Published in The Times
There are certain places that I would like to visit before I die, Tokyo, Mumbai and Havana among them. But, like grilled cheese sandwiches, I don’t travel very well and there are many more places that I would rather die than visit. And, for many years, the city that has topped this list has been Dubai.
I know it is popular – it has set itself the target of achieving 15 million tourists by 2015. But whenever residents and tourists start banging on about the great shopping it offers, I can’t help thinking that you can also shop very well in Birmingham; when they rave about the climate, I can’t help thinking that 48C is too hot; and when they gush about all the plush restaurants to dine out at, I can’t help thinking that London has quite a few of those, too.
Given that its one remaining attraction – beach life – holds little appeal to a man who can’t swim and doesn’t need to work on his tan, I would rather go on a cycling tour of Sunderland than spend a week in Dubai. And I was saying just that to a friend last week after a conversation about the Gulf city’s property boom – which has fuelled double-digit growth for five years, but is now showing signs of turning to bust – when I was accused, not for the first time, of ignorance and prejudice.
So last week I spent an entire day reading newspaper articles and travel guides about Dubai and am now much better informed. And whereas before I would have suggested that people who went there on holiday had absolutely no imagination, and Britons who emigrated there did so because they had essentially failed in their home country, I would now say that British tourists and emigrants to Dubai also:
1. Have no taste. The briefest of flicks through any tourist guide to the city reveals that the Pounds 1.5billion Atlantis, The Palm resort, the launch of which was recently marked with a Pounds 13 million party, and the owners of which reportedly hauled 24 live dolphins 30 hours by air from the Solomon Islands to entertain guests in the new water park (despite protestations from environmental groups), is actually an establishment of considerable sobriety and dignity compared with many other attractions in the city. These include: Dubailand, a Pounds 13 billion theme park and entertainment complex three times the size of Manhattan; “The Mall of Emirates”, which, despite the desert climate, has a ski slope attached to it, is kept chilled to minus 2C at night and minus 8C when the snow is being manufactured; and the QE2, which is to be permanently moored on Palm Island to serve as an hotel and events centre, having gone through the kind of makeover that MTV’s Pimp My Ride normally reserves for VW Golfs. Frankly, Dubai makes Blackpool look classy.
2. Are deeply uncultured. It seems to me that the purpose of the city’s many shopping malls, resorts and skyscrapers is to distract visitors from the fact that there is actually little to do or see there. The desert, most travel writers concede, is featureless, the Gulf waters simply do not compare with the Mediterranean or the Red Sea, and the city lacks the historical intrigue of such destinations as Egypt, Italy and Greece. Essentially it is Las Vegas without the sex and the gambling, which is Las Vegas without a point.
3. Are unethical. Fans of Dubai often witter on about the lack of crime and the affordable luxury but this comes at a heavy price. The economy – which may turn out to have been literally and metaphorically built on sand – has been propped up by imported labourers who work six or six and a half days a week on 12-hour shifts, toiling in the desert sun for a daily wage that often amounts to no more than the cost of a pint of beer. The city also has no elections and no political parties. And in the UAE it is quite acceptable for employers to specify the preferred nationality or gender of applicants in job advertisements and for Europeans to be paid more than Filipinos or Indians who are doing the same work. All this should leave the pina coladas sipped by the tourists on the balconies of seven-star luxury hotels with a rather bitter aftertaste.
4. Are deluding themselves about the city’s tolerance. Dubai is often held up as an example of how modern it is possible for Islamic society to be. But case history suggests that it has some way to go before it is challenging Amsterdam for liberalness. The British couple recently convicted of having sex on a beach inDubai may have been freed and deported to the UK after their three month prison sentence was suspended, but others haven’t been so lucky. According to the Lonely Planet guide to the city, one British tourist was arrested at Dubai airport and sentenced to four years in prison after 0.03g of cannabis – an amount “smaller than a grain of sugar and invisible to the human eye” – was found on the stub of a cigarette stuck to the sole of his shoe. Meanwhile, a Swiss man was reportedly imprisoned after customs officers found three poppy seeds on his clothes (they had fallen off a bread roll he had eaten at Heathrow), and a British woman was held in custody for two months before customs officers conceded that the codeine that she was using for her back problems had been prescribed by a doctor.
Indeed, I couldn’t help noticing in last week’s coverage of the grand opening of the hideous Atlantis resort – which is built on a man-made island – that the singer Lily Allen, the model Agyness Deyn and her boyfriend, Albert Hammond Jr, were all subjected to a strip search on the way there. Deyn remarked afterwards, “It was really traumatic”, adding: “It wasn’t the best experience in the world, but it is their culture and you just have to respect it.” She’s right – you have to respect it. If you go. But you don’t have to go.