[FoRK] [TRAVELMAN] Excesses of Dubai

Rohit Khare khare at alumni.caltech.edu
Mon May 16 23:26:43 PDT 2005


[Haven't been out of the airport, and that too a decade ago or more.  
But we did buy a gold bar :) --RK]


May 8, 2005

The Oz of the Middle East

By SETH SHERWOOD

DOWN gleaming silvery escalators they glided, eyes afire and credit  
cards in easy reach. As a warm Tuesday night hung languidly over the  
Persian Gulf, a multicultural pageant of shoppers, diners and  
drinkers fanned out into the majestic, wintry-cool shopping mall  
beneath the Middle East's tallest building, the 1,163-foot Emirates  
Office Tower in Dubai.

Indian matrons in colorful saris and Middle Eastern women in black  
veils strolled through the pristine, white marble corridors, pausing  
to consider the worthiness of Gucci totes, Bottega Veneta shoes and  
Cartier diamonds. White-robed Middle Eastern businessmen, fat gold  
watches glittering from the edges of their sleeves, talked into green- 
glowing cellphones. Three Arab men in baggy jeans, looking like cast  
members from an Al Jazeera version of "The O.C.," chatted warmly with  
three young European-looking women in spangly tops. Just behind them,  
boisterous British expatriates in business suits tried to push into  
the fray of Ladies' Night at an overpacked bar called Scarlett's.

Outside, night-shift taxis and BMW's streamed down crowded highways,  
cruising near the soaring, sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, which bills  
itself as the world's highest hotel - snaking around the rising  
foundation for the world's tallest building (the Burj Dubai, which at  
more than 2,300 feet, will surpass the current pretender, the 1,667- 
foot Taipei 101, when it opens in 2008), and skirting the  
construction sites for two competing retail projects, each of which  
insists it will be the largest shopping mall in the world.

 From out there, the illuminated Emirates Office Tower, rising  
silently over the throbbing music at Scarlett's, and its nearly  
identical neighbor, the slightly shorter Emirates Hotel Tower, looked  
like flaming arrows shooting toward the stars.

Bigger, taller, grander, richer, only. Dubai, one of the seven city- 
states of the United Arab Emirates, has already undergone an extreme  
makeover, in less than a decade, that would awe the most ambitious  
builder. And as it continues trying to write its own chapter in the  
record books, travelers from all over the globe are coming to  
luxuriate in otherworldly thread counts and truffle-loaded  
restaurants at the five-star hotels; romp in the surf at fine white  
beaches (bikinis allowed); dance to tunes spun by international  
D.J.'s in myriad nightclubs; and fill shopping bags, unhindered by  
sales taxes, at dozens of malls and the gold souk, the largest gold  
market in the world.

"Dubai will shock anyone who isn't from Las Vegas, Nev.," said Ole  
Bech-Petersen, 35, a Danish advertising executive, who pronounced  
himself "completely seduced" after his first trip to Dubai in March,  
when he stayed at the plush Emirates Hotel Tower, dined at the Burj  
Al Arab's underwater restaurant and made impulse buys in the gold  
souk and the new Mercato shopping mall.

Cynthia Moureto, a retailer in her 20's from Manhattan, sampled Dubai  
with her sister in February and came away equally impressed. "We'd  
heard from people that it was a very up-and-coming city full of great  
shopping and wonderful hotels, lots of tourists, lots of new business  
opportunities, lots of action, lots to do," she said. "They were  
right." She and her sister soaked up treatments at the Shangri-La  
hotel's spa and partied until the wee hours with an international  
crowd at the Trilogy nightclub.

Some 5.45 million travelers passed through the gates of this Middle  
Eastern Xanadu in 2004, a 9 percent jump over the year before and a  
nearly 20-fold increase from a mere decade earlier, according to  
Pascal Maigniez, the director of the Paris office of the Government  
of Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing. Two-thirds  
came on business, bound for places like Internet City, a five-year- 
old office park with offices of hundreds of technology companies  
including Microsoft, Oracle, I.B.M., Siemens and Sony. But more and  
more, Dubai is a tourist destination.

"When I first started going to Dubai, no one had heard of it," said  
Sandra Morgan, 42, who lives near London and has visited seven times  
in the past few years. "Now everyone wants to go." She likes the  
array of ethnic restaurants, the long beachfront and good values -  
especially in jewelry - and feels a friendly vibe. "The service is  
great," she said, "the hotels are first-class, and there are so many  
shops."

