History in the making

Fly KQ’s new Dreamliner to Dubai – Zany architecture, multicultural melting-pot and record-breaking attractions by the dozen – welcome to the weird & wonderful world of modern Dubai

DubaiMy taxi driver had lived in Dubai since 1987, and even he was lost. At first everything had gone swimmingly – I stepped out of the airport, jumped into a cab, handed over the name of my hotel and settled back to enjoy the ride as we plunged into the city’s exhilaratingly freeform rush-hour traffic. Outside, the grand spectacle of Dubai began to heave into view: massed clusters of needle-thin, impossibly tall skyscrapers; palms framing glimpses of the Arabian Gulf; curry houses and halal cafes; Emirati men in flowing white dishdashas and expat wives in chic Chanel suits; designer logos in gigantic neon and huge billboards for everything from Rolex watches to Islamic banking services. And then, just as I thought we must be about to arrive, sudden confusion abruptly descended.

“New hotel, old problem,” as my driver laconically put it some time later, after we had spent twenty minutes attempting to find my lodgings for the night. That my hotel was new I was vaguely aware. What I hadn’t realised was that the street the hotel was located in was also new, as was the city block in which that street was situated. In fact, not only hotel, street and city block, but the entire mile-wide suburb around which we were now driving in ever-increasing circles, and which, according to my perplexed driver, had apparently sprung into being in the past fortnight or so.

This sort of thing happens rather a lot in Dubai. Head out to the desert one morning (the urban legend goes) and on your way back that same evening you’ll find a new motorway intersection, shopping mall and a couple of skyscrapers blocking your way where that morning there had been nothing but sand. Maps are outdated even before they’ve gone to the printers, guidebooks and road signs likewise, while driving anywhere makes you feel like a laboratory rat being forced to navigate a particularly infernal and constantly changing labyrinth. Every day there’s a little bit more to Dubai than there was the night before – a city not so much in a hurry as in a mad, Usain Bolt-like sprint towards some unimaginable future.

Say what you like about Dubai but it’s never dull. The world’s tallest building? Largest shopping mall? Fastest lift? Highest mosque? Biggest fountain? Largest man-made island? Just a few of the city’s more eye-catching recent additions. Giant skyscrapers built in the shape of London’s Big Ben and a piece of Swiss Emmenthal cheese? Alpine ski-slope in the middle of the desert? Artificial archipelago constructed in the shape of a map of the world? All present and correct. And so on and so on. Plans to construct the world’s first underwater 5-star hotel, modern replicas of the ancient seven wonders of the world and a theme park full of life-size animatronic dinosaurs may have been temporarily put on hold, but this is Dubai, and who knows what tomorrow will bring, except the unexpected.

Setting forth
The following morning I set forth, out-of-date map and superannuated guidebook in hand, to ride the city’s stunning modern metro to Emirates Towers station and then walk down Sheikh Zayed Road, wondering what new landmarks had sprung into being since my last visit to the city.

If you want modern Dubai in a nutshell, Sheikh Zayed Road is the place to come – and as close to a vision of history in the making as you’ll find anywhere on the planet. Looking south down the road provides one of Dubai’s quintessential views: a great roaring fourteen-lane highway hemmed in on either side by an unbroken line of teetering skyscrapers, like some gargantuan postmodern urban canyon stuffed full of a memorable mixture of the beautiful, the quirky and the downright weird. Pause to admire the Emirates Towers themselves, a pair of soaring triangular super-towers, their razor-sharp edges and aluminium-clad facades burning brilliantly in the clear desert light. Then head south, passing in rapid succession the kitsch, Big Ben-alike Al Yaqoub Tower (although at 328m almost three times the height of its London original), the huge Chelsea Tower, topped with what looks like an enormous toothpick, the exquisite, pencil-thin Rose Rotana hotel (until recently the world’s tallest hotel until trumped by the nearby JW Marriot Marquis) and the unmistakable Dusit Thani hotel, allegedly inspired by the prayer-like Thai wai greeting but looking for all the world like a gigantic tuning fork thrust upside down into the ground.

It might all look like the deranged scribblings of an architectural convention after a few too many beers, but it’s difficult to not be, at least a little, impressed by the sheer zaniness of it all. Look carefully and you’ll also see something of the equally eclectic urban culture which has sprung into life along the strip. French patisseries and branches of Starbucks rub shoulders with lively shisha cafes, filled with crowds of expat Palestinians, Syrians and Egyptians wreathed in the smoke of innumerable waterpipes, while Western businessmen and tourists mingle with native Dubaians in flowing headdresses and robes. Hang around after dusk and you might catch sight of a Lebanese popstar and attendant entourage tumbling into one of the strip’s more exclusive clubs, while taxi drivers from Kerala tout for custom outside, jostling for space with Filipina waitresses, Mumbai businessmen and Russian bellydancers.

And this is where Dubai becomes really interesting. Not just an architectural but also a cultural melting pot – an unprecedented attempt to create a city of two million people from almost nothing in the space of just a few decades. It’s not all just supersized shopping malls and 7-star hotels either. Explore the area around the Emirates Towers and you’ll discover dozens of galleries showcasing the very best of Middle Eastern contemporary art wedged in beneath the shadow of the Dubai Stock Exchange, the power behind one of the world’s great emerging financial centres. The headquarters of the International Cricket Council are here too, along with a clutch of top-notch restaurants supervised by a stellar array of international culinary talent and dozens of local and international business startups looking to establish a foothold in one of the world’s most dynamic new business centres. No one would claim it’s perfect, but as an attempt to create a peaceful, prosperous and refreshingly tolerant haven of commerce and culture in one of the world’s most turbulent regions it has qualities it’s not always given credit for.

