Dubai: the city that has grown up

Five years ago I vividly recall sitting in my car in a supermarket car park on the outskirts of Hull and talking on the phone to a friend who was moving out to Dubai. It was pouring down with rain and I couldn’t face getting soaked from walking the short distance to the store entrance. Yet in spite of the turbulent weather that we often face in the UK I thought then I was in the better position – at least I wasn’t moving an outpost in the desert!

But two years later, in 2009, I thought I should go and visit the place that many were raving about, so I booked a flight out to visit my friend in Dubai. People back home warned me that I would find the place soulless, however if I wanted to visit some of the world’s biggest shopping malls, indoor ski slopes and extravagantly themed hotels then I would probably have a good time.

Worse still, in 2009 the British press was full of stories about the supposed financial collapse of Dubai. Thousands who had bought new properties off plan had lost their life-time saving as work stopped on construction sites. Most high profile of all was ‘the World’, a series of manmade islands representing scaled down versions of all countries in the globe, lay barren – it was all very embarrassing for Dubai. There were also reports of expats abandoning their cars at the airport and getting out while they could. Had for Dubai, the emirate bankrolled for so long by unsustainable debts, the bubble finally burst?

In the end Dubai was bailed out by its oil rich neighbour Abu Dhabi, which is run by the cousin of the leader of Dubai, to the tune of an estimated $15bn. And, as for my holiday, I had a great time. We chilled out in some of the best bars in the world – built on the beach, high up skyscrapers and at my friend’s golf club. There was also time for history too – the story of Dubai is well told at an excellent museum down by the Creek.

Since that visit, I’ve made several return trips – usually combined with visiting other places like India and Oman. It really is a great place to stop over and chill – and catch up with my good friend Ian from university days and his wife.
On my most recent visit, I was really struck by how much Dubai has matured and grown up. Talking to Ian, he says that the days of people jetting over to Dubai and getting a well-paid job straight away just because they have a British passport are long gone. The under qualified and those lacking a hard work ethic have found themselves packing their bags and heading back home. Building work has started again, but projects seem to be far more sensible and manageable. And those that are sensible won’t buy off plan or not even buy at all and just rent.

Of course, those that are prepared to work hard are rewarded with fantastic leisure activities. There are some great golf courses and beautiful, well looked after landscaped parks across the city. The bars and restaurants are of the highest quality and are booming. The highlight of the week for many being the Friday brunch where hotels lay on extravagant buffets and are charged one fixed price to eat and drink as much as they want. Dubai is also putting on some great festivals – on my recent visit we enjoyed a fantastic music event with Kaiser Chiefs headlining. The location, down on the sands on the Palm, a manmade island jutting out from Dubai, and the atmosphere would be hard to beat.

The city has never looked better, with extensive walk ways along by some of Dubai’s waterfront areas. The Metro is finished, connecting the airport with the main business and leisure districts. The shopping malls are booming with visitors from far and wide. Dubai still boasts the tallest building in the world – the Burj Khalifa. To travel up to the viewing platform of this immense skyscraper gives you the chance to look down on a city that gets more exciting by the day. Work will apparently start soon on building a grand opera house.

Many that live out in Dubai don’t actually do any work in the emirate all – but just use it as a comfortable base for picking up lucrative contracts in emerging countries like Saudi Arabia. Air travel in the region is excellent, so it is very easy to live in Dubai with all its Western comforts and then commute to neighbouring areas. Expats also have plenty of options for having fun at the weekend – aside from the vibrant nightlife in Dubai itself, modern roads make it really easy to travel out to exciting places in neighbouring emirates. On my most recent visit we headed out to Liwa in the Arabian desert (about four to five hours drive from Dubai) for a couple of days. It was amazing seeing nothing but red sands, and the odd camel, for mile upon mile.

Dubai hasn’t completely turned the corner yet – it will for example have to settle its debts with Abu Dhabi over the next couple of years, but there is a great sense of optimism out there now. It’s an increasingly popular tourist destination for people of all ages and it is doing well trading on the notion of being a safe hub in an otherwise turbulent region. The message to weary war reporters and enterprising businessmen alike is the same: Dubai has grown up and means business.

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