Joining the pleasure seekers and international executives are the  
fortune seekers, rich and poor, who fly in from India, Pakistan,  
Iran, Lebanon, the Philippines, Europe, Australia and South Africa.  
Only a fifth of Dubai's resident population of 1.2 million is made up  
of citizens. The other 80 percent are expatriates, including an  
underclass of foreign workers in construction and menial jobs, and  
though Arabic is the official language, English, the language of  
commerce, holds this global gumbo together. Only a third of Dubai's  
residents are female.

To accommodate the arriving masses, Emirates Airlines is spending $19  
billion to scoop up 45 of the world's largest passenger planes, the  
new Airbus A380.

Concerned that Dubai is running out of beachfront, its crown prince,  
Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, is having three palm-tree- 
shaped islands created on sand being dredged from the Gulf and held  
in place by enormous plastic membranes. Plans for the property  
include opulent apartment towers and as many as 100 new hotels,  
including Hydropolis, billed as the earth's first underwater resort.  
Also coming is an archipelago of artificial islands resembling a map  
of the earth, covered with plush part-time residences for far-flung  
millionaires and billionaires and called simply The World.

"It's like Sea Monkeys!" Laurence Thorpe, a frequent business  
traveler from Australia, shouted one evening between sips of Stella  
Artois beer in a deafeningly loud beachfront club-restaurant called  
Boudoir. (Sea Monkeys are a novelty powder, really dried brine  
shrimp, that transforms into swimming creatures in water.) "You start  
with nothing, just sand," he said, as a sea of well-off Lebanese  
travelers and expatriate professionals danced around him, toasting in  
Arabic and French. "You add water and - presto -instant city!"

Actually, you add oil. Petroleum has underwritten Dubai's boom. But  
its reserves will be depleted within a decade, and the country's  
rulers have deliberately diversified the economy. Oil now accounts  
for just 8 percent of national income. Tourism brings in 17 percent.

Dubai is a metropolis of bone-white apartment blocks, green palm  
trees and amazing, odd juxtapositions. Thudding jackhammers mingle  
with the call to prayer. At Nad al Sheba racetrack, old-world camel  
racing by day gives way to glitzy thoroughbred action by night (the  
$6 million purse for one annual race in Dubai is, of course, the  
world's richest). Cruising the city by taxi on a five-day visit in  
February, I was reminded of the hot, flat sprawl of Tampa or Houston  
- until I glimpsed a fully veiled woman driving alongside my cab and  
saw two men in checkered headdresses pulling their Lamborghinis  
parallel to chat. Glossy financial magazines share rack space with  
titles like International Falconer.

Buried deeper among the commercial towers and retail palaces, you can  
still find traces of the old Dubai, a sleepy fishing and pearl-diving  
village that grew into a modest city in the 19th century, fueled by  
trading and, some say, smuggling. Hidden in the Bastakiya  
neighborhood, where Arab and South Asian laborers pay a few coins to  
be ferried on traditional timber boats across Dubai Creek, are the  
city's oldest building, a late-18th-century fort holding the Dubai  
Museum, and its newest cultural innovation, its first gallery district.

A local art scene is "finally getting there," I was told by Sana  
Khan, a New Jersey transplant who manages XVA, a gallery, cafe and  
guesthouse in a converted barjeel, a traditional mansion with a  
rectangular open-air tower and a courtyard soaring wind tower.

Dark hair pulled back and wearing a loose-fitting black dress, she  
shuffled around an art-book-lined office while in the nearby  
exhibition area some middle-aged British women admired grainy  
photographs of Parisian street scenes and pocketed invitations to an  
opening for an Iraqi textile artist. But for a city of its size,  
Dubai still has surprisingly little cultural life.

The city has worked at image-building by holding golf and tennis  
tournaments featuring the likes of Tiger Woods and Venus Williams,  
and playing host to an international film festival and meetings of  
the World Bank. But overwhelmingly, a trip to Dubai is about sun and  
sand, food and partying - and above all, shopping.

The merchandise hunt reaches a glittering zenith in the gold souk, a  
network of streets where 400 storefronts drip with gold necklaces,  
earrings, watches, brooches, rings and toe rings. With the heat, the  
24-karat cornucopia can be so exhausting to absorb that roving men  
with trays of Fanta sodas and bottled water - freelance waiters,  
basically - do good business offering refreshments to the sweating  
tide of dumbstruck international shoppers. The market's shadier  
dealers approach strolling tourists with unsubtle come-ons like "Hey,  
Boss, Bulgari-Tivoli-Gucci-Movado?"

