short amount of time we visited it seems that perhaps they still have a ways to go. But looking at how much they have achieved in a short period of time, I wouldn’t bet against them.