Dubai, city of dhows and spices, a harbour on the shore of the Persian Gulf through which traders from India and the East have passed for untold centuries to take their goods to Arabia, Africa and Europe. Or then again, Dubai, city of glass and steel, of man-made islands built for the hyper-rich and famous; of buildings so tall that rather than merely scraping the sky they run it through completely.
I hoped that both cities might exist in tandem, that the older might be the basis of the newer and that glimpses of it might be caught between the vast expanses of modern concrete. That was my expectation, based on past travels to cities such as Damascus and Amman, cities whose history is a continuous thread resulting in a visible blend of ancient and modern.
A guest of the first literature festival to be held in the region, I was flown in some considerable comfort from London. The flight takes a route over the Persian Gulf, a magnificent sight from 36,000 feet, its oil platforms and gas flares illuminating the water as the sun sets. Along the coast are the famously huge artificial islands, “The World’ and ‘Palm 1’, glorified housing estates which at night, from the air, look like jewelled necklaces, The Burj Dubai, arguably the world’s tallest building at approximately 2,680 feet, soars upwards as if to pluck from the sky any unfortunate aircraft that veer too near.
Once landed the sheer scale of the airport terminals impresses. They are, quite simply, so huge that even when busy they give the impression of being empty. However it is only when you head into the city that Dubai really begins to amaze. Manhattan has its famous skyline. Hong Kong’s may have been superseded by Shanghai. But Dubai trumps them all. And by quite some margin.
My first impression was that a quiver of Brobdignagian arrows, designed by Gaudi and forged by Thor’s hammer in Dante’s inferno from some extraterrestrial material, had been flung to the ground in a galactic rage. It is science fiction made fact. It has a beauty all its own in the same way that a rocket launch is beautiful. A hard, brittle, masculine beauty of impressive magnitude. No gentle classical proportions here. No easy-on-the-eye Ionic or Doric columnar softness. Not a lot of architectural chintz here. At night these ‘super-spears’ twinkle against the velvet sky, lit up like majestic Christmas trees. During the day they loom, like darkly malevolent stick insects escaped from a genetic experiment gone badly wrong.
Heading into the centre of town in the relative cool of the morning, I went in search of Dubai’s history. I was taken to the Spice Souk, the Gold Souk and the Textile Souk. I was pointed in the direction of the appallingly named ‘heritage village’. I went to them all. What I saw was, I’m afraid disappointing. The spice souk has changed greatly since Wilfred Thesiger took his glorious photos in 1948. So much so that there are seemingly only a handful of spice traders now operating from this once fabled market which has been taken over by vendors of the largest aluminium cooking pots that I’ve ever seen. The Gold Souk has changed beyond recognition to become a shopping centre comprised of hundreds of garish, neon-lit ‘outlets’. Less souk, more Hatton Garden on steroids and with a limitless electricity budget. Certainly it’s full of gold, indeed so much so that the tourist board make great play of the fact that there are always over 24 tons of the precious metal on display in Dubai’s shop windows. Credit crunch? What credit crunch? Actually the credit crunch is rather a big issue in Dubai but we’ll come to that shortly.
The cynics amongst you will wince as did I at the term ‘Heritage Village’ and you’d be right to do so. The clue is in the explanation that “it was created for potters and weavers to display their craft”. To be fair it does its best but when the literature says “it may look fake and touristy” you know what to expect but I also found myself feeling somewhat sympathetic to its lack of pretension.
If modern Dubai is about anything it is about shopping. Not gentle high street shopping for domestic provisions and necessities, but high impact, high energy shopping for international brands. In the brochures I read on the plane and in the hotel, shopping was variously described as a ‘sport’, an ‘extreme sport’ and even a ‘religion’. If the latter is true then the temples of this faith are the many malls. Nor ordinary malls mind you, but super malls. Imagine the progeny of Kent’s Bluewater and London’s new Westfield combined with Milton Keynes. All of it. The whole town. Imagine Oxford Street crossed with Chelsea’s Kings Road complete with a roof, air-conditioning and more escalators than the whole of London’s underground system. And there’s not just one of them, but - and prepare yourselves for this - at least forty-five of them. Yes forty-five enormous shopping malls each of which claim to offer a “unique and rewarding shopping experience” or a “joyous and care-free experience.”
Now I should probably at this point confess to not being much of a shopper. Whilst I enjoy the odd bout of retail therapy I’ve never thought of it as a sport and far less an entire religion. So to help me gain some perspective for my first Dubai mall trip I was accompanied by a rather powerful publishing journalist, well known for her wryly perceptive observation. We went to Marks and Spencer. She was not impressed. The stock was identical to that in London and the prices weren’t much to write home about. We wandered around past Italian brand stores, French brand stores, American and English brand stores, jewellers, watch shops and all the same coffee shops that plague our own high streets. We looked at each other with growing dismay. We could have been anywhere from Miami to Manchester were it not for some of the other shoppers, women dressed in modest abayas and hijabs, some with the niqab face veil, men in immaculately pressed white dishdashas, their kuffiya headcloths held on with coiled woollen agals. We found a bookshop called Magrudy’s and sought sanctuary from the consumerist onslaught. It was like a branch of Daunts, the rather good London chain, full of calming wooden shelves making it reminiscent of a ship’s interior. But a Daunts with gigantism.
Back at the hotel I sat on a terrace drinking mint tea, listening to the wonderfully evocative sound of amplified muezzin calling the faithful to prayer and watching a scarlet sun set behind the city. I had heard that Dubai is in trouble; that a rescue package of $10 billion had been agreed with the United Arab Emirates to help its liquidity problems. I had heard rumours that newly redundant expatriates were leaving in their droves and that up to 3000 cars a week were being dumped, keys left in the ignitions, at the airport as they fled home. That the planned Palm 2 island will not happen and that property prices have sunk by 25% in the past two months. Many of these rumours were confirmed to me by Kate Adie, there to talk about her book ‘Into Danger’.
Another guest of the festival, Louis de Bernieres, an old friend, came to sit with me and asked me what I was thinking. As the sun gave its last shimmer and sank below the extraordinary cityscape horizon I answered in a word, “Ozymandias.” He replied “Me too. Castles built on sand. It’ll never last."