Middle East

The Rome of the Middle East isn’t burning just yet

“Bursting of the bubble leaves life in broken city state feeling like the last days of Rome.” This was the doom-ridden headline about Dubai that jumped out of the newspaper I was reading on a recent flight out to the Middle East. There was in fact very little positive about the emirate that could be drawn of the double page article in the Times.

What would greet me in Dubai? Burning skyscrapers? Abandoned sports cars? Expats fleeing with only the clothes they were wearing? Or would the whole of Dubai just have disappeared into the sea? After 10 days of doom and gloom in the English press, the last thing I expected was a civilization still functioning.

So, soon after arriving in the emirate, it came as a surprise to encounter hustle and bustle at Dubai Marina. The restaurant I had lunch with a friend was not packed but we got stuck in a traffic jam on the approach. Car parks were fairly full and people were walking around. Not everyone had done a runner it seemed.

What’s more, the skyscrapers that define Dubai were still there. And, from the car window, I saw signs that not all construction had ceased. I’d only been in Dubai for a couple of hours and already there were signs of normality.

Over the course of a few days, I saw more evidence that things haven’t totally seized up in the city state. We went to what must be some of the coolest bars in the world – it’s hard to beat a cocktail bar on the 44th floor of a stylish hotel where you get breathtaking views over Dubai Marina.

We walked through the public areas of a top rate hotel on new artificial island called the Palm, built on land reclaimed from the sea (a clever ploy for creating more beach for tourists and residents to sunbathe on). The hotel itself, the Atlantis, boasts giant fish tanks (which you could also walk underneath) in the lobby and a water park where guests can swim with dolphins.

New shopping giant themed shopping centres are continuing to open – some with malls more than a mile long. We visited one that had different areas of the world relating to the travels of the Moroccan explorer Ibn Batuta. It included sections dedicated to India and China, with models of life size elephants and giant oriental boats. I’m not sure Ibn Battuta ever went to London, but there was a special Christmas craft market so naturally it was called ‘Convent Garden’ and there was a giant model of Big Ben and the Houses of parliament.

In another mall, there are giant indoor ski slopes, complete with ski lifts and even a ski-themed hotel with ski chalets overlooking the slopes. It made me laugh seeing people wearing thick ski coats and wooly hats – while outside it is boiling hot.
You can chill out on the hotel beaches during the day and then in the evening the beach bars open. And despite the apparent problems people (tourists and expats) are still out enjoying themselves. It must be very special to be able to call the Hilton beach club your local!

One evening we went down to see the world’s tallest fountains, which are lit with brightly coloured lights and set to an array of tunes. The display, in front of the Burj (opens next month and is the world’s tallest building) is nothing short of spectacular. Although quite what the nearby residents think of the noise from the jets of water is another matter!

Some parts of Dubai, like a mock Arabian souk with restaurants set around artificial canals feel a little bit like Disney. But this is Disney with class. All in all, it’s incredible to think that around 30 years ago the emirate was pretty much just dessert.

Of course, not is entirely well in Dubai. But talking to people living out there now, you get the sense that the problems have been known for some years. In other words, the problems announced by Dubai World, are not entirely new. Many companies in Dubai have refused to do business with the Government for some time.

This position gives some indication as to how things will pan out in Dubai in years to come. It will continue to grow as a hub for companies working across the Middle East. Employees will have their homes in Dubai given all the facilities and then work in more restrictive places like Saudi Arabia during the week.

Dubai will also continue to grow as a top holiday resort – it has some of the best hotels in the world and lovely beaches are being created. Massive theme parks (which will dwarf Disney) are being created. There are already many top golf courses.
And it’s also getting easier to move around thanks to the new Dubai metro. (The Times article said no-one uses it, which is unfair given that only five stations are built. I traveled on it early evening and it was packed with people heading out to the vast shopping malls).

Drive around Dubai and you see developments where work won’t hasn’t yet started. It’s true that some probably will never be completed. But Dubai is not unique in that around the world there has been a property crash. It’s a fact of life that developers have gone under.

Dubai’s economy is growing faster than Britain’s and many companies out there (like the airline Emirates are posting good profits).

Matches have been struck but Rome isn’t burning just yet. It hasn’t disappeared into the sea.

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Categories: Middle East, Uncategorized

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