Savouring Dubai, the land of opportunity and refuge

Dubai has been on the cards for a while now. The last and only time I visited was in early 2010 for a conference. I vaguely remember doing a brief spin of a city deep in the doldrums of economic depression, staring at half-built buildings and getting the sense that I was experiencing a ‘freeze frame’. That first impression and the idea that I am motivated by (hi-fi?) stuff like art, culture and history and not so taken in by glitzy glass-clad skyscrapers (sarcasm, confusion, loads of self-judgement in those words!) ensured that Dubai wasn’t really on my radar for some time. But then, Rahul started to come here every year for his annual training refresher and Dubai was back on my list!

This time round though, the city feels very different. Alive and buzzing with the energy of the Dubai Shopping Festival and a renewed construction boom kicked off in part by the fact that the World Expo 2020 is being hosted here. I promised myself to reserve the judgement before I came and have been happy tramping about the city by myself (while Rahul is working), exploring the Metro and meeting friends and shopping! Despite myself and because of the way this city is, it is impossible not to appreciate the sense of organization, the aesthetic of opulence, the ease of getting around, the effortless intermingling of cultures very different.

The cranes are swinging again in Dubai!

The cranes are swinging again in Dubai!

An organized city, the cars speed by and you let a different-yet-familiar cultural ethos seep into you

An organized city, the cars speed by and you let a different-yet-familiar cultural ethos seep into you

It's strange how mass transit has begun to define your experience of a new city. The Dubai Metro, though limited in coverage, is simple to use. I wish metro experts in India would think to have these sort of protection screens at the platform edges on stations!

It’s strange how mass transit has begun to define your experience of a new city. The Dubai Metro, though limited in coverage, is simple to use. I wish metro experts in India would think to have these sort of protection screens at the platform edges on stations!

I really like the signages. Here, people are not-so-subtly encouraged to let passengers exit from the centre while they climb in from the side. The Dubai metro also like Delhi) has a ladies only coach, only at peak times though

I really like the signages. Here, people are not-so-subtly encouraged to let passengers exit from the centre while they climb in from the side. The Dubai metro also like Delhi) has a ladies only coach, only at peak times though

In conversations with those who live here, friends as well as strangers I met on the Metro, I can see how it is easy to get used to the conveniences of Dubai, especially in the face of the employment opportunities and improved pay packages it provides as compared to ‘back home’. Dubai has attracted people from a plethora of nationalities- Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Yemenis, Syrians, Egyptians and many more- for whom it represents a better life. Yes, by corollary it also means that life ‘back home’ wasn’t that great for many of those who have come here. By all accounts, most of these immigrants will never ever go back, or even want to go back. Despite the big brother watching, despite the controlled media and the heightened awareness of the need to mind your own business if you want to survive, Dubai is a good experience, a place that treats you well.

Both strangers and friends confided to me that a sense of personal safety, the lawfulness and speedy execution of justice were what made them most comfortable here in Dubai, as compared to India. I wasn’t too surprised by this admission, even though I had to curb my urge to fiercely defend my country. You have to read papers here to see that nearly all news out of India is negative! In contrast, the media reports about the UAE are a mix of heady, positive, self-congratulatory stories interspersed with rather watered-down criticism. My analysis: You cannot compare apples and oranges, you gotta see things in perspective. By this I mean that living in a democracy and an autocracy are very different, but I can also see that this difference may matter little for citizens who are happy to have their daily needs well met. Walking among the glitzy edifices and seeing families out carefree and happy in the middle of the night, it’s hard to push this point without sounding defensive!

And so, I let it go and shop some more. I click pictures of dancing fountains and ornate ceilings. I enjoy the pleasure of the us-time Rahul and me are getting as we choose from a fantastic selection of restaurants, eat, talk, laugh… I savour Dubai, I refrain from judging, I miss home.

Malls in Dubai are works of art, with ornate interiors and grandiose ceilings that rise high above you

Malls in Dubai are works of art, with ornate interiors and grandiose ceilings that rise high above you. This is at the Mall of the Emirates, where I trawled aimlessly for an hour, clicking pictures and feeling intimidated by the determined shoppers!

The Dubai mall, next to Burj Khalifa, is the place to be! Absolutely monumental in scale, the spaces are so large that even the most bizarre ceiling fixtures seem to fit right in!

The Dubai mall, next to Burj Khalifa, is the place to be! Absolutely monumental in scale, the spaces are so large that even the most bizarre ceiling fixtures seem to fit right in!

Another ornate ceiling

Another ornate ceiling…

...and the space below it!

…and the space below it!

At every juncture, we miss the children, and become kids ourselves!

At every juncture, we miss the children, and become kids ourselves!