The nearby spice souk, where the merchant stalls are crowded with  
large bins of fragrant saffron, coriander and other exotic  
ingredients, is considerably more tranquil.

Eventually, however, all roads lead to the malls - 40 of them,  
purveying everything from Korean toys to luxury cars and struggling  
to differentiate themselves from one another. Wafi City Mall works at  
rising above the crowd with an Egyptian theme, featuring ersatz  
pyramids and sphinxes; the planned Ibn Battuta Mall, named for an  
Arab explorer, will borrow architectural elements from countries he  
visited, including Persia, China and India. The developers say that  
it will also hold the world's largest maze.

On a busy afternoon at Mercato Mall, a colonnaded fantasyland modeled  
on a Renaissance-era Mediterranean village, the retail fever was  
epidemic. Emirati boys in white dishdashas and new baseball caps  
queued up for "Meet the Fockers." Heavily made-up Iranian women in  
black chadors fingered sunglasses and flashy scarves in a clubwear  
boutique. Russian tourists, arms well tanned from days at the beach,  
swiped credit cards at Cerutti and Nine West.

The city was celebrating what seemed a redundant event: the 10th  
annual Dubai Shopping Festival, basically a giddy month of sales and  
giveaways that rakes in more than a billion dollars a year, drawing  
feverish interest with a series of raffles with lavish prizes like a  
personal fleet of 10 Nissans. "One World, One Family, One Festival,"  
ubiquitous signs declared, appealing to humanity's universal desire  
for a Chanel pantsuit.

At the Mercato's noisy Starbucks, two Libyan hipsters sat down with  
their lattes, visibly tired. "We've been mall-hopping all day," said  
Sufian Swed, a 24-year-old from Tripoli who was working in Dubai. He  
added with a laugh, "It's kind of sad." His friend, 29, an import- 
export specialist named Mohamed Abdulsaloum, surveyed the afternoon's  
haul: a nutrition book and some sweaters. "I think they bump the  
prices up two weeks before the festival and then knock them down and  
call it a discount," he said. Then they pulled out the day's main  
score, two Dubai Shopping Festival souvenir coins. Each one  
represented an entry in a drawing to win 100 kilograms of gold.

The festival's heady atmosphere can inspire outlandish behavior. One  
afternoon I watched a line of contestants hurl squadrons of paper  
airplanes into a slowly revolving convertible in hopes of driving it  
home. And at my hotel that evening, I held the elevator door for a  
college-age Middle Eastern woman loaded down by bags bursting with  
huge boxes of Kellogg's Corn Flakes.

"You came all the way to Dubai to buy cornflakes?" I asked in disbelief.

She shot me a confused, slightly offended look. "I love cornflakes,"  
she said at last.

To fuel the legions of global power shoppers, Dubai bursts with  
restaurants. The slick Asha's, owned by the famous Indian singer Asha  
Bhosle, serves upscale Indian food. Fine French cuisine comes  
courtesy of another celebrity, the foul-mouthed former Scottish  
soccer player Gordon Ramsay, who landed three Michelin stars for the  
London restaurant that bears his name before starring in his own  
British reality television series, "Hell's Kitchen."

Downscale dining, though harder to find, can be more interesting. At  
Ravi, in a neighborhood of working-class South Asians and Iranians,  
men in long, loose shirts sit elbow to elbow devouring rice, curries  
and soft nan, the hand serving as spoon and fork. If you go there,  
order the succulent cubes of grilled mutton tikka - the waiter will  
resign himself to seeking real cutlery when he sees you're a stranger  
in town. At the waterside Fatafeet restaurant, couples smoke fragrant  
apple tobacco from the long tubes of billowing shisha pipes while  
families feast on tabbouleh and pomegranate juice.

Many Dubai vacationers bring children, who play at the beach and  
hurtle downhill on water slides at the Wild Wadi Water Park. In a  
challenge to a typical tourist reaction in Dubai - that the whole  
place is an overgrown Disney World - an immense patch of sand near  
downtown is now being transformed into a new $19 billion theme park,  
Dubailand, described on its Web site as "the biggest, most varied  
leisure, entertainment and tourism attraction on the planet."

