The lobby at the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray Hotel. It only gets more outrageous from here.

Common sense might ask “Why?” Dubai asks “Why not?” Never have ostentation and excess been more at home than in the sprawling desert leisure city that has created one of the most over-the-top destinations in the world out of nothing but sand. The Dubai you see today has come about entirely in the last 25 years, something only infinite oil money and imported, exploited cheap labor can buy.

The hotels in Dubai are as much a part of the sightseeing as anything. The Burj Al Arab, shaped to look like a giant sail, kicked off the tourism industry in Dubai when it opened in 1999. This is the kind of place you can’t even get on the grounds of if you’re not a guest. The 28-story, 1.2 million-square-foot structure only has 220 rooms, the smallest of which is 1,800 square feet. Style over substance is standard operating procedure in Dubai and the Burj Al Arab certainly leads the charge.

The bridge in the foreground is part of something called the Madinat Jumeirah, a hotel and shopping center/market thing meant to look like the old market they tore down so they could build this mess.

Southwest of the Burj Al Arab is the Palm Jumeirah, one of Dubai’s particularly head-scratching feats. The palm-tree-shaped “archipelago” is entirely artificial and was created using sand dredged from the bottom of the ocean, stretching for almost seven miles along its outer crescent (I have a map later to make sense of all this). The hotels out here boast the usual line-up of big names but nothing is so ostentatious as Atlantis Dubai, cousin to the Bahamas property that is the purveyor of every bad commercial you’ve ever had to sit through.

Why is this happening

The Palm Jumeirah isn’t the only thing that Dubai has conjured from the bottom of the ocean. The plan initially had three palms, of which the Palm Jumeirah is the smallest. The financial collapse in 2008 sidetracked the project, but construction has begun on both again.

Deciding the Palms weren’t enough, the same developer proposed The World islands project in 2003, 300 artificial islands vaguely laid out like a map of the world. It also stalled in 2008. The intent was to have the islands represent the different countries of the world, I guess? It was actually something of a brilliant fundraising scheme to get celebrities, governments, etc. to buy “their” islands and subsidize construction and development. As of now, I think four of the 300 islands have been developed. More good PR for the project came when the guy who purchased the “Ireland” island went bankrupt and killed himself in 2009.

Oh, and several newspapers have reported that the Palm and The World islands are already sinking back into the ocean.

And it gets worse. The same developer responsible for all this mess, Nakheel, announced plans for The Universe islands in 2008, a 7,400 acre project of more reclaimed land in the ocean alongside all this other nonsense. Mercifully, plans for this seem to have just disappeared.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 5.50.41 PM
Dubai as it is today. You can see the two Palms and The World islands in the red circle.
This picture shows the original plans for The Universe islands and the third palm, the Palm Deira, which has been scaled back and rebranded “Deira Island,” presumably for budgetary reasons.

As you might expect, all of this artificial construction has completely decimated the natural ecosystem here and they’ve had a lot of problems with ocean currents and break water destabilizing because they built a giant palm tree in the water. There are all kinds of projects in Dubai to help rehabilitate coral reefs, which is good I suppose. They didn’t destroy everything and just throw up their hands and walk away. But sustainable building practices don’t really seem to be a thing.

Apartments buildings and hotels on the mainland tend to cluster around the Dubai Marina area, which you can see in the first map above. Sorry to break it to you, Dubai, but the yachts moored here are not the world’s most impressive display if you want to keep tabs on this, and no one loves to compare itself to everyone else more than Dubai. The average size of the yacht in this harbor can’t even touch some of the smaller floating megaboats anchored in Monte Carlo. There’s a boat called “That’s What She Said” in a harbor in Chicago that would fit right in here (I’m pretty sure it docks in Montrose Harbor, for your reference, Chicagoans). So, point to Monaco on this one.

