There has been a stunning transformation in one of the Emirates. I first went to Dubai about 35 years ago and saw a lot of sand, a small airport, one shopping mall and a gold souk, which is about all that the city had, but it was beginning to build already. Today, Dubai is unrecognizably metropolitan not only from 35 years ago, but even 15 years ago from when the city went pell-mell on an expansion course even to the extent of inviting the skyscraper curse. If the Empire State Building in New York in 1930 heralded the Great Depression, Dubai in 2010 saw an economic crisis grip the region after the global recession and then the fall in oil prices.
See the city today and even the crisis post-2010 invited by the building of the world’s tallest building, at 828 metres, the Burj Khalifa — with Abu Dhabi’s help it must be noted — is history. The Dubai of today is a thriving hot spot of the world’s glitterati, a one-stop city for entertainment of every type imaginable, from the touristy attractions of the desert safaris and the belly dance, the climb To The Top, which is not too memorably long because the express elevators take you to the observation deck on the 120nd floor in 60 seconds flat, besides boasting of the absolute latest in shopping malls. You could spend a whole day at the Dubai Mall and still come away somewhat dissatisfied at not having window shopped enough.
Dubai always thought big, never believing that capital on grandiose projects could never be expansive to the extent of bringing about an economic correction. Today, it has some of the finest tourist projects like in the Atlantis hotel, the Burj al Arab and the Burj Khalifa, of course, all decked up in laser lights every evening while water parks and amusement centres, including one with artificial snowfall, invite the youngsters with their magnetic attraction. Such a transformation has you gasping about what is possible if a country has leaders who actually do things for the people.
The Maseratis and the Ferraris zoom past on the fast lane on the 12-lane Sheikh Zayed Road, but nestle with the rest of the traffic at the lights, an iron discipline on the roads making possible speed as well as safety that is hard to imagine in city driving. The secret they tell me is drivers are fined heavily for transgressions and the city’s big source of revenue is from an average of about 3,000 Dirhams a year drivers pay for their occasional indiscretions. But it is the infrastructure that Indians gape at when seeing real progress. How about a 12-lane tarmac-like road in the middle of Chennai?
The image of an ancient entrepot running guns, smuggling gold and a lot else is way past the Emirates. Dubai sparkles today as the international jet set mingle with people from around 207 countries who live and work in one of the most liberal of the Arab countries making up about 80 per cent of the population. The mix of cultures makes Dubai a fascinating melting pot. It must have taken a very broad vision to create a country of expatriates, but the locals have enough power not to feel insecure in such a milieu and the police and bureaucrats are paid so highly that there is never a whiff of major corruption.
As if unique architectural marvels like the Atlantis, the Palm Jumeirah and the skyscraper near the Dubai Marina which tilts to one side as it soars as if it were the modern Leaning Tower of Pisa were not enough, the Sheikh is said to be planning a hotel under the sea. So big have they got on tourism as a revenue spinner that Dubai is building another airport out in the desert while the modern marvel, which is the city airport now, might be made over exclusively to Emirates Airlines while all others operate out of the new airport. Like Singapore, the immigration department is geared to super speed so that the tourist has a great first impression on landing. Significantly, tourists are made to genuinely feel welcome.
Dubai may have few equals as a culinary destination. The sky is the limit so far as variety goes, from street food to Michelin star restaurants and celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay’s Bread street Kitchen and Bar. There are about 20 restaurants in a culinary concourse in the Atlantis including world renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa and Ramsay’s offerings, besides the attraction of an aquarium nearby in which sharks swim by along with the stingrays and thousands of smaller fish in a microcosm of the Dubai philosophy of togetherness of races and cultures.