Only a couple of months into my little blogging experiment and I’ve already got to the point where I’m going weeks without posting anything – oh dear. In my defence, no sooner had I recovered from my surgery (which seems to have done the trick, praise be!) than I came down with a particularly nasty cold which dogged me for a week, and by the time I’d got over that I was on my way to Dubai.
Bewilderingly, Dubai is now one of the most popular destinations for British tourists. Seemingly unperturbed by the steady stream of horror stories regarding corrupt officials and draconian laws (not to mention the UAE’s human rights violations), millions seem happy to endure a seven-hour flight and Norwegian prices in exchange for guaranteed sun* and the sparkliest of hotels. It’s a place I’ve never had the remotest desire to visit, but when an offer of work came along I thought I might as well tick it off the list on someone else’s dollar. I have my price, it seems.
Let’s get the good stuff out of the way. I’m reluctant to talk about the exact nature of my work out there, since there’s doubtless something in a contract somewhere about not posting derogatory comments about our experiences blah blah blah, but suffice it to say it involved spending quite a bit of time in and around the newly built opera house. It’s a stunning bit of architecture, its form based on that of an Arabian dhow, moored by a lake at the foot of the world’s tallest building. At night, an enormous modern chandelier glows within, lending the place the appearance of some bioluminescent sea creature.
Shame it appears to be the only beautiful building for miles around (the similarly striking Burj Al Arab, another nautically-themed landmark, is some way further down the coastal sprawl). The 828m Burj Khalifa, which looms over the opera house, may be breathtaking in its defiance of engineering constraints but it can hardly be said to represent an architectural triumph.
I’ve always been wary of criticisms that Dubai is a cultural desert. It may well be the case, but it’s a somewhat unfair charge: culture takes decades to take root and centuries to flourish, and Dubai was little more than a dusty refuelling point only 25 years ago.
Still, it is hard to imagine a genuinely vibrant artistic scene ever thriving in such a money-obsessed society. Rampant development (terraformed islands, anyone?) is still the order of the day, to the extent that walking even short distances involves negotiating circuitous routes around gaping construction sites peopled by weary, exclusively dark-skinned labourers. Giant luxury hotels (the only kind) jostle for position on every clogged road. One has to wonder quite how much commerce the economy can support, and whether Dubai is not in for an almighty bust sometime soon.
The weirdest thing about the place is how, despite being such a thriving, genuinely multicultural and rather tolerant city, it is still in thrall to those strict diktats regarding behaviour both public and private. And it’s not hard to see how some of those tourists who fall foul of the law might even be victims of a creepy sort of entrapment: public drunkenness, swearing, extra-marital sex and even PDA may all be punishable offences, but hey, tonight is ladies’ night in our soulless cocktail bar meaning you can get three free drinks (only the girls, mind) and be ogled by a bunch of bored, philistine middle managers on an expenses-paid junket. It is this clash, between the worst excesses of Western capitalism and the grim authoritarianism of Islamic theocracy, that lends the place a uniquely unsavoury atmosphere.
* not a guarantee: it rained much of the time we were there.