Playground Attraction

July 2008, Gafencu Men Magazine, China

Dubai is the fastest growing city on earth, and as the strategic financial centre the Middle East it is becoming a playground for the very, very rich

There is a frission of guilty pleasure to be had from heading to one of the earth’s hottest, driest places to ski, swim and indulge in climate-controlled shopping sprees, and it is one that this year prompted around seven million to pack light and head to Dubai. This small nation of 1.3 million people will soon have forty mega-malls, 7 new theme parks and over 530 hotels to its name, not to mention a pulsating new club scene and a penchant for luxury sporting events. And with that kind of party laid on – well, it would be downright rude not to show up.

Back in the early sixties, when Dubai had one hotel and a lot of sand, there were few who could have looked at the old trading port and camel herding turf and thought: “chi-CHING”. But oil – oil changes everything, and after its discovery the emirate turned itself into a thriving commercial hub. It got its World Trade Centre in 1979, a beautiful 39-storey testament to modern Islamic architecture, then a lucrative free trade zone was established, with more to follow in the 90s under the new crown prince: starry-eyed, business-savvy General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

Now, tap ‘Dubai’ into Google news and you won’t just find pages on the new airport (the world’s largest when completed) or the latest height report from the Burj Dubai (629m); you’ll get camels going for US$2.7 million in beauty contests, the chance to buy an island the shape of Switzerland and CEOs boasting of a “Disneyland on steroids”.

As a record breaker Dubai ticks a lot of boxes (largest pair of chopsticks? Look no farther), but it’s also competing quite seriously as a business destination. It is the commercial capital of the seven United Arab Emirates, and though the old industries –pearls and oil – have dwindled they’ve been happily replaced by financial services, manufacturing and top tier sports championships from horse racing to power boating, placing it firmly on the international circuit, with a running supply of the world’s rich and famous. Freehold property developments like The Palm Jumeirah and Arabian Ranches have done the same, but they tempt more than just the nouveau riche trying to keep up with the Beckhams. Property rushes in the earlier part of the decade reduced would-be investors to fisticuffs as they fought to get their deposits down.

In Dubai business and pleasure are locked in an amorous clinch. Mega malls, theme parks and hotel projects push ever farther out into the desert, and stretches of bare sandy road are littered with billboards boasting of that area’s future as a theme park or residential oasis. It may make life tough for taxi drivers (the city layout changes more often than Paris Hilton’s arm candy) and for an abused migrant workforce that continually crops up, overworked and underpaid, in the news, but for those born to shop, the emirate’s arms open very wide.

Dubai residents are very proud of their malls, which are formidable in size and assortment with wares that are tax-free. While the Burj Dubai aims to outdo Minneapolis’ record-breaking Mall of America in girth when complete this year, the Mall of Dubai is the biggest the UAE has to offer right now, and is the only mall in which shoppers can hit indoor ski slopes between sprees [pictured above]. Each giant has its own character: Deira City Centre is best for local people watching and international high street chains; Wafi City serves up Diors and Pradas; Souk Madinat’s outlets are smaller and more boutique.

For those expecting the musty pandemonium of Morocco’s souks Dubai may be a welcome relief – the covered shopping alleyways are easy to negotiate and the same can be said for the prices. They can also give the best blend of both worlds, local and tourist, with goods that range from delicate pashminas, silver and henna kits, to rosewood furniture, saffron and kitchen implements.

For the retail weary there are other kinds of action to be had, and the water parks and pristine, waveless beaches make it a worthy family destination. Fresh water may be scarce but there are at least ten golf clubs, all with courses designed by the best in the business, from Greg Norman to Robert Trent Jones II. Thrill seekers hit the sand dunes and wadi (dry river beds), either by board or full pelt in 4X4s, and many tour companies venture briefly into neighbouring emirate Sharjah, where the colour of the sand deepens from pale ash blonde to a spicy orange, and belly dancers serenade diners over Arabian barbeque as the sun dips.Desert hotels such as Bab Al Shams capitalize on the ‘desert castaway’ vibe with infinity pools among sand dunes and cocktails on floor cushions. Adrenaline can run as high as the prices at the Nad al Sheba’s Dubai Racing Club, especially during the world’s richest horseracing event, the World Cup, in March. The annual calendar sees everything from the PGA Dubai Desert Golf Classic to the Dubai Open Tennis Championship.

This emirate is the most cosmopolitan of the seven and it is free from many of the restrictions of Muslim law in neighbouring Sharjah, Ajman or even the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi. Laws governing alcohol intake have relaxed  (though officially just for non-Muslims) and there’s a high tolerance for western clothing and customs, which has helped fashion one of the hottest party scenes in the Middle East. “The scene has completely changed,” says Sadiq Saboowala, whose family has run a gold jewelery business in town for more than two decades. “Five years ago it was calmer, more about visiting sheesha bars and having long meals. With the new wave of foreigners the party venues have boomed, bars are getting much bigger – in every sense,”

Sheesha is still imbibed, but the venues carry an extra layer of glitz. There are at least 300 hotels in Dubai and each has a bar or two vying for the attention of the young and the wealthy. Expect plush interiors, ample VIP provisions, top name DJs and six liter bottles of Dom Perignon that can run to about 31,000 dirhams. A nightlife milestone was hit when Grosvenor House bagged the rights to Paris’ uber trendy Buddha Bar in 2005, and another was reached soon after, when Naomi Campbell chose to throw down a couple of million US dollars on her 38th birthday at the Burj Al Arab. Though there’s no particular district for clubs and bars, The Madinat Jumeirah and the Dubai Marina boast a good, upscale gauntlet, as does Le Meridien Mina Seyahi, with its popular beach-side lounge, Barasti, an Italian restaurant that gets its beat on after midnight.

