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Dubai

Dubai photos

The shiny, sterile and culturally depleted cities inexplicably rising from the interminable nothingness of the Arabian Peninsula characterise a region I have minimal enthusiasm about travelling through. The cities are touted as ultra-modern centres of globalisation, yet draconian misogynistic attitudes and racially-defined class systems continue to flourish. The ruling elite seemingly float through the masses of South Asian workers like demigods in their pristine white garments and bling. Their obscene wealth fails to inspire admiration from this Western observer, since it is entirely and lazily derived from oil and natural gas reserves. The United Arab Emirates is reorienting its economy toward tourism (to offset the depletion of its fossil fuel resources), but what do cities like Abu Dhabi and Dubai offer to visitors other than gimmicks? I reluctantly decided to sacrifice two days to investigate this question with a visit to Dubai, while transiting between Stockholm and Colombo. To offset my hesitation, I focused on the likelihood I would have regular access to extraordinary renditions of the world’s most delicious food: hummus.

Dubai is a horrid mixture of outer suburban sprawl, Gold Coast-esque monstrosities, incessant commercialisation, rampaging highways and isolated neighbourhoods. Dubai is therefore the {insert antonym of prototype, whatever that may be} for twenty-first century urban planning; a car dependent metropolis lacking integration, communities and green spaces. However, the negatively connoted label of Dubai as “artificial” is slightly misleading, because essentially all human settlements are artificial creations. What differentiates Dubai from other cities worldwide is that the construction of multi-billion dollar mega-infrastructure projects are initiated to generate new demand, instead of catering for existing or projected demand. The Emir is attempting to mould Dubai into an utopian centre for international finance, trade and tourism and obtain the coveted status as a “global city”. But to me, Dubai is simply a manifestation of the innate failure of rampant, unregulated capitalism. Dubai is defined by gross inequality, evidenced by opulent five star hotels and corporate headquarters towering over dusty and wretched residences of low-wage workers. I refuse to believe the ubiquitously overweight Emirati men, driving flashy Mercedes-Benz vehicles, work a tenth as hard as the South Asian workers in Dubai. The city depends upon a modern-day form of slavery because labour unions, collective bargaining and strikes are illegal, human rights abuses pervasive and the pathway to citizenship nonexistent for migrant workers. The West regularly lectures potential foes such as China, Russia and Iran about human rights abuses, but exemptions are seemingly granted to key military and economic partners rich in black gold.

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While most of Dubai characterises the dystopian reality I have thus far described, there were two small enclaves I admittedly rather liked: Deira and Old Dubai on opposite sides of the Dubai Creek. The area is promoted as the historic centre of Dubai, but most of the buildings are actually modernist structures or replicas of traditional, mud-brick dwellings. The area resembles other cities in the Arab World, with maze-like street plans, atmospheric souqs, tiny shops jammed with exotic merchandise and the requisite hawkers. The domes and minarets of numerous mosques rise above the relatively low-level streetscapes, creating impressive vistas beside the aqua-coloured Dubai Creek. The only mode of transportation across Dubai Creek is by small, colourful wooden boats that depart the docks on either side every few minutes. Its pleasantly surprising that such a traditional and simplistic system has managed to survive in Dubai. Old Dubai features several pedestrianised precincts of mud-brick buildings with traditional vernacular architecture. While the precincts were entirely constructed for touristic purposes (boutique hotels, shops and dozens of small free-entrance museums – each specialising in different aspects of Dubai’s history and culture)), I actually rather liked the atmosphere as they felt reasonably authentic or at least refined and not gaudy. Old Dubai and Deira are absent of the ostentatiousness pervasive throughout the rest of the city and stimulated fond memories of other places in the Arab World; the area is essentially a very tame taste of the Middle East.

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Deira

While Deira and Old Dubai are relatively compact, newer areas of Dubai sprawl for several dozen kilometres south of the Creek and form neighbourhoods thoroughly unsuitable for pedestrianism. No wonder why the Emiratis are so unfit. Nevertheless, I attempted to walk between major attractions to avoid my pet hate (waiting for buses), but this only made me irritable as I severely underestimated distances, was scorched in the desert heat, listened to vehicles blaring past at 100km/hr and repeatedly encountered “no pedestrian access” signs to prolong my journeys. The road network of Dubai is basically just a crisscross of ugly highways; the concept of “Main Street” or “High Street” seems to have been ignored during Dubai’s sudden rise. The endless strip of skyscrapers are mostly distasteful aesthetically, except for the iconic Burj Khalifa. Okay, I suppose the Burj Khalifa is merely another one of Dubai’s collection of gimmicks, but as a civil engineering student I couldn’t fail to be impressed by the world’s tallest building. Fortunately, the remarkable height of the building is tangible because it appears to be twice the height of neighbouring towers. However, I decided to renege on paying $50 to have a panoramic view of Dubai’s ugliness from the observation deck, since its not even located on the top level. I did at least enjoy a phenomenal sound, light and water display in the evening from the world’s largest fountain below the world’s tallest building and adjacent the world’s largest shopping mall. I’m sure that sentence pleased the Emir’s tourism board.

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Burj Khalifa and fountain display

By far my biggest priority while visiting Dubai was to indulge in heavenly mountains of smooth, delectable hummus. Immediately after dumping my luggage at a hotel, I ambled rather briskly to a target eatery, an inexpensive Syrian restaurant. For breakfast, I enjoyed an intoxicatingly delicious serve of hummus with marinated lamb: oh how I missed hummus with an equal ratio of chickpeas to tahini, typical in the Middle East. I also had a bowl of fuul (stewed fava beans with copious amounts of olive oil and citrus juice), freshly-baked flat bread and fresh mango juice (particularly savoured after six months in cold, tropical fruit-depleted Europe). For lunch, I was ushered into a packed Pakistani dining hall and ate green lentil dhal, mutton and naan bread. I ventured to another Syrian restaurant for dinner and feasted on superb hummus with plates of flat bread, pickles, vegetables, mint and salad leaves: so simple and healthy yet so delicious and fulfilling. I also ate a dish of lamb kofta with tahini sauce baked in a clay-pot and covered with crispy bread: also a stupendous dish. I bought a massive container of hummus (despite requesting a small) and smashed it down just prior to passing through immigration at the airport. While Emirati cuisine does exist, the cuisines of South Asia and the Levant are much more accessible and popular in the city (so hummus convinced me not to bother with the local fare).

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Hummus with lamb, fuul and fresh mango juice

Been there, done that. I feel that way about very few countries I have travelled to, but I really have no aspirations of returning to Dubai, the United Arab Emirates or any country on the Arabian side of the Gulf. Far more interesting countries in the Middle East command exploration!

That’s all for now,

Liam

Dubai photos

Posted by Liamps 13:32 Archived in United Arab Emirates

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