Sunday, February 19, 2006

My Trip to Dubai, January 2006

Dubai is one of the seven city-states that comprise the United Arab Emirates. It is located on the northern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, fronting the Persian Gulf.

My January 2006 trip to Dubai was unexpected in that I never really imagined myself ever traveling to the Middle East until I got a call from one of my company's regional administrators about a week before Christmas, asking me if I'd travel to Dubai in January to assist with some bus transit planning efforts. I agreed and, in early January, off I went to the sands of Arabia.
The iconic Burj Al Arab bills itself as the only "seven-star" hotel in the world. That's probably a bit of hyperbole on the hotel's part; most hotel rating systems only go as high as five stars. However, there's no denying that the hotel is one of the most luxurious in the world. Every room has its own butler! If I ever have an extra $2,000 to blow, I might spend the night there just to see what it's like. 
Although, the sand there is quickly being replaced with skyscrapers, highways, shopping malls and golf courses. As a recent article in The Guardian reports, Dubai is the fastest-growing city in the world. The amount of development currently underway there is, in fact, nothing short of mind-boggling. Literally hundreds of high-rise buildings are currently under construction, including the Burj Dubai, which will be the tallest building in the world once it is completed. It is said that sixteen percent of the world's supply of high-rise construction cranes is currently located in Dubai. Such a claim is hard to verify, but the Dubai skyline is nevertheless dotted with cranes. Office buildings as well as residential towers are being built at a feverish pace, with much of the construction occurring in specific developments with names like "Healthcare City," "Knowledge Village" or "Festival City." Then there's the stuff being built right off the coast: the three man-made palm-shaped islands currently under construction, or the artificial archipelago being made in the form of the world. It all really has to be seen first-hand in order to be believed.
The "skyscraper canyon" along Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai's main freeway, is truly a sight to behold.
High-rises line the edge of the Dubai Creek. The creek is a lengthy tidal inlet that divides the old cities of Diera and Bur Dubai; it served as Dubai's main harbor for much of the city's history and still handles a lot of maritime traffic. I took this picture from one of the Abras, or water taxis, that ferry people across the creek.

Why the frenetic construction boom? Dubai's prime location in the oil-wealthy Middle East, with America and Europe to the west and India, China and the Pacific Rim to the east, as well as its lack of corporate taxes, is expected to attract scores of businesses over the coming years, while its sunny climate is expected to attract tens of thousands of wealthy families from all parts of the world looking for vacation condos. Dubai real estate is obviously a hot commodity and housing prices are already so high that a sizable chunk of the city's workforce resides in Sharjah, the neighboring emirate to the north, where housing costs are somewhat cheaper. Nevertheless, there is something vaguely unsettling about the surreal scale of construction currently underway in Dubai. Is this incredible frenzy of construction really justified? Can all this office, residential, hotel and retail space now under construction really be absorbed?
Another view from Sheikh Zayed Road. In the distance are dozens of high-rises under construction in and around Dubai Marina. This represents merely a fraction of the construction currently taking place in Dubai.
Another view of a cluster of high-rises under construction at Dubai Marina. Once completed, these towers will house luxury condominiums and hotels. 

The Burj Dubai under construction. This will reportedly be the tallest building in the world when it is completed in 2008.

It’s a bit unfortunate that I didn’t get to see as much of Dubai as I would have liked; my company's office over there is extremely busy and I worked six days a week while I was there. I did, however, do most of the “must dos” in Dubai, such as take an Abra (water taxi) ride along the Dubai Creek, visit the glimmering Gold Souk in Dubai’s old city of Deira, and see the massive Ski Dubai indoor ski slope at the gleaming new Mall of the Emirates. I didn’t get to ski, though. Maybe next time.

Generally speaking, Dubai is a safe, clean and prosperous city. Most people speak English and virtually all the signs are bilingual (Arabic and English) so getting around is not a problem. The traffic, however, is a different story. It made me long for Houston freeways during rush hour. No wonder they needed me to help them tinker with their public transportation system! Dubai is building a two-line metro system, set to open early next decade.
Not everything in Dubai is new. This is a view of the city's historic Deira district from the Dubai Creek. Note the jumble of old buildings, the dhows along the waterfront, and the towering minaret. The Deira district contains many souks, or traditional Arab markets, including the famous Gold Souk.

This is a view of the Gold Souk. Jewelry stores line either side of the street, which is covered by a canopy. Dubai is known for its gold trade.

Dubai is also very cosmopolitan. About eighty percent of Dubai's population are expatriates from all over the globe; this creates a fascinating mix of peoples, cultures and cuisines. Indian, Thai, Pakistani, Filipino, Chinese and European restaurants are everywhere, as are stables of American culture such as Starbucks, Chili's, Hard Rock Cafe, McDonalds or Burger King. I especially developed a taste for Arabian food while I was there; in fact, I think I ate more hummous and tabbouli during my two weeks in Dubai than I've eaten in my entire life!

The United Arab Emirates is officially Islamic. However, it is more liberal than other Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia. Other religions are freely allowed to practice and worship there. There are no religious police running around telling you what you can or can't wear. Women can drive. Alcohol is readily available at hotels (the UAE is one of two Gulf countries that allow alcohol consumption; Bahrain is the other). Bikinis are the rule along Dubai beaches. Western movies are shown in theaters along with the latest Bollywood productions; American programming such as CNN and ESPN is readily available. However, the local press is careful to avoid any criticism of the government, and the state-owned telecommunications monopoly, Etisalat, actively censors the internet and blocks a lot of sites as being "inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political, and moral values of the United Arab Emirates." The UAE is an absolute monarchy; there is no democracy and political freedoms are severely limited.

But maybe the strict control is what makes Dubai the safe, prosperous hyper-boomtown that it is today. The aforementioned Guardian article suggests that this is the "trade-off on which Dubai is relying. A booming market, with a consciously courteous social culture and a tight police system ... deliver a better wage than would be available at home - all this in return for surrendering anything resembling a political right."

The only real gripe I have about Dubai is the airport. It is a new facility that serves as the hub for rapidly-growing Emirates Airlines as well as several other airlines (including KLM, which I flew from Houston to Dubai via Amsterdam). However, the airport has one design flaw: after leaving the check-in counters at the front of the airport, one walks to passport control where immigration officers “stamp you out” of the Emirates. However, the 20 or so passport control lanes quickly crowd down into only six security screening lanes, and when the airport is busy (as it was when I was leaving), the going is very, very slow. At one point, in fact, I really thought I was going to miss my flight. My advice for those traveling to Dubai is to arrive a good three hours before your flight leaves and, if you encounter this bottleneck during a particularly crowded time, try to move towards one of the middle security lanes rather than the outside ones because they seem to move more quickly. Hopefully the Dubai airport will improve this situation as the airport continues to expand.

All in all, it was an interesting experience and I would definitely return to Dubai. If you’ve ever wanted to visit the Middle East, this is the place to start.

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015. This would turn out to be the first of many business-related trips to Dubai I would take in 2006, 2008 and 2012, all of which are chronicled by posts tagged "Dubai.")