However this is still a Muslim land, where calls to prayer waft across rooftops and public displays of affection can cause alarm. Women in the black abbaya are a familiar sight, whether melting mysteriously into doorways or shopping for shoes in H&M, and in souks and boardrooms across town the men, in airy white dishdasha, are their photo negatives. For resident Muslims, drinking alcohol in hotels or at home can be a challenge.

The contrast of sky with sand and gleaming architecture makes outdoor Dubai seem attractive, but the heat does not – temperatures can hit the high forties. Bus stops are air conditioned pods, car park spaces have their own umbrellas and beaches are free from all but the hardiest of sun worshippers during the day. Using this to their benefit, hotels have evolved into self-contained wonderlands with entertainment, food and boutique wares making it even harder for their guests to leave.

The Jumeirah Group is one of Dubai’s main hotel players. Three of its properties – the family friendly Jumierah Beach Hotel, the traditionally themed Madinat Jumeirah, and the showy, sail-shaped Burj Al Arab – are connected by golf buggy taxi routes and guests hop between the three. Striking a pose out in front of Jumeirah Beach, ‘the Sail’ plays home to many of the city’s wealthiest visitors, including many guests of the Maktoum monarchy, who reportedly put up house guests there. Its glitzy innards may be a little too fabulous for some – there’s a lot of gold – but people watching is at its best – you’ll never quite know who’ll be stepping into your elevator. Though public tours were discontinued, many waft through on their way to restaurant Al Muntaha on the 27th floor, with its 360 degree sweep, and cocktail mixology platters that move between tables.

Other exclusive temporary addresses around town include the recently-opened Raffles Dubai next to the Wafi City mall and the One and Only Royal Mirage Hotel, with its Givenchy Spa. It’s worth visiting at least one spa or salon in town for an Arabian-style pamper, and the Givenchy hammam has a menu of Moroccan massages, black soap scrubs and rose clay facials. H20 in the Emirates Towers Hotel is a men-only destination for grooming that ranges from spray tanning to a flotation tank.

Friday brunch is the highlight of many a week here – Friday being the day of rest – and bookings should be made for those who plan to eat out between ten and three pm. “[Brunch is] very much similar here to other countries,” says Atinirmal Pagarani, a resident who works in real estate. “It does get beautiful during winters when the sun’s not so strong and everyone’s sipping beer, smoking Shisha and tucking into great food beside the beach.” Dubai’s hotels have really brought its culinary scene up to speed, with offerings such as Verre in the Hilton Dubai, a Gordon Ramsey affair with a seven course taster menu that’s consistently rated one of the best eats in the city. Few are a muted as Verre, however, and perusing the showy décor in many restaurants is as much fun as surfing their menus.

Since the temperature drops at night, many spots make full use of roofs and terraces. Bastakiya Nights, in the old town district combines flavours of the region with low tables, torch light and a vat of open-air rooftop ambience – the stars shine brightly over Dubai. Middle Eastern cuisine is aromatic and deftly spiced, and delicacies such as Quozi – a whole roasted lamb with nuts on a bed of rice – are bolstered by tasty staples, from hummous and baba ghanoush to wara einab, stuffed vine leaves.

At pedestrian level modest Lebanese and Indian joints are popular for a cheap meal, especially in places like Dhiyafa Street, which closes to traffic at night – but Iranian grub can be sampled at the Radisson’s Shabestan, and the tagines are rated at the Shangri-La’s courtyard restaurant, Marrakesh. The seafood in Dubai shouldn’t be overlooked – the gulfs are a source of red snapper, lobster, rock cod and crab. But those wanting to be even closer to the water should try dinner on the dhows that cruise the still waters of the creek.

Dubai has been described as having all the culture of a casino, which should perhaps be expected – the place has sprung up from almost nothing into a bewildering ethnic mosaic. Flavours of Arabia can be sampled at hotels and through arranged tours though, and these often involve falconry, belly dancing and desert barbeques. Dubai’s monarchy also keeps it firmly tied to its history:  back in the 1800s when a branch of the Bani Yas tribe settled at the mouth of a shallow coastal creek it was led by the Maktoum family. The Maktoum empire now owns and develops much of the emirate (known in many circles as ‘Dubai Inc’) and it is responsible for a series of ornate, peacock-strewn palaces, as well as Dubai’s liberal, capitalist credentials.

Find the Dubai museum in the Al Fahidi Fort, which dates back to the early 1700s and offers dioramas, artifacts, and swallows that blanket the sky come dusk. Other cultural interludes take place in the Jumeirah Mosque – the only one that welcomes curious sightseers (in twice-weekly tours), or the Sheikh Mohamed Centre for Cultural Understanding, with its walking tours and Arabic lessons. Some high culture meanwhile can be tracked down at the traditionally-styled Bastakiya village, complete with wind towers, narrow lanes and contemporary galleries. The white-washed Majlis Gallery is just one of these and hosts a mix of contemporary art and local crafts.  Culture buffs should perhaps consider a cultural excursion to the strict but historically-loaded Sharjah, just a twenty minute drive away in good traffic.

It may not have the texture or the depth of the world’s older cities, but Dubai has unique appeal as a  twenty first century product in which money, both silly and serious, calls the shots and where almost anything is possible. For those that seek excess it has the goods, and for the rest it offers countless chances to gawp and marvel, before making the most of that age-old vacation tripartite: sun, shopping and sand. Because some things never change.