Thursday, December 22, 2011

An Urban Odyssey through the UAE

Dubai, December 22, 2011

I am typing this while lying beside a rooftop pool atop a high-rise luxury apartment building in Business Bay, Dubai. All around me are the improbably shaped architectural fantasies that make up modern Dubai, and in front of me, glinting silver in the sun, is the fantastic needle of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower. Below me I can hear 14 lanes of traffic roaring along the Sheikh Zayed road, and the omnipresent sound of construction cranes and pneumatic drills that are building this year’s crop of skyscrapers.

I am not much of an urbanite. I have enjoyed living in big cities for short stretches of time (a summer in London, an autumn in Budapest, a winter in Toronto, a month in Barcelona, a few months in Cairo, two years in Boston, three years in Yangon), but much of the best living I have done has happened in smaller cities or towns. I am really enjoying living in tiny Leysin now because of the wonderful outdoor activity that I can do right outside my front door. When I’m travelling, a lot of what I most enjoy is the spaces between cities, especially if I’m on my bicycle. However, much of what is most distinctive and dynamic about different countries around the world is to be found in cities, and so sometimes I have to step out of my element and into huge urban conglomerations.

This Christmas vacation, I’m spending the first half of my break doing exactly that. I flew to Abu Dhabi a few days ago, leaving behind an epic winter storm that made me wish I was sticking around to ski. I had never been to the UAE, Oman or Qatar, and that was reason enough to want to come here. The fact that several of my friends from various parts of the world have gravitated here provided motivation to make the trip this year. And so for the past few days, I have found myself in two of the most highly urbanized hypermodern cities of the world, Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

When I told people that I was coming to the UAE, a frequent response was “What are YOU going to do there? You don’t even LIKE shopping!" And indeed much of the face of the UAE’s megacities consist of gargantuan shopping malls. But there are things to see that are fascinating, if not soul-satisfying, and they’re not all malls.

I’m staying here with my Canadian friend Rhea, whom I met while diving in Indonesia 7 years ago. She has since taught in Bahrain and Colombia before coming to Abu Dhabi 18 months ago. It was her suggestion that we go diving in Oman that clinched my decision to come here; experiencing the underwater world will be the perfect antidote to too much city life. Rhea has been a great tour guide, taking me around the sights of Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the most efficient, photo-friendly way possible without feeling the need to browse through designer shops along the way.

My first day in Abu Dhabi revolved around lunch at Tim Horton’s (a Canadian institution, specializing in coffee and doughnuts) at a nearby mall. Nearby is always a relative concept in Abu Dhabi; it means only 20 minutes in a car. It’s a bit sad that Abu Dhabi, as it has developed, has done so on the model of Los Angeles and Houston, sprawling enormously and designed around the automobile. It’s not a particularly pedestrian-friendly city, and the few pedestrians you do see tend to be the poor labourers from the Indian subcontinent who make up the majority of the population and do all of the actual work. Without a car, you’re dependent on taxis or the very occasional bus. After touching base with our Canadian roots, we got in the car and tried to find the Grand Mosque. Rhea’s GPS let us down, and we ended up making our way by eye to the mosque, which dominates the skyline of that corner of the city. Finding our way in was a challenge, and we ended up driving for several kilometres around the perimeter of the vast grounds looking for an entrance that was open.

Once we got inside, we realized that it had been well worth the effort. The complex is brand spanking new, and was built to be the largest, the most expensive and the most exquisitely designed mosque on earth. The architecture is quite wonderful, a mélange of styles that is huge without being bombastic, full of egg-shaped domes, slender minarets and a huge courtyard surrounded by beautiful porticos and placid pools of water. The outside of the mosque is relatively simple, with lots of big, blank white wall punctured by arches. It’s hard to get a sense of the scale of the place until you walk across the courtyard and realize how long it takes. The hundreds of tourists gawking at the mosque were dwarfed by the huge expanse of inlaid marble floor.

Inside, the simplicity gives way to a profusion of geometrical flourishes, most of them showing five-fold or ten-fold symmetry. It’s a riot of intersecting circles and curving tendrils, with a great variety of finishing touches borrowed from all over the Islamic world: Egyptian alabaster, Persian rugs and the sort of marble inlay that adorns the Taj Mahal. Everything shows really high quality workmanship, and should stand the test of time without starting to fall apart. The ceiling is particularly impressive, especially as it supports gargantuan crystal chandeliers. The overall impression is surprisingly serene, given all the individual details, and it’s the sort of place that would reward sitting quietly for an hour or two, absorbing details.

That evening we walked from dinner at the Hilton (one of three in Abu Dhabi) to the Emirates Palace hotel, a gargantuan complex that is, by some accounts, the most luxurious hotel on earth. It was a long walk through a construction site; six months earlier Rhea had walked the same route under jacaranda trees and beside flower beds, but a new road-construction project had erupted since then. Once we were inside the hotel, it was a rather surreal experience. There was a handful of staff around, and one or two guests, but the overall impression was that this entire hotel was deserted. Everything is oversized: the world’s largest and most expensive Christmas tree (last year it had $13 million worth of jewels on it), the enormously high ceilings, the huge staircases, the building itself. We crawled through the cavernous interior and out to the beach, where the scale of the building finally became evident. I felt Lilliputian as we made our way past the towering façade. When we finally emerged, I felt as though the scale and the expense and the luxury was just too much for me, and I was glad to get in a cab and head back to Rhea’s more human-sized flat.