The curtain of water inside the Dubai Mall

The curtain of water inside the Dubai Mall

The dancing fountains outside are infamous. Every half-hour, they dance to a different tune, ranging from Western classic to Arabic to pop, against the backdrop of the dazzling and slender Burj Khalifa. It's pretty spectacular.

The dancing fountains outside are infamous. Every half-hour, they dance to a different tune, ranging from Western classic to Arabic to pop, against the backdrop of the dazzling and slender Burj Khalifa. It’s pretty spectacular.

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About ramblinginthecity

I am an architect and urban planner, a writer and an aspiring artist. I love expressing myself and feel strongly that cities should have spaces for everyone--rich, poor, young, old, healthy and sick, happy or depressed--we all need to work towards making our cities liveable and lovable communities.

Posted on January 9, 2014, in Travel & Experiences and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. I think since I dont like shopping and having a say in my life is imperative to me, yes, at the cost of convenience, I never liked Dubai. I dont like a culture which eulogises the highest, the tallest, the thisest, the thatest…. but thats just me…I found Dubai boring beyond my headspace, with only the food the saving grace 😦

  2. Hi,
    Well written again. I would say Dubai is the city of dreams and illusion. Everything what you see there is an illusion. But if you go deep into the roots of Dubai, you can see the other part of Dubai. I am from Kerala and i guess you know that the half the population of Kerala is in Gulf and some in Dubai. I have interacted with people and even seen people thriving for a days food. There are migrant workers who works 24 hours so that their family back in India lives in prosperity. There are people who have not even visited their family for the last 5 years because their sponsor wont allow them. There are labor camps in and around Dubai, where in a small room which can occupy a maximum of 5 will accommodate 10!

    Sorry if i diverted the entire topic here. But as a Keralite and hearing this story from my childhood and even seeing those realities when i went there, made me to think a bit more!
    But well written and appreciate Dubai’s efforts in building a great infrastructure despite being economically depended on just Tourism and Oil resources !!

    • Totally agree with you. I don’t know if you are aware but I work in the field of migration and housing. My mum is also from Kerala. So yes, I am aware of what you describe. It’s very interesting how economy and opportunity impacts peoples lives. How identity gets distorted but also strengthened. I am consciously trying to be positive in my post because it’s very easy for me to be critical.

      • True. I just wanted to showcase the other side of the coin because i don’t think that everyone is aware of the situation as much as people from Kerala! After all I’m an Indian 🙂

  3. I’ve never been to Dubai (unless you count the airport, en route to India), but there’s something about the buzz that makes me want to spend time there, if only out of curiosity. I normally prefer history to glitz and glamour. I do think we are going to hear more and more about the poor conditions endured by migrant labourers working on construction projects.

  4. Not been to Dubai since 1976, but pretty much have a very defined image of it by reading about it, and the image is pretty much what you say AND don’t. I would however like you to give a comparative opinion of Dubai and say Singapore or Hong Kong, if you’ve been to either of those places. As places that have hyper rapidly grown as centers for commerce, they bear striking physical/economic similarities from a distance, but am pretty sure are miles apart.

    Also, try detouring to Oman. Heard its the best place in the ME.

    • I hear so too about Oman, but no can do on this trip. And I am not qualified to do the comparison you ask me to having been in Hong Kong and sing sing for only a few days at diff point of time. Interesting thought though! Hk has a feel and culture, sing less so and Dubai very little!

  5. Absolutely gorgeous pics. Dubai is on my radar and looking to relocate in Sheikhland to make some moolah:) I’ve been to the airport once but didn’t get out, on ma way to our land of opportunity, Mumbai:)

  6. There is amazing growing art and culture scene in dubai. Especially featuring up-coming artists of the region. Emerging emirati artists r quite awesome too.Same goes for the emerging music scene.
    Mukta- didn’t manage to fit it in this trip but next time around – will take you on the cultural tour .
    Criticizing dubai and it’s opulence is easy armchair intellectualism. Heck, I do it often when I can’t be bothered to put in the effort to articulate my experiences here.
    The nobility of the trade center- a symbol of audacity and hope, the dubai municipality building- fine piece of architecture, the ingenuity of opulent villas subdivided and shared to form the homes of many….. So much more.
    And let’s face it- so much easier and more fun to criticise the overt/caricature/image than to look for the hidden soul of any city. A soul the city reveals only to those who have the patience to observe and understand.
    And yes- the shopping IS pretty good and I never bother to locky car and often not my house either☺️.

  7. Yes , there’s little conventional history here- the country is just 40 odd years old… Not as old as ,say , India.
    The history is the barren desert and the tribes. So obviously u aren’t going to find ancient monuments.
    Silly to complain about a date palm not growing oranges!

  1. Pingback: Ramblings of the year gone by: Recap 2014 | ramblinginthecity

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