~Dubai~ Heaven or Hell? both?
As the days draw in and the nights get colder, my thoughts turn to Dubai.
I hasten to add my thoughts do not turn to Dubai (or DOO-Boyyyy as many of its fans call it) as a potential vacation destination for the Proud family. Rather, I find myself thinking of it as an eternal, enduring mystery. Namely, why anyone would want to visit this ghastly place?
Dubai is considered to be the most ‘Western' part of the Middle East
Dubai is considered to be the most 'Western' part of the Middle East Photo: Alamy
It’s not just the onset of autumn either. The other reason I’ve been thinking about Dubai is that the Saudis are getting all sorts of bad press at the moment. I despise Saudi Arabia. It’s a hideous, brutal, oil-rich theocracy that exports terrorism. But you know what? It really doesn’t really pretend to be anything else. You know where you stand with Saudi Arabia.
Dubai, on the other hand, markets itself as fun in the sun, a kind of Las Vegas on the Persian Gulf. Yet it has far more in common with Saudi Arabia than you’d imagine. Before you say, “But Alex, Dubai is the forward looking part of the Middle East that wants to engage with the world,” I invite you to consider the case of Marte Deborah Dalelv.
Dalelv is a Norwegian fashion designer who was on a business trip in Dubai in 2013. During an evening out, she was raped. She later reported her attack to the police. The authorities’ reaction? Ms Dalelv was charged with perjury, having extramarital sex and drinking alcohol. She received a 16-month jail sentence.
There was an international outcry over the case, and eventually Ms Dalelv was pardoned by Dubai’s rulers, almost certainly because of the bad PR. Except it wasn’t “bad” PR. It was accurate PR, and it made Dubai look like what it is: a nasty little theocracy in a shopping mall.
"Bigger, better, higher, glitzier, nastier: Dubai is like an entire city designed by Donald Trump"
This is the first big reason I struggle to understand the “Destination: Dubai” mentality. Why would you want take your holiday in a country that locks up rape victims when it thinks no one is looking? Why, for that matter, would you want to take your holiday in a place which jailed a man for having a piece of dope on the sole of his shoe so small as to be invisible to naked eye? Why would you holiday in a country that detained a man for having poppy seeds from a bread roll on his clothes?
So Dubai is a fabulous alternative to Spain or Greece until you fall foul of one the hundreds of inhumane, hardline laws, at which point you get a short, sharp lesson in why most European legal systems are actually pretty great.
My problem with this is that Dubai wants to have it both ways. Either you’re a playground for tourists or you’re a deeply conservative Islamic state. I’m sorry, but you can’t be Ibiza and Saudi Arabia at the same time.
But let’s move on, as there are so many other reasons to hate Dubai. In fact, I’d find it pretty easy to hate the place even if, legally speaking, it was as liberal as Amsterdam.
For starters, it has an awful climate. It’s horrendously hot and humid for nine months of the year. It has close to zero real culture unless you count its unique take on Sharia Shopping ‘n’ Starbucks. It is an environmental Chernobyl filled with SUVs and air-conditioning up to and including an indoor ski slope. And it has some of the worst upscale architecture in the world. Bigger, better, higher, glitzier, nastier: it’s like an entire city designed by Donald Trump.
Of course, all this architecture doesn’t build itself. And the pampered Emirati elite certainly aren’t going to get their hands dirty. So they use guest workers from places like Pakistan and Nepal who they treat like disposable slaves. Assuming you can read a newspaper or, failing that, watch TV, it cannot have escaped your notice that Dubai’s masters appear not to care if these people live or die. If they’re female they get to be maids which means considerably less chance of dying of heatstroke and far more chance of being physically or sexually abused by your employer. Dubai!
When I read about conditions for guest workers in the UAE, I am genuinely reminded of US slavery. To treat people like this, you can’t view them as human. I’m sure there must be Emiratis who realize how dreadful this is, but clearly there are those who literally never think, “If I’d been born 1000 miles east of here, in Pakistan, I’d be scrubbing toilets for 16 hours a day.”
All this means Dubai is like a smorgasbord of the despicable. A legal system that jails rape victims. Modern slavery? Ghastly bad taste. An utter contempt for the environment. A hideous fusion of hyper-capitalism and repressive theocracy? I can only assume that if you enjoy holidaying in Dubai, you are the kind of person who weighs all these up and then shrugs and says, “But on the other hand, there is really great shopping.”
I’d always lazily assumed that all this meant that Dubai catered for a relatively uneducated, ill-informed, downmarket demographic. But in fact, it’s the second most expensive city in the world to stay in after Geneva. And then it hit me. You know exactly who Dubai man and woman are. They’re a certain brassy subset of the middle-classes. The kind of people who love expensive mock-Georgian new-builds. The kind of people who drive SUVs with personalised plates. They have good jobs and they’re successful, but they probably don’t have many books on their shelves.
If I struggle to understand why people visit Dubai, I am left truly baffled as to why anyone would want to live there. So I asked around and spoke to an acquaintance who’d spent a year there. Is it, I asked, one of those places, I asked, that’s a bit awful to visit, but actually OK nice to live in. She laughed and said: “There are two kinds of expat in Dubai. The first kind arrives and, after six weeks they realise it’s awful and that they’ve made a big mistake.”
“And the second kind?” I asked.
She shook her head, “For them it’s much worse. They like it.”
Here is where I make a confession. I have only been to Dubai once – and that was when I had a three-hour layover on my way to a far more pleasant destination. I never left the airport. But, actually, I don’t think this matters at all. It’s not necessary to spend a week in Dubai to know that it represents the very worst of East and West.
You don’t have to large it at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel to understand that human rights don’t extend to guest workers from the Indian subcontinent. You don’t need to spend 20,000 Dirhams in the world’s biggest shopping mall to know that journalists in the UAE practice “politeness.” Besides, as my friend said, “If you’ve seen Dubai Airport, then you’ve seen Dubai.”
"When all you care about is money, eventually you get Dubai"
Luckily, these days, you don’t have to go to Dubai to get a feel for the place. Because, it seems, we are building a simulacrum of Dubai in London.
When you cross Vauxhall bridge from Chelsea, you see St George Wharf in all its glory. It's a development of shiny towers that are at once incredibly expensive and very cheap looking. They’re not for the likes of you either. They’re for rich foreign investors, some of whom no doubt come from the UAE. In time, I’m sure they’ll be surrounded by expensive chain stores and pricey but not very good restaurants. It’ll be Dubai and grey skies. Of course, it’s not like Dubai in the sense that Vauxhall is still a centre for London’s gay pubs and clubs. But no matter, I’m sure that in a few years’ time, gentrification will drive them out.
It’s a warning to London. When all you care about is money, eventually you get Dubai.
But back to the real Dubai, the place of oppressive heat and censorship and towers built by slaves and vile consumerism ... And I’ll try and end on a positive note. What can I say I like about Dubai? OK, there is one good thing about Dubai. It keeps most of the people who like Dubai in one place.
If you’re on holiday in Dubai, you won’t be on holiday where I am.