At twilight at the week's end, you can almost hear the shouts of  
"Thank God it's Thursday." With no work on Friday, the Muslim  
Sabbath, Dubai goes into session as the Middle East party capital.  
 From cheesy populist clubs animated by Filipino cover bands to the  
exclusive Skyview Bar at the Burj Al Arab hotel - where admission  
requires reservations days ahead and a cover charge of $45 (170  
dirhams, at 3.75 dirhams to the dollar) - the Arabian night promises  
conviviality for every social stratum. Yet until the Maktoums build  
something along the lines of a liquorland - not likely in Islamic  
Dubai - alcohol is generally restricted to hotels, which can seem  
more like towering night life complexes where some people happen to  
sleep.

Amid the hullabaloo one Thursday at MIX, a huge club in a playful  
curvy-silver space that suggests both Frank Gehry and Dr. Seuss, the  
young expats bouncing to Nelly and 50 Cent didn't even notice T-Bone,  
a popular London D.J., as he slalomed through the mostly Anglophone  
crowd, the only black man in the place, and sidled up to the densely  
packed bar to wait for his turn in the D.J. booth.

Across town, in the Moroccan-themed Tangerine, a 20-something woman  
in a white miniskirt hung on to the sleeve of a 60-something man in  
an ill-fitting tweed blazer as both leaned jauntily against a wall.  
Whatever they spoke about, mouth to ear, was obliterated by the  
deafening, chest-crushing hip-hop beat that resounded off the carved  
wooden screens and mosaic tile floor.

In a dark corner nearby, a beanpole-like bald man from Liverpool  
looked at the odd old-young crowd and ersatz North African décor and  
made a remark that is probably repeated at least once every day in  
Dubai. "The whole thing is totally fake," he said to his date, "but  
no one seems to care."

Visitor Information

Getting There

Emirates, www.emirates.com, the national carrier for the United Arab  
Emirates, operates flights from Kennedy airport to Dubai  
International, with one stop. As of late April, fares in May started  
at $1,138. International carriers like Air France and Alitalia have  
one-stop flights to Dubai from New York. Continental, in partnership  
with Emirates, offers flights from Newark that connect through London  
or Paris. Fares start at $1,072.

Getting Around

Dubai has three main areas. Deira, the easternmost section of the  
city, is home to the major souks, the airport and several top hotels.  
Bur Dubai is the catch-all term for the many districts in the city's  
geographical and commercial center. Jumeirah, the coastal strip in  
the southwestern part of the city, contains many luxurious beachfront  
hotels.

Taxis are the most efficient means of getting around. Clean and  
abundant, they congregate at city hotels, malls and landmarks, and  
they can be hailed on the street. Fares operate according to the  
meter. Expect to pay $2.50 to $4 (prices based on 3.75 dirhams to the  
dollar) to cruise around Bur Dubai, $5 to $8 to go from Bur Dubai to  
Deira and $8 to $13 to make the trip from Bur Dubai to Jumeirah.

Numbered street addresses in Dubai tend to be vague or nonexistent.  
Fortunately, taxi drivers know the locations of nearly all the  
hotels, malls and major points of interest that travelers visit. If  
your destination isn't one of these, try to take along a map and a  
phone number for the driver.

Security

The United Arab Emirates maintains good relations with the United  
States. Still, it's perhaps worth noting that three of the Sept. 11  
hijackers were from the emirates, and the country's proximity to  
reported terrorist hot spots - notably Saudi Arabia - has caused some  
Western governments like those of Britain and Australia to issue  
general warnings about travel in the region.

Where to Stay

With dozens of five-star hotels available and scads more on the  
drawing board, the city is a head-spinning buffet of gargantuan  
lobbies and stratospheric thread counts. In this country, three- or  
four-star hotels provide the "budget" option.

Madinat Jumeirah, (971-4) 366-8888, online at  
www.madinatjumeirah.com, the most discussed mammoth property of the  
last year, is a sprawling seaside complex containing two Arabian- 
themed hotels, 29 luxurious guest houses, a recreated traditional  
souk, a network of canals and more than 45 restaurants and bars.  
Double rooms from $520.

Dubai Marine Beach Resort and Spa, Beach Road, Jumeirah, (971-4)  
346-1111, www.dxbmarine.com, is an oceanfront property with some of  
the hottest restaurant-clubs in town. Sho-Cho is a futuristic sushi  
lounge, while the bar-restaurant El Malecon is a slice of old-time  
Havana decadence. Boudoir, a sultry French restaurant, becomes a  
throbbing party scene in the wee hours. Doubles from $219.

The two modern Emirates Towers buildings, Sheikh Zayed Road, (971-4)  
314-3555, www.emiratestowershotel.com, define the Dubai skyline and  
cater to a very upscale business clientele. The shopping arcade has  
many high-end clothing and jewelry stores, trendy bars, and a slew of  
restaurants. Doubles from $333. The chic 50th-floor restaurant and  
lounge, Vu's, (971-4) 319-8088, offers a wonderful panorama of the city.

The Ibis World Trade Center, at the Dubai World Trade Center, off  
Sheikh Zayed Road, (971-4) 332-4444, www.ibishotel.com, with only  
three stars, is practically a flophouse by Dubai standards. In other  
words, there are no butlers or helipads. Still, it's extremely clean,  
centrally located and served by a couple of restaurants and bars.  
Doubles from $79.

Where to Eat

The array of nationalities in Dubai translates into an abundance of  
global cuisines. Ethnic foods from nearby countries - especially  
India and Lebanon - should not be missed.

At Asha's, Waficity Pyramids, (971-4) 324-4100,  
www.ashasrestaurants.com, the stylish Bombay lounge interior is the  
right complement to the contemporary Indian cuisine. Choose between  
the traditional menu (samosas, kebabs) and the fusion menu, which  
includes a tandoori-smoked salmon appetizer ($9) and a duck breast  
cooked in cardamom and honey ($17).

Al Nafoorah, (971-4) 319-8760, in the lower level of the Emirates  
Towers, is an elegant Lebanese restaurant serving delights like lamb  
makenak (sausages in lemon juice, $5), lubia bil zaite (marinated  
green beans with tomato, garlic and olive oil, $4.50), and a mixed  
grill with three types of meat kebab ($12).

The British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay runs Verre, in the Hilton  
Dubai Creek, (971-4) 212-7551, a discreet haven of contemporary  
French cuisine. Start with quail breast cooked with wild mushrooms  
($18.50) and move to Tasmanian salmon with seared scallops and caviar  
velouté or roasted lamb (each $35).

The Wharf, in the Mina A Salam hotel. (971-4) 366-6152, overlooking  
one of the faux (but charming) canals in the Madinat Jumeirah  
complex, the Wharf specializes in imaginative seafood dishes like  
crab and lobster salad with avocado and tomato salsa ($16), tuna  
carpaccio with pan-fried foie gras ($17) and roasted red snapper  
risotto ($25).

Where to Dance

Club life starts after 11 p.m. most nights, and places generally stay  
open until 3 a.m.

Tangerine, Fairmont Hotel, Sheikh Zayed Road; (971-4) 311-8100.

Trilogy, Madinat Jumeirah; (971-4) 366-6917.

MIX, Grand Hyatt Dubai; (971-4) 317-2570.

Where to Shop

The Egyptian-themed Wafi City Mall, (971-4) 324 4555,  
www.waficity.com, has what is probably Dubai's most comprehensive mix  
of upscale stores, fine dining, cool cocktail lounges and  
entertainment - as well as a spa.

The Mediterranean-style Mercato Mall, (971-4) 344-4161,  
www.mercatoshoppingmall.com, one of the newest additions, has 90  
shops and restaurants and a lively, young atmosphere. Stores include  
Diesel, Mango, Polo Jeans, Fleurt and Cerruti.

For a less corporate retail outing, hit the dazzling gold souk in the  
Deira district (and haggle like crazy if you plan to buy) or the  
crowded street-level shops in the Al Karama neighborhood. You'll see  
all your favorite brands counterfeited with varying degrees of skill.

What to See

The Burj Al Arab, (971-4) 301-7777, the world's tallest and arguably  
most luxurious hotel - chauffered Rolls-Royce, anyone? - has become  
so iconic that its distinctive shape graces Dubai license plates.  
Rather than pay some of the world's tallest prices for a suite (they  
start at $1,467 for the smallest), go for a drink at the Skyview bar  
(which still charges $45 for the privilege, plus two drinks and  
canapés). Reservations, (971-4) 301-7600, are vital.

Camel racing takes place at Nad Al Sheba racetrack, (971-4) 336-3666,  
starting around 7 a.m. on Thursdays and Fridays in the winter and  
spring.

Dubai Museum, Al Faheidi Fort, Bastakiya, (971-4) 353-1862, is in a  
building from the late 1700's, and contains a recreated Bedouin  
village and exhibits on desert Arab life over the centuries.  
Admission is 80 cents.



SETH SHERWOOD is a freelance writer based in Paris.


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