When I first came to visit Dubai in 2005 with my mother, I hated it. Firstly, I was 16 and hated being seen in public within 200m radius of my parents. Secondly, I found the city strange, soulless and empty.
There was the old city, which looked fake, there was the souk, which was chaotic and where we were hounded to buy all sorts of useless thing. Finally, strewn around the sand, there were kitschy, shiny malls and resorts, all full of scarlet rotund tourists on prowl. Dubai had neither the buzz of Lebanon, nor the stunning architecture of Moorish Andalusia, which were my only reference points for Islamic culture back then. The only two places I liked were the Emirates Towers and DIFC whose sober design was a nice counterpoint to the kitsch of everything else, and Madinat Jumeriah, whose over-the-top kitsch was so fascinating that I could only surrender to its charm. I also found the local obsession with strange claims to greatness (world’s only 7 star hotel! Largest mall!) laughable and too try-hard: desperate screeches of nouveau-richesse for recognition and attention.
I looked mockingly at Dubai for quite a while and it was around my peak Dubai-cynicism that I went to Riyadh in 2012. I expected it to be a lot like Dubai, but actually more interesting: surely more conservative (no booze, lashings), but more exciting (storied past, dedicated square for public executions). Yet Riyadh was a world away. The airport was derelict and mostly squat uninspiring buildings looked like they weathered a war. The city was a bizarre mix of permanent traffic-jam and empty 80s-style restaurants and bars, all with zero soul and a lot of oversized San Pellegrino bottles standing in for champagne. The manic ambition of Dubai to be better and more attractive was completely missing: there were a few audacious projects (e.g. world’s largest female university, ball-point-pen-shaped Faisaliah tower, bottle opener shaped Kingdom tower), but they seemed out of place in the drabness of the city. Although people were nice, nobody I spoke to particularly wanted to be in Riyadh, including the Saudis, many of whom routinely spent weekends in Dubai and Bahrein to enjoy relatively liberal atmosphere.
When I finally flew from Riyadh to Dubai I teared up upon seeing the lights of Sheikh Zayed Road and Burj Khalifa from the plane window. It was then that I realised what a fascinating, unique place Dubai really is. It is a unique place in the tragic quagmire of the Middle East: a place where people from all around the world wanted to live, where the doors were and where they felt safe. It was a place that wanted to punch above its weight and wanted to get people on its side. Much of it was a fluke: oil fueled its development and tragic implosion of traditionally open (and more charismatic) Lebanon, Iraq and Syria providing opportunities for hosting foreigners interested in the region. However, it was also the foresight of its people that made it a success. Anyhow, all that money could have been easily syphoned away to real estate around Europe and the US.
From 2012, every time I visited it was great to see how much was invested to add soul to the glitter. An impeccably clean and very functional metro was expanded and amazing public and creative spaces are constantly opening. Jumeriah public beach was enlivened with volleyball courts and a great running track, which made it the best place to watch Dubai’s cosmopolitan residents from all walks of life, bronze and chill. Parts of Al Quoz, a district traditionally housing builders, evolved into Shoreditch and Williamsburg-lite and now house galleries. From last September Dubai even has a decent Opera House (if not a troupe), which stages musicals, but also some mildly risqué modern ballet and new operas.
However, Dubai’s main attraction for me lies in its crazy mix of people from all over the world. Although it is not a completely happy story (there is an amount of discrimination based on origin and exploitation of menial workers), the city offers opportunities to many for whom there are no opportunities at home (due to war or poverty) or in the more established global centers (due to ever-harsher visa requirements), from Manila to Marrakesh. Many people who started off in Dubai some time ago, talk about the sense of meritocracy and astronomical opportunities that were there. That gold-rush mentality of hope and opportunity, almost completely absent across Europe and the US, still lingers around the forest of cranes lifting Dubai’s tower.
I can imagine that in future, when we look back onto Dubai, if it does not get floored by bursting of the construction bubble, or dives under the by rising sea levels, or gets abandoned due to global warming, or gets drawn into some form of regional chaos (admittedly big if’s), we will think of it a symbol of the early 21st century global finance capitalism. As Renaissance chiseled Florence and Belle Époque made Paris, our chaotic, open and exploitative times crafted Dubai’s arrays of shiny, boisterous towers built within a few decades years on sand, and fleetingly populated by people from the whole world, united in the greatest cause of them all: chasing tax-free buck.