Continue south and ride the lift up to the observation platform of the staggeringly huge Burj Khalifa. Three-quarters of the way up the world’s tallest building and the ground is so far below that it’s like looking through the wrong end of a telescope, with buildings and streets beneath reduced to the miniature dimensions of an architect’s drawing. Look north to the bristling skyscrapers of Sheikh Zayed Road, their summits now as far below one’s feet as they were previously way above one’s head. To the south you can make out the massive, sail-shaped outline of the Burj al Arab, probably the twenty-first century’s most iconic and instantly recognisable building, the ocean lapping at its base and the massed highrises of the Dubai Marina beyond. Inland, the view is of innumerable cranes and construction sites, and of further gargantuan edifices rising out of the desert – and then the desert itself, further beyond, empty and flat at the very edge of the horizon. An incredible sight, although not as incredible as the fact that twenty years not a single building in this entire, eye-popping panorama existed. And out there, somewhere, is your hotel. All you have to do is find it again.

Doing business in Dubai

Doing business in Dubai places much more on personal relationships than in the West. Having friends in the right places may allow rules to be bent and business dealings to be speeded up.

The traditional working week in Dubai runs from Sunday to Thursday.

Foreigners are expected to be punctual – but don’t be surprised if local business partners fail to arrive exactly on time.

Between men, handshakes are the usual greeting and can last some time – wait for the other person to remove their hand before you withdraw your own. Don’t offer to shake hands with a local woman, however, unless she offers you her hand first.

Always use the right hand – the left is considered unclean.

Great importance is attached to hospitality during meetings, usually featuring traditional Arabian-style coffee and small snacks or pastries: refusing refreshments may cause offence.

Dubai – five of the best places to stay
• One&Only Royal Mirage
Arabian Nights romance at its finest, with opulent Moorish beachfront accommodation nestled amidst thousands of palms. • http://royalmirage.oneandonlyresorts.com • prices from around US$625

• Atlantis
Dubai’s largest – and one of its wackiest – mega-hotels, situated 4km offshore at the far end of the Palm Jumeirah artificial island and complete with its own huge waterpark, dolphinarium and the kooky Lost Chambers, a spectacular aquarium dotted with the ersatz ‘ruins’ of ancient Atlantis itself. • www.atlantisthepalm.com • prices from around US$475

• Raffles
Super-cool city-centre hotel, occupying a spectacular glass-topped pyramid. Interior-designed in a weird but winning mix of Far Eastern Zen-chic and ancient Egyptian heiroglyphics. • www.raffles.com/dubai • prices from around US$550

• Jumeirah Zabeel Saray
Popular with visiting film stars and pop idols, the Zabeel Saray is pure theatre, looking like an opulent Ottoman palace with superb beachfront grounds and one of the city’s finest collection of restaurants under a single roof. • www.jumeirah.com • prices from around US$550

• Al Maha Desert Resort
For a real break from the Dubai rat-race, head out to the serene Al Maha Resort, situated in the middle of its own immaculate desert reserve full of delicate oryx and other rare Arabian wildlife. • www.al-maha.com • prices from around US$1400

Days out from Dubai
• Just 10km down the coast from Dubai, Sharjah is the most conservative city in the UAE but compensates with a superb collection of cultural attractions, including a world-class Islamic museum.
• The UAE’s largest inland city, Al Ain (a 90min drive from Dubai) boasts dozens of shady oases dotted with mud-brick forts, as well as a well-known Camel Souk and the soaring Jebel Hafit mountain.
• The UAE’s unspoilt east coast in Fujairah emirate provides a popular weekend-break from the madness of Dubai, with miles of deserted beaches nestled in the shadow of the craggy Hajar mountains.
• Two hours down the coast from Dubai, the national capital of Abu Dhabi is smaller and more traditional than its brash neighbour, with attractions including the lavish Emirates Palace and the vast Sheikh Zayed Mosque.

Dubai – five must-do experiences
1 Afternoon tea at the Burj al Arab
Soaring high above the coast of the southern city, the vast sail-shaped Burj al Arab ‘7-star’ hotel is Dubai’s most instantly recognisable landmark. Admire the building’s stunning exterior, then head inside for an opulent afternoon tea in the building’s eye-poppingly, multi-coloured interior, plastered with some 1800 square metres of 24-carat gold leaf.

2 Take a stroll through the alleys of Madinat Jumeirah
Explore the winding alleyways and waterside walks of the extraordinary Madinat Jumeirah, a gigantic leisure complex built in the form of a complete Arabian Nights-style medieval city, with hundreds of picture-perfect wind-towered buildings, ersatz traditional bazaars and beautiful canals lined with cafes and restaurants – perfect for a late-afternoon stroll and sundowner.

3 Ride an abra across the Creek
Hop on board one of the city’s traditional wooden abras for the five-minute boat ride across the breezy Creek in the heart of the old city. You’ll get unforgettable views of mosques, minarets, wind-towered houses and dozens of wooden dhows en route.

4 Explore the souks of Old Dubai
Get lost in the endless souks of the old city centre, from the beautifully restored traditional Textile Souk, the aromatic Spice Souk and the dazzling shops of the Gold Souk through to the bustling modern bazaars of Deira, loaded with everything from cut-price saris to the latest mobile phones.

5 Discover the desert
It’s far from pristine, but the desert around Dubai still makes a fun destination for an afternoon out of the city. Ever-popular half-day ‘sunset safaris’ provide a cheesy but enjoyable mixture of dune-bashing, sand-skiing and so on, followed by a meal, shisha and the obligatory bellydancing, although it’s the sight of the emirate’s huge dunes and endless sands rippling away into the distance which is likely to linger longest in the memory.