|At 828 meters (2,171 feet), the Burj Khalif is the world's tallest building, and far too large to fit in a single frame.|
On my unofficial List of Places I Never Want to Go, Dubai held second place for years. (Nothing could be worse than Vegas.) Everything I had heard made me want to avoid ultra-artificial Dubai: the excesses of the city's buildings, the commercialism of the malls, the environmental degradation from golf courses and ski slopes built in the desert, and the exploitation of immigrant laborers by the locals—a disdainful upper caste of billionaire oil barons.
Yet like it or not, Dubai was the transit point for my recent trip to Iraq.
After a mildly excruciating thirteen-hour direct flight from Washington, DC, we reached Dubai in the evening. Before landing, the plane arced above the city-state's towering downtown skyscrapers.
Offshore, the lights of dozens of oil tankers dotted the surface of the Persian Gulf.
My layover in Dubai was barely long enough to warrant a hotel stay, but a colleague and I split a taxi to a hotel in town—and what a taxi ride it was. The whole way, I was glued to the taxi's window, craning my neck to catch a glimpse of the city by night.
All that I had heard and read about Dubai failed to prepare me; this was a metropolis of elevated tramways, sleek glass subway portals, skyscrapers, and shopping megaplexes. That same grimy side was still visible at the margins, but the Arab world that I know all too well had definitely met The Jetsons.
Someday, I mused, when the first Arab country reaches the moon, Dubai is what they will build there.
* * *
While that first stopover had not allowed any opportunity for exploring Dubai, my second trip, on the way back from Iraq, was longer.
After a dip at one of our hotel's four pools (heaven after three weeks in sweaty, dusty Iraq), the same colleagues and I hired a driver for the afternoon to show us the city. In his thick South Indian accent, our guide pointed out the sites along our route: the world's tallest building, the world's most expensive hotel, the world's largest shopping mall (named after Ibn Battuta), the world's largest indoor ski slope, towering hotels on man-made islands, and on and on.
Being something of an architecture lover, I enjoyed the buildings (particularly the elegant Burj al Arab—evidence that not all of the emirate's oil wealth is being wasted). But the environmentalist inside me screamed quietly each time we passed another lush lawn, or another parking lot full of Land Rovers.
Despite the tales of economic collapse that have emerged about Dubai since the latest recession began, construction appeared to be in full swing during my visit. A view of the skyline lent some credence to the dubious yet oft-cited statement that "One quarter of the world's large construction cranes are in Dubai." My guess? The real trouble in Dubai—if it comes—will come when construction on all those new skyscrapers is finished, and the builders realize that there is no one willing to pay to live in them.
* * *
In the end, Dubai turned out to have a few pleasant surprises. Though I highly doubt that I could stand to spend more than a day or two at a stretch here, the city is a marvel of human ingenuity. I just can't help wondering how much human and environmental suffering has been swept under the rug in order to create and maintain Dubai's perfect facade?
Ultimately, I'm glad to have seen it with my own eyes. But no, the experience has not made me give up my list—I don't see Vegas in my future.