For a city where bigger is always unquestionably better, this is a weak yacht display

In Dubai, malls are cultural artifacts and, you’ll never believe this, the attitude in building them seems to be too much is still not enough. Mall of the Emirates is downright reasonable by Dubai standards, at only 2.4 million square feet designed to look like enclosed shopping arcades in Paris and London. The result is more Europe by way of Las Vegas than European.  Mall of the Emirates’ most notorious feature is Ski Dubai, an enormous indoor ski hill that also has tubing and other snow-related nonsense. The snow does look and feel very real, I’ll give them that, but the whole thing is laughably stupid, down to the Swiss Alps style hot chocolate shack.

I only just noticed that the “Mall of the Emirates” sign at the bottom is crooked


Where practicality goes to die
One of my favorite features of Ski Dubai. If the 30 steps to the top of the “ski slope” are too much for you, they have this conveyor belt situation to haul your ass up there. You know an American mall designer is furious he didn’t come up with this first.
This is a terrible photo, but you get the full effect here. All the windows on the brick wall on the left are part of The Cheesecake Factory, so if you come down the hill too quickly, you’ll end up in someone’s club sandwich. The smaller windows on the right look into the rest of the mall.

Across town, Dubai Mall, unencumbered by a ski slope at one end, sprawls for 5.4 million square feet and inexplicably has an enormous aquarium, an ice rink, and more than 14,000 parking spaces. I don’t even know anymore, you guys.

Someone’s idea of “quaint” “European” decor, I guess?

I don’t think Dubai could live with itself if it didn’t have the tallest building in the world, so enter the Burj Khalifa. Construction on the Burj Khalifa began in 2004 and officially opened in 2010, after the project was derailed in 2008 when they ran out of money. The sheikh in Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa, stepped in and bailed them out, and the Burj Dubai suddenly became the Burj Khalifa.


The 2,722-foot, 209-story building was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago, who also designed the Trump Hotel in Chicago. Side-by-side, you can definitely see the similarities. Not that I want to defend anything having to do with Trump right now, but the design is actually well thought out and the staggered platforms allow for better air movement and light flow rather than a giant concrete block. Same principle here.

For what this is, the whole observation deck situation is very well done and the Burj Khalifa doesn’t even make the short list of most ridiculous things in Dubai. It’s an iconic building and you can’t fault them for that.

Sorry this is so glarey, but from the top of the Burj Khalifa, you can actually see how limited Dubai is. It feels so enormous when you’re in the middle of it, but from above, you can see how quickly it turns back into desert.

Dubai has conveniently given me an opportunity to vent about a group of tourists that have been bothering me for months now. Will this involve stereotyping and generalizations? Absolutely, so of course I don’t mean this to be a blanket statement, but I’ve seen this group of people act like complete asshats on multiple continents. As I would like not to be lumped in with the countless imbecilic American groups that plod around the globe, so too do I offer an apology to members of this group who are respectful and courteous tourists aboard.

But listen up, Russian travelers. First of all, the world is not your ashtray and I hope one day you can set aside some time to familiarize yourselves with the universally understood “No Smoking” signs. Secondly, and particularly pertinent in Dubai, attempt to muster some respect for your host country.

A lot of travelers are pretty clueless and it’s surprisingly easy to commit a social faux pas even if you’re trying to be cognizant. Rudeness is a global affliction, but all over Asia and now in Dubai, I feel like I keep running into groups of Russians, more so than others, who have zero interest in respecting local customs and flaunt them openly and shameslessly.

Whatever you think of the UAE or Muslim culture or its treatment of women, you are a visitor in a Muslim country, one that is extremely lax when it comes to dress code for women. Basically the rules are “please don’t wear a swimsuit in a nice restaurant,” which seems like a reasonable request. In any part of the new areas in Dubai, tourists can wear whatever they want so long as it’s not excessively vulgar. I wore a sleeveless shirt and leggings just below the knee and I was WAY more covered up than most other Western women. The Arab women do almost all wear variations on full abayas and headscarves, but it’s still pretty relaxed compared to much of the Middle East.