The second day in Abu Dhabi found us renting bicycles and riding along the waterfront Corniche. I was pleased to see that the government actually found space for a bike path, as the rest of the city looks like a cyclist’s nightmare, with heavy traffic and insanely careless drivers. Feeling the wind in my hair as I flew along, I felt much happier than being stuck in a car waiting for a light to change, which is where most Abu Dhabi residents seem to spend much of their lives. We went to the huge Marina Mall to see another huge Christmas tree and to get sunset views over the Emirates Palace hotel and the nearby fantastic curves of the Etihad towers, before heading to have dinner with my friends from my Yangon days, Jared and Anna. She’s working for the Emirates education ministry, and living in a luxurious, outsized apartment in a brand-new skyscraper that costs an unbelievable sum in rent (covered by that staple of the expat life, the housing allowance). It was wonderful to catch up with them and get another inside view of life in this strange, ephemeral country.

Yesterday we jumped into Rhea’s car and drove 120 km up the road to Dubai. While Abu Dhabi has its share of huge, eye-catching modern steel and concrete, Dubai is like a set for Batman. I have never seen such a dense collection of huge buildings with such a variety of architectural flourishes. We drove along the huge, busy artery of the Sheikh Zayed Road, past the new Dubai Marina cluster of skyscrapers, and stopped at the Mall of the Emirates to have a quick peek at the indoor ski hill. Having just skied knee-deep powder in Leysin, I wasn’t really tempted to ski, but it was fascinating to see the entire artificial complex of ski hill, chairlifts, toboggan runs and Christmas trees, surrounded by restaurants with glass walls facing out onto the slopes. We walked out past yet another gargantuan Christmas tree (fairly amazing to come to an Islamic country to see the biggest Christmas trees on Earth) and hopped back into the car to head further downtown. We stopped at the beach near the iconic Burj al Arab sail-shaped hotel for some pictures (and to get sandblasted by the scouring wind) and then drove the final few hectic kilometres to our Dubai base of operations.

We’re staying in Business Bay, in the apartment of one of Rhea’s friends who taught with her in Colombia and now teaches in Dubai. It’s a ridiculously luxurious pad, with sweeping views of the surrounding architecture, but the best views are from up here on the 42nd floor, where a small pool and lounge overlook all the crazy towers of Business Bay. The Burj Khalifa looks amazing from here, like a gigantic hypodermic needle aimed at the sky; at its foot is the enormous Dubai Mall, reputedly the world’s largest, and surrounding it is an artificial lake with huge fountains that give a musical light-and-water show every evening.

I spent yesterday afternoon and evening catching up with old friends. I met up with my friend Natalya, who was in Yangon when I was there, and with whom I stayed in Baku a couple of years ago. Her parents teach here, and she’s catching up with them and then flying to Iran and Baku to take full advantage of her 4-week Christmas break from her school in Colombia. Then I went to the Dubai Mall, past yet another towering Christmas tree and the musical fountains, to the incense-scented Souq al Bahar for dinner with my friend from high school, Debashis, who’s a corporate lawyer here in Dubai and who has watched the frantic development of the Dubai skyline and real estate market over the past six years. After a fine meal, we went for a nightcap on the ground floor of the Burj Khalifa itself in a hypermodern cocktail bar, before Debashis’ driver took me back through the convoluted roads and construction detours to this apartment building.

Overall, I would say that Dubai is incredibly impressive, having been constructed out of nothing but sand and money over the past 20 years. It’s a bit like Las Vegas, an instant city in the desert, but much, much bigger and richer. I can’t say that I would ever want to live here; the car-based culture and inhuman scale would probably drive me crazy, while the difficulty of getting outside and doing sports would be even worse for me. It’s in some ways a dystopic view of the future: hyperdevelopment, built on an unsustainable base of cheap oil, desalinated water and cheap indentured labour. On the other hand, for many people in the Arab world and in Iran and Central Asia, Dubai is probably a vision of the sort of future they would like to have for themselves in their own countries: rich, modern, socially liberal, full of culture and shopping and a sense that anything is possible.

Three years ago I visited Delos, a small, uninhabited island near Mykonos in the Cyclades. Delos is in some ways a cautionary tale, as it was once a free-trade zone where merchants from all over the Mediterranean gathered to make money and build opulent residences. It was the Dubai of its time, creating out of a fairly barren and almost waterless island a bubble of enormous prosperity. Delos attracted the envy of surrounding pirate bands, and eventually the pirates sacked the city and destroyed its prosperity. I don’t think that Dubai will fall prey to pirates (unless the Somali pirates improve their range and firepower) but I’m sure that the envy of surrounding states and the enormous bubble of real estate prices here will provide strains on Dubai’s continued prosperity. The abandoned artificial offshore island of the World complex, visible off shore from where I am sitting now, might well be a harbinger of further shocks to come.