[FoRK] [TRAVELMAN] Excesses of Dubai
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
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,
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
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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
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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