So getting back to the Russians, specifically the women, what are you guys doing? I can’t even tell you the kinds of things I saw these women wearing because they were so bad I was forced to look away out of common decency. Rarely have I seen shorter skirts, tighter clothes, and more cutouts in shirts than I did on groups of Russian women in Dubai. I saw two women at my hotel wearing dresses that would have been a bit much had they been leaving the employees entrance a strip club at 3 A.M. And this was at breakfast. In a Muslim country. Put on some fucking pants.

I’ve long been fascinated with and mystified by Dubai, so a 36-hour layover en route to Jordan was the perfect opportunity to see what exactly went on there. Consider my curiosity more than satisfied. Here’s what I’ll give Dubai: they know what they’re selling. There’s a certain kind of experience they’re looking to provide and they are very, very good at doing that thing. The system works. The shopping is unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere in the world and you could eat three meals a day here for six months and never visit the same place twice, and the food is really, really good. If you want to hang out at the pool and go to water parks and shop and eat and go to the spa, it’s hard to argue with what they’re selling.

They’re also totally upfront about their ethos. No one is more proud of the lavishness than Dubai itself so if you go, you know exactly what you are signing up for and Dubai is exactly as advertised.

An ATM that dispenses gold bars instead of money. If you can come up with one practical use for this, please let me know.

As for the rest of it, where to even begin. The waste of water, energy, and other resources is incomprehensible in every sense of the word. Setting aside the horrible exploitation of immigrant labor that goes into actually constructing this place, it’s hard to imagine how much you could do with all the materials that have been used to construct Dubai. I can’t even fathom what it takes to air-condition this city in the summer and how much water is used in a place that is located in the middle of a desert. A 400-meter ski slope in the middle of the desert probably does not fall under the strict necessities category.

To top it all off, the attitude in Dubai toward animals is pretty dated. I don’t know what it is with aquariums, but Dubai is obsessed with them and they are everywhere, and I know that many of the animals they have are wild-caught, something that wouldn’t sit well with me anyway but especially coming from a safari in Africa, I found it particularly reprehensible. Because they have so much money, these animals are seemingly very well taken care of, but this is still a place that sees no problem with opening more zoos and aquariums. I don’t think zoos are completely evil necessarily, but I’m not sure the world needs any more of them.

IMG_3846The attitude in Dubai can be a little off-putting to say the least. Everything they have has to be bigger and better and more outrageous than whatever it is you have and because they have endless money and zero discretion, of course they always win. I’m initially so annoyed by this, but as an American, I think it’s bit a hypocritical to be calling out other places for this kind of thing. We didn’t get the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building because two guys weren’t interested in besting the other or creating the tallest building on earth. The only reason they don’t look like the Burj Khalifa is because they were built in the 1930’s, not in 2006. We were once just as wasteful and audacious and in-your-face (and still are in many ways) 80 years ago as they are in Dubai today, so I don’t know how righteous we can be about what goes on there.

None of this changes the fact that Dubai is a giant black hole for resources of every kind in a world that’s running short on all of them. Eventually, Dubai will fly too close to sun and the whole thing will explode and not even they will be able to sustain the monster they’ve built. Their day of reckoning will come and then no one will win because they’ve spent an unfathomable amount of money and resources on something that’s so overly ambitious as to be completely foolish. Until then, it would be nice to see them use their power (and money) for good rather than grandiosity.

For me, going to Dubai was like Googling some weird medical condition you read about. I knew it was going to be terrible and I was probably going to regret it, and it was 100 times worse than I imagined. But I just had to do it because the not knowing was driving me crazy. So I went and I ranted about it and now it’s over and we can all pretend like this never happened.

I’m now in Jordan, which is such a delightful country with wonderful people, so I’ll follow up on that shortly.


3 thoughts on “Neverland

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