To say that Dubai is unique would be an understatement. To capture what is going on in Dubai you have to realize that the amount of growth and construction which Dubai has seen in the last 10 years is probably without precedent in human history. While many cities have undergone construction booms, there are few times where a city so large has sprang up from nothing. Even in cases where planned city has been created by a emperor or pharaoh, they didn’t have the construction techniques available today. A city like Shanghai which has experienced tremendous growth in the past decade has been a major city for over a hundred years. Planned cities like Brasilia, Canberra or Washington took much longer to create much less. Modern Dubai was born fully formed from the desert.
I initially compared Dubai to Las Vegas. The similarities are obvious; a new city with lots of construction which emerged from nothing out of the desert. However, the analogy is superficial at best. If you have been to Vegas a few times, you can probably name all the major construction projects in the past decade. Many of the new casinos have replaced old ones, which were the original buildings on the space now occupied. It is almost impossible to count the buildings which have been constructed and are being constructed in Dubai. All of the Vegas strip could easily be contained in any of the numerous large scale city projects underway in Dubai.
Before I arrived in Dubai, I had heard that 25% of all the construction cranes in the world were in Dubai. From my window I could count about 25 in the Downtown Dubai area near the Burj Dubai. I figured it was an exaggeration. As I explored more of Dubai, I had a hard time believing just what I was seeing. There were probably 50 cranes in just the Palm Jurmeiah area. (The Palm is a giant artificial island off the shore of Dubai which can be seen from space. It is the smallest of three planned Palm projects). On the way to Oman I saw many other construction projects which had anywhere from 8-12 cranes. To give you an idea, I probably didn’t see more than 3 cranes in Jakarta and Manilla combined. Most of the other large cities I’ve been in didn’t have many cranes either. Melbourne, Sydney, Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong may have had some new buildings in the works, but those usually only require a crane or two. The closest I’ve seen in terms of construction (and it isn’t even close) was Macau.
Dubai is a city of contradictions. One one hand, people and goods probably flow more freely in Dubai than anywhere else on Earth. The immigration process at the airport was the easiest I’ve encountered in the world. I didn’t even have to fill out an immigration/customs card. The many free zones in Dubai are perhaps the purest form of capitalism in the world. Almost nothing in the way of regulation with a small, efficient government which will bend over backwards to make sure what needs to get done will get done. There are no personal or corporate income taxes in free zones.
On the other hand, they censor the internet. In addition to things like pornography sites (which I can at least understand even if I disagree with it), they blocked Flickr and I’ve been told in the past they have blocked Twitter, YouTube, and other innocuous sites. A British woman was recently found guilty of adultery and was sentenced to three months in prison. One man was recently imprisoned for having an amount of marijuana on his shoe the size of a grain of sand. (Did you know that there are minute traces of cocaine is almost all US currency? If you take drug laws to that absurd level, almost anyone with a dollar bill is a guilty of possession of drugs. Silly I know, but can you prove you don’t have some tiny trace of drugs stuck to the bottom of your shoe?)
As an American, I am always a bit suspicious of monarchies. When you read a newspaper report that talks about the monarch in glowing terms, you can’t help but roll your eyes. A good example of that is what you see in Brunei. I saw several things like that, including the front page of the sports section of the newspaper which had story dedicated to a victory by the Emir in an endurance horse racing competition in Bahrain. Yet, Dubai didn’t happen by accident. Modern Dubai was a purposeful, planned creation of the Dubai ruling family going back almost 50 years. Oil was discovered in the mid-60′s in Dubai, and there wasn’t much of it. Unlike more countries who’s rules squander the revenue brought in by oil, Dubai invested the oil revenue to prepare for the day when there wouldn’t be any oil. It was bold, risky and brilliant. One of the best quotes I’ve read about Dubai came from Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who said
“My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel”
I’ve read several books on Dubai since I arrived and based on everything I’ve read the current ruler of Dubai, Sheik Mohammad bid Rasheed al Maktoum is actually a pretty smart guy and knows what is in tune with what is going on in Dubai. The problem with monarchies is it only takes one generation to destroy a dynasty. Even if he and the crown prince and safely navigate Dubai for the next several decades, it only takes one grandson or great-grandson to screw everything up.
There has been a great deal of effort to turn Dubai into a tourist destination. For the most part they have focused on the ultra-high end market. You are lucky to find a hotel room for under $100/night, with most hotels going many times beyond that. All the malls I visited were focused on high end luxury brands. The fact is, there isn’t much to see or do in Dubai as a tourist other than shop. There are beaches, but honestly, if I wanted to go to the beach, I can think of a hundred places I’d rather go than Dubai. Witnessing all the construction is pretty neat, but that will disappear in a few years. While in Dubai, I didn’t meet many Arabs. I saw them at the mall and driving cars, but I can’t say I had an interaction with any Emaratis outside of the creek area and the Gold Souq. Every person you interact with in hotels, restaurants, stores and taxis are either Filipino or South Asian.
I was pretty excited about Dubai when I arrived and when I left I was more than ready to leave. I didn’t have a negative or bad experience, it was just sort of lukewarm. It is like a large American city in many respects. You have to drive to get anywhere, there are tons of malls and subdivision projects. There are planned meet and greets where you can talk to local Emarati, but the fact that you have to go to a concocted event to do that is rather telling. With the exception of signs in Arabic, you could easily think you were in a western country.
Should you visit Dubai? The only reason I can see visiting to Dubai right now is to witness the spectacle which is the construction boom. It is something unprecedented in history and will probably be over in 5-10 years. It is pretty cool. They have plans for a Disney World type attraction — DubaiLand — but I’d wait and see if they can really pull that off. If seeing a bunch of buildings and construction cranes doesn’t interest you, then Dubai probably isn’t for you. My recommendation: fly into Dubai, spend 2-3 days there and then go